An elderly woman walked into the local country church. The friendly usher greeted her at the door. “Welcome to our church! Where would you like to sit?” he asked politely.
“The front row, please,” she answered.
The usher paused and said to her in a low voice, “You really don’t want to do that, the pastor’s sermons are really boring.”
“Do you happen to know who I am?” the woman inquired
“No, ma’am” he said.
“I’m the pastor’s mother,” she replied indignantly. There was an embarrassed silence as the usher walked her to the front pew. And then the usher asked, “Do you know who I am?”
“No,” she said.
It can make a big difference when we know who a person is. In fact, this is actually one of the main themes in our gospel lesson today and in the gospel of John, people finding out who Jesus is, really. Last week Jesus had a conversation with Nicodemus in Jerusalem. Nicodemus was a highly respected teacher and religious leader. This week Jesus is with quite a different person and in quite a different place; He is in Samaria. The location is significant. Remember the Jews despised the Samaritans.
So we note the place and now let us notice the person. This time we see Jesus is talking with a woman. In Jesus’ day, women were so disregarded it was debated in some of the Jewish schools of theology whether or not women even had souls. Women were not allowed to listen and learn along with the disciples of Rabbis when their disciples were being taught. Though individual women were from time to time honored, women as whole were not given much consideration. So for Jesus to engage in conversation with a woman and a Samaritan woman at that about spiritual things, we see a radically new perspective on how God thinks of women.
Although we cannot fully understand this in our day and age, what happened at the well was really shocking. And notice who started the exchange. It was Jesus! He asked her for something to drink. Now assuming he did not have his cup hanging from his belt, his request would have also included using her clay pot from which to drink. In those days, a Jewish man could do commerce with a Samaritan man and it was no problem. In fact Jesus’s disciples were in the Samaritan village buying food and that was OK. But according to Jewish ritual laws Samaritan women were always ritually unclean. Not only was Jewish man not supposed to talk to a Samaritan woman but he could not touch anything a Samaritan woman had handled without being made unclean. And here Jesus is, a Jewish rabbi, asking to drink from her pottery! Our translations don’t really convey the feeling of shock the woman had. In essence she says, “What are you doing talking to me? I am from a class of people you Jews despise and yet you want to put your LIPS on my water pot?” (Notice the understated explanatory note, ‘Jews don’t share things in common with Samaritans.’) Ah, but now she is engaged in conversation. And Jesus continues the conversation except now he flips it. He says, “If you only knew the gift of God and who I am, you would have asked me for a drink and I could have given you living water. This is a play on words. Living water in that day meant water that was moving, for example, river water was living water, spring water was living water; water from a well was not. Living water was considered healthier. Now at the very bottom of the well, in the deepest part there was the spring from which the well was fed. That was the water the woman thought Jesus was talking about. So that is why she says to him, “You don’t even have a bucket and the well is very deep—how would you get any water from the bottom of the well?” Jesus says, “No, I am not talking about this water, if you drink this water you will simply get thirsty again. Now if people drink MY water, well, that water will be become a spring of water that will gush up inside them to eternal life!” Now the woman is interested. No one likes to have to fetch water. It is heavy and it is hard work. So she says, “Sir, give me some of this water so I will not be thirsty again nor have to come back to this well to draw water.” But Jesus says, “Go and come back with your husband.” She pauses and then says, “I have no husband.” Jesus replies, “You are right, you do not have a husband. You have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband.” Our first thought is that this woman is some sort of an Elizabeth Taylor or Zsa Zsa Gabor, having one man getting tired of him and then having another and another and another. But before we consider her an immoral woman, we need to remember that in that society, Samaritan and Jewish, women could not divorce their husbands. Only men could divorce. Now it is possible that one or two of her husbands might have died, but certainly not all five of them. In that society a man could divorce his wife for anything that displeased him about her. It might have been a physical handicap of some kind. It might have been that she was unable to have children. We don’t know. But what we do know is that she has been discarded by her husband, not once, not twice, but up to five times! And now apparently, she has been so humbled, she does not even demand the man with whom she was now living marry her. She doesn’t even have the status of a concubine. So when Jesus tells her to get her husband, he touches her on a very tender point. We may have wondered why she was alone getting the water at noon when usually women got water as a group and got it in the morning. This poor woman was shunned and despised, not just by Jews, but by her own people.
All of the sudden this woman realizes that for Jesus to have known this he must be a prophet from God. And then she realizes that this conversation about drinking water has been at least on his part been a conversation about God. Whatever her social status, this woman was not stupid. And then Jesus tells her that God the Father wants people to worship Him in spirit and truth. God wants honest worship; He wants honest worshipers. Jesus calls God the Father, the implication is plain; God is her Father too! She puts him off one more time and tells him in essence, “Yeah, yeah I know—one day the Messiah will come and he will explain everything.” And Jesus tells her, “I am he.” I am the Messiah!
The woman is speechless. God’s Messiah had been waiting at the well for her! God did love and did care for even the likes of her. Last week we heard Jesus say to Nicodemus, “God loves the world.” And the implication was that God loves even people like the Jewish tax collectors, the Gentiles and now we see even this outcast Samaritan woman! When life is tough like it was for this woman, people need more than just vague thoughts about God. We need to know that he knows us, that he knows about what we are going through, and that he cares for and loves us. Did this knowledge change her? Look at what happens next. She is so excited she leaves her water pot and goes back to the village that has shunned and despised her and she tells them about this Messiah she has just encountered. Suddenly she has no fear and no shame. Yes, she has been changed!
It is now the 3rd week of Lent. It makes a difference when we know who it is to whom we are talking. It makes a difference to us when we realize that it is actually God who wants our attention. It is God who cares about us. It is God who knows exactly our situation. And when we realize just how much we are loved by God, it changes everything. For then we can change not only our behavior but our entire worldview as this woman’s was. I pray that God will help us to begin to grasp just how much we are known and loved and to be changed. Amen