5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but yousay that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.
31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
Let us pray. Lord in my words, may your people hear your timeless word. Amen.
The last time the Samaritan woman appeared at the well, at least according to the lectionary, it was March of 2020. I preached that sermon in the sanctuary, on a Thursday, to a congregation of one, a man named Don who loved all things tech. It was for a pre-recorded worship service a few weeks before we would switch to long haul Zoom. At that time, Covid was still being called the coronavirus epidemic, and I had just learned the term “social distancing.”
I remember being fascinated by all the social distancing that took place in Biblical times as well: Men, especially single men, kept away from women. Jews kept away from Samaritans. Super religious people kept away from people with a checkered past. People did not trespass on other’s property. Thirsty people brought their own bucket to a well and hungry people got their own food. And in general, people minded their own business. And yet, there was Jesus, a man, a single man, a religious man, at the well, property of the Samaritans since the ancient times, with a Samaritan woman, a woman with a checkered past. He was there with no bucket and no food and all the personal questions.
I wondered aloud to God, and Don, if social distancing had to the potential to keep us safe from an epidemic but also to damage our connections to each other. In the natural disasters I’d had experienced before then, people always rushed toward one another. Shoveled each other’s snow, lent a chainsaw to remove trees from another’s driveway, made sure elderly neighbors had food, heat and medicine when the lights went out. So, on that Thursday, I implored the nameless people on the other side of the iPad camera: We must not let compassion die during these times of contagious fear.
I had reason to be concerned. That week, like a lot of people, I had read about the big flu of 1918 when 675,000 Americans had died, more than 10X the number of Americans lost in battle during WWI. I was so puzzled by the cultural silence shrouding it. No plays were written. Few documentaries. David Brooks had written an article for the New York Times earlier in the week, speculating that people did not like what the disease revealed about them. He quoted the director of an agency that was caring for sick children in 1918 who put out a plea for help to which no one responded. The director wrote disdainfully, “Hundreds of [people] … had delightful dreams of themselves in the roles of angels of mercy. … Nothing seems to rouse them now.” Brooks wrote, ominously, that people emerged from that pandemic spiritually drained and ashamed.
As far I could tell, the only story the church held onto about that flu was told by the tiny communion cups that began during those days. That was it. We didn’t have a common cup of learning to share.
Do we now, I wonder? Do we have a well of wisdom after this pandemic? As I read this story again this year, it strikes me that our faith asks us to pause in uncomfortable places and go deeper. That is what a well is for. And so today, I’ll share a few lessons I draw from this story about life with Jesus in a fragile world.
First, it is just as important to tend moral illnesses as physical ones. Jesus tended the places where society itself was wounded. The places burning with stigma and division. The places hot with contempt. The places feverish with scarcity. He went right there and doled out living water of compassion. He startled society with this well spring of love of God that was always connected to love of neighbor. And what happened next? Notice that the woman in this story didn’t just give Jesus one small cup of water and send him on his sandals down the road. She left her entire jar at the well for him. What a profound detail in a long story.
But that leads to the second lesson, compassion is extremely contagious. In the days of the early church, a plague of dysentery racked the Roman empire. When people contracted dysentery, they were put out of their homes and left for dead. In the midst of this, Christians would take in those with dysentery, keep them warm and give them fluids–which is in fact the treatment for dysentery. It turned out to be the greatest evangelism effort of the early church. People thought it was a miracle. It was simply loving care, which is its own beautiful miracle.
This church has some miraculous stories from the pandemic: Stories of innovation and construction and deacon outreach and generosity, a sense of pulling together and starting over. Opening ourselves to our neighbors and building fountains and the play structure. It’s like Florence Nightingale + HGTV + MacGyver + Hallmark Hall of Fame.
But that’s where the last lesson appears: We have to stick around for the full story. Jesus stayed. Stayed beyond the easy first answer the woman gave him. Stayed beyond the “socially safe” second answer where most of us dwell. Jesus stayed until the bucket dropped all the way down into the deepest part of the woman’s story, stayed until he heard the splash of trust, the groundwater stories about what life is really about.
I imagine the Samaritan woman didn’t love being associated with her multiple marriages. It is not easy being greeted with what Kate Bowler calls “cocker spaniel face,” when people look at you like you have a big red sign on your face that says “sad.”
As you probably know, my mother passed away in March of 2020, and I really struggled with that being my headline for a long time, instead of plucky friend or renowned preacher or even well-groomed. But over time, I have been transformed by the power of sticking around for the fuller story. Rather than pushing away the truth of my life, I learned to say things like, “Thanks for asking about my mom. Have you been through something like this before?” Then, I’d hear this splash of holiness with the stories that were shared. Usually the tears would pool around the question itself. When the person was given the permission to mention their own exquisite details. “My dad always loved daffodils.” “When my mom died, I had a hard time with nights for about 18 months.” “That was why I left the church for about 8 years.” “That’s what made me come to this church for the first time, sat in that chair right there and cried.”
Stick around for the full story. I can’t think of a better Lenten message. God is much deeper than the sweltering headlines where many people stop. There is an ancient well of beauty and grace and truth here that people have been visiting for thousands of years that can handle your whole story, including your skepticism and shame. Stories of bread broken and shared, wounds healed, abuse confronted, cross conquered, resurrection experienced, new life springing up with the tiniest of mustard seed origins, in the least likely places, from people who had long been written off, like the Samaritan woman and every person for whom our hearts still break. There is living water here.
Maybe a long time from now, people will remember that the pandemic was when this church found its fountains. Yes, the beautiful fountain outside that invites little hands and bluebirds and squirrels to splash around. But I suspect it goes way deeper than that. During the pandemic, we faced our need, our thirst as people, and at times it felt like we had nothing, but to stare deep into the story of faith, like the woman at the well, but like her, we saw the face of God shining back at us. Like her, we thought we were there to help God, but it was the other way around.
Thanks be to God.