Text: John 4:5-42 (NRSV)
Video of Service: Click here.

Ryan Tobin

In the name of the one, holy and undivided Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

We have just heard this wonderful story of Jesus’ dialogue with an unnamed Samaritan woman at a well. There’s a lot of theological content to unpack in this reading, but first I want to talk about the well

Wells show up in many places in the Bible. Back in Genesis, Hagar (the slave of Abraham’s wife, Sarah) encounters an angel at a spring of water that becomes a well. When it is time for Abraham’s son Isaac to have a wife, Abraham’s servant encounters Rebekah at a well. And there are many other stories that show the well as a gathering place. And when I considered these stories, I began to draw a parallel to my own experiences. As you may know, I work in a cubicle farm – – and recently, I was shifted to a new cube that is very close to our break room. So now I have more time to observe what goes on in the break room, and I’ve found that the office water cooler is a place where the usual social norms about conversation are dropped.

Around the water cooler, people share stories and gossip with co-workers whom they barely know. It’s not just small talk; people talk about politics, religion, family life, and so on. These conversations simply could not happen in any other location. You can’t just walk up to the desk of somebody you barely know and tell them about your political beliefs, or engage in religious dialogue with people that you pass by on the street. But, surprisingly, you can engage in these sorts of discussions around the water cooler. And I suspect that the same thing is true about the wells that we read about in Holy Scripture.

Getting back to today’s gospel, we can see that this conversation that Jesus shares with this woman is anything but ordinary. Here is how it breaks down:

  • Jesus is already at the well, resting, and the woman shows up to draw water.
  • Jesus asks the woman for a drink.
  • The woman fires back: You’re a Jewish man, I’m a Samaritan woman, why are you asking me for a drink? We’re not supposed to get along.
  • Jesus basically says, “If you knew who I was, you would be asking me for water.”
  • The woman responds: “Look, you don’t even have a bucket! Don’t tell me about water.
  • Jesus replies: “That water from the well is just regular water. If you drink it, you will someday be thirsty again. But the water I give will satisfy you forever.”
  • Again, the woman misses the point, and makes a kind of snarky response: “Give me this water, so I don’t have to keep hauling buckets of water back to my house.”

Up until this point, we have Jesus on the one side: talking about his divine nature, talking about his gift of new and abundant life. And on the other side, we have a woman who is just talking about plain old everyday water.

BUT: The story changes as soon as Jesus brings up the topic of husbands. Jesus makes a personal connection with her by telling her something that there is no way he could have known about her. And once he makes that personal connection, everything else that Jesus has said suddenly comes into focus for her. She understands that Jesus is the Messiah. She understands that he is offering a new kind of living water that will lead to abundant life. And she is so excited that she has to tell others what she has learned.

Now, before we go on, I want to talk a little bit about those five husbands of this woman. Traditionally, this sentence is taken one of two ways. One view says that she is a widow, five times over; extremely unlucky. Another view says that she is a woman of loose morals, who has engaged in relationships with many different men, perhaps for money. But I see it differently. I suspect that the reason that this woman has had five husbands is because she was divorced that many times. Remember that, at this time, divorce was entirely unilateral: a man could divorce his wife pretty much at will. And remember also that a woman’s social position, except in a very small number of situations, was determined by her relationship with men: her father, if unmarried, or her husband. 

If my supposition is correct, then this woman is not a person of loose morals nor is she merely unlucky; she is a victim, a person who has been used and discarded by men. (And in this light, we might find new meaning to Jesus’ teaching about divorce — the immense social cost to women may provide an answer to why Jesus forbade divorce in most circumstances.) Whatever the reason why this woman had five former husbands, we can know for sure that her entire position in society was defined by that identity; she would certainly have been known as the woman who had five husbands, but has none now.

So it is fairly remarkable that Jesus chooses this part of the woman’s identity to prove his divinity to her. Jesus identifies her primary source of pain and brokenness, and he turns that wound into a source of healing. Through her pain, through her rejection, through her shame and embarrassment, through her helplessness: Jesus enters in, and his divine nature becomes apparent to her.

So my question for each of us is this: If you were to meet Jesus at the water cooler, what do you think he would say to you to “prove his identity?” Would he tell you your date of birth and social security number? Would he tell you the name of your first grade teacher, or of your first pet, or the make and model of your first car? (I know, this is beginning to sound like those questions you have to answer online when you forget your password.) But in all seriousness: I think that Jesus would reveal himself in the place of our greatest weakness, our greatest pain, our deepest wound. And just like he did with the Samaritan woman, his nature would become apparent to us; and his love would begin for us the process of healing.

We are entering into a time of great confusion, great worry, great fear. It feels as if the whole apparatus of society is being mobilized to fight against this invisible and incomprehensible foe: a virus that threatens our wellbeing. And it might feel especially cruel that our weekly gathering as a Christian community, the very thing that is the source of our own abundant lives, is now a threat and a potential vector for sickness and death. In a world that is growing more and more isolated, it may feel like our last bastion of community is being taken away from us. We do not know when we will be able to meet at the well again.

We do have the gift of technology to help us maintain a sense of community. We can keep up with each other on Facebook and Instagram. And if you’re not comfortable with those forums, we still have telephones where we can reach out to each other. And we will always have the company of the communion of saints, who bind us together as the Body of Christ.

And most of all, we still have God. God has not abandoned us. The Holy Spirit is still moving throughout this world. And Jesus is still revealing his own divine nature, and he is still our fount of living water. And if you’re not sure where you can find Jesus in all of this mess, the Samaritan woman can point the way. Look for Christ in the places of weakness.

When you see disease and sickness, look for Christ in the faces of the nurses, doctors and technicians who bring comfort and healing to the sick.

When you see loneliness, look for Christ in the actions of our dear friends and family and our brothers and sisters in the church, looking out for one another and keeping in touch.

When you see fear, look for Christ in all those who are bravely continuing their work to make sure that our society and economy continue to function, and those whose prophetic words are calling out for compassion and mercy and forebearance in times of difficulty.

Look for Christ in all those places of weakness; you will see that his saving work and his abundant life, continues to flow to us, even in times of great weakness. Let the church say, “Amen.”