Jesus said to [the Samaritan woman], “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 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.”John 4:13-14
When we think of Samaritans, we probably think of “The Good Samaritan” from the parable that Jesus tells in the Gospel of Luke. The Samaritan is the hero of that story. It makes it easy for us to forget that Samaritans and Jews did not get along well in the time of Jesus. And yet, here we are, in today’s gospel reading (John 4:5-42), with a story about a lengthy encounter that Jesus has with a Samaritan woman. Even she is surprised by this – “How is that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” And, as we just heard, this woman is not just a Samaritan. She is a Samaritan who has had five husbands. A Samaritan who chooses to draw water at the heat of the day to avoid being seen by the other women of her community. This is a woman who needs Jesus. She needs healing, and needs to be reconciled to her community. And if there is one thing we know about Jesus, it is that he reaches out to people just like this woman.
This is a beautiful and powerful exchange between Jesus and this unnamed Samaritan woman that has much to teach us. Not just about Jesus’ love for outsiders. But also about our relationship with Jesus. Because, in a way, we are all outsiders, until we are “reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10), as Paul puts it in our second reading. So, let’s walk through this gospel story and see what we can learn about just how Jesus sets about reconciling us all.
Our Story Begins with Jesus
The story begins in Samaria, at a famous well: Jacob’s Well. Jesus is on his way back to Galilee, but his journey takes him through Samaria. He stops to rest at this particular well. It is about noon, as the story tells us. The disciples have gone off in search of some lunch. A Samaritan woman approaches the well, at this unusual time of day, to draw water. She is probably coming to the well in the heat of the day to avoid seeing other people. So we are already given our first clue about this woman. When she arrives at the well, she sees this Jewish man, who turns out to be Jesus. And quite unexpectedly, this man asks her for a drink. This would have surprised her greatly. A Jewish man should not be talking to a woman, and certainly not a Samaritan woman. But Jesus does.
Right away, we are reminded in this story that Jesus does not care: what country we are from, what group of people we belong to, or even what we believe. (Samaritans and Jews believed different things.) But Jesus doesn’t care about any of that. If we are a child of God, he cares about us. Period. Jesus cares about all of us. And even though he is tired, he looks at this woman, and he sees someone who is not just physically thirsty, but spiritually thirsty too.
And so, he initiates a conversation with her. He starts by asking her for a drink. She expresses surprise that a Jew would ask a Samaritan for a drink of water. And he responds by taking the conversation to an unexpected place. He offers her water of his own, living water. He says to her: “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 to eternal life.” This is the water that satisfies our spiritual thirst. The thirst that only Jesus can quench.
We all thirst for God, whether we know it or not. And until our thirst is quenched by God, we will run from well to well and drink and drink and never quench our thirst. We will drink from the wells found in this world: food, money, pleasure, power, wealth, security; and we will still find ourselves thirsty. We will be like a person stranded in the middle of the ocean: water everywhere we look, but nothing to quench our thirst. “Everyone who drinks of this water,” Jesus says, “will be thirsty again; but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.”
The Wrong Well
The Samaritan woman is thinking that this sounds wonderful. So she requests the water that Jesus offers. But then Jesus responds with another surprise. He says: “Go, call your husband, and come back.” Why would he do that? Why wouldn’t he just give her the water he is offering? Why not simply baptize her with that well water; or invite her to accompany him and the disciples on his journey? Can’t she become a Christian without inviting her husband to come back? After all, Peter agreed to follow Jesus without having to first go and call his wife and come back. But the situation, of course, is different with the Samaritan woman. She has no husband. She has had five husbands, as Jesus knows, and the one she has now is not her husband.
It seems important to Jesus to confront her with this truth before he offers her his living water. Why? Not to judge or condemn her. Not at all. He comes not to judge, but to save, as we heard just last Sunday (John 3:17). It is not judgment. But he is calling her to repentance. Because in order to truly be saved, Jesus knows that we have to give up on all the false wells in our life. The wells that we think will quench our spiritual thirst, but never do. Before Jesus can really offer the living water that will finally quench our deepest thirst, he knows that we’ve got to repent; we’ve got to give up looking for it down the wrong well.
Isn’t that what we are doing when we begin our Worship Service at the font confessing our sins? We are turning from all the wrong wells in our life, all the things that keep us from the living water. We are reminding ourselves, every Sunday morning, that there is only one way to quench our spiritual thirst. And we are turning back to the one who offers it. We all have false wells in our lives. We all have places that we turn to satisfy our spiritual thirst; the world is filled with these false wells. For the Samaritan woman, it seems to have been in relationships with men. Jesus is helping her to face this fact, and repent, so that she can discover in Jesus the one true source of the living water. What is our false well? It is anything that tempts us to turn to satisfy our spiritual thirst. And only you and Jesus know what that is.
Leaving Our Water Jars
Now, I love the next little detail in this story, which suggests to us that this woman is ready to leave her false wells behind. When the disciples return to the well, this woman leaves her water jar and goes back to the city. She leaves her water jar? Isn’t water why she went to the well in the first place? Why would she do that? I think this detail shows us that water is not all that this woman was in search of. Not even the most important thing. What she found in Jesus is far more important than the water she came for. And so, she leaves her water jar behind. It is a symbol of her leaving behind all the false wells in her life. And invites us to do the same.
Come and See
The story could end there, I suppose. But it doesn’t. Because when we have found the well that can alone satisfy our spiritual thirst, we want to tell others about it. So, this Samaritan woman goes back to her home city, and says to everyone: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
This woman is now a missionary for Jesus. She was avoiding people. Now, she is seeking them out. Because she has found the living water, and she is eager to share it with all. And, in fact, she becomes a very successful missionary. But not for the reasons we might suspect.
Think for a moment about all the things that are going against her being an effective evangelist. First of all, this woman – whom everybody knows has had multiple husbands – is telling everyone that she met a man at the well; who told her everything that she has ever done. Can’t you picture the eyes rolling already? And then, instead of telling them that she believes he is the Messiah, she openly wonders whether he is or not! “He can’t be the Messiah, can he?” She would seem to be the wrong person for the job, and is going about it in all the wrong ways. And yet, despite all of that, we learn that her witness brings many to Jesus! “Many from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony.”
Now, if God can use her testimony to bring such amazing results, I wonder what he can do with ours? Whatever meager attempt we might make to share our faith, to serve others in Jesus’ name, to love and bless those whom God created, God is going to use. It doesn’t matter whether we think we are any good at it. It doesn’t matter how new we are to it. It doesn’t matter what kind of life we have lived. Because it never was about us, anyway. It was, and is, always about God, not us. And the God who created us can surely use whatever attempts we make to serve him. And God can surely accomplish his purpose through these attempts of ours. The Samaritan woman simply shared, in her own way, her encounter with Jesus. And many came to believe in Jesus because of her testimony. And we are invited to do the same.
This Samaritan woman offers us a wonderful picture of what it means to be a Christian. It even begins at what you might call a baptismal font. It starts with Jesus. It includes an invitation to turn from our false wells. An opportunity to receive the living water from Jesus that gushes to eternal life. And then? It is all about our going from this well back to our jobs and our schools and our neighborhoods to tell others what Jesus has done for us, trusting that he will use our humble witness for whatever purpose he has for us. How blessed we are today to remember this nameless woman from Samaria, who discovered in Jesus a bottomless well of grace, and whose witness continues to offer to us the living water that quenches our deepest spiritual thirst. And how grateful we are to say with all who have heard her witness: “We have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” Amen, and thanks be to God.
2 thoughts on “Springs of Living Mercy: My Sermon on John 4:5-42”
I liked the symbolism of the woman’s leaving her water jar behind. You always have something extra that I haven’t thought of before. Thank you for enlarging my vision.