“Crossing All Boundaries”
March 12, 2023
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 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.) 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.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘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.’ 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.’
Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ 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.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’
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?’ Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 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. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.’
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. 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.’ ***
The teacher I had in 7th grade Sunday School teacher was a memorable man because much of what he said confused or frightened me. He told us a good sermon was one that left him feeling beaten up. He threatened to slam the head of a classmate against the wall of our little yellow painted room at Bethany church. I don’t recall what set him off that morning. He made an impact and this biblical story of Jesus and the unnamed woman reminded me of him this week. I recall him describing the woman using words that were unfamiliar to me. Words like “promiscuous,” and “immoral.” She was “fallen” woman.
Long after 7th grade Sunday School I realized the woman at the well is never described as promiscuous. Jesus does not call her a sinner or tell her to “go and sin no more.” This is not a story about morality or Jesus liberating a woman from ill repute. It is a story about Jesus revealing himself as the Messiah to a fellow human being in whom he sees genuine spiritual hunger, a smart and engaging mind.
This is Jesus’ longest conversation in all the Gospels. In John’s Gospel she is the first person He reveals himself to. She is the first outsider to guess who he is and tell others. She is the first evangelist, John tells us, and her testimony brings many to faith.
Jesus’ choice of her is a curious one, because she was a triple outsider in all ways. She was a Samaritan, which made her a half-breed and full pagan as far as the purists were concerned.
She was a woman, and in those days, women were not allowed to worship with men, whose morning devotions included the prayer, “Thank God I am not a woman.”
Women were not to be seen or heard in the public sphere. Men did not speak to their own wives in public. In that day there were pious men known as “the bruised and bleeding Pharisees” because they closed their eyes when they saw a woman coming down the street, even if it meant walking into a wall and breaking their noses.
The woman Jesus spoke with at the well was an outsider. Women made their trips to the well in the morning to meet and talk with each other. But this woman was someone people talked about. Showing up at noon was a sign that she was not welcome at the morning social hour. As Jesus soon deduced, she had been married as many times as Elizabeth Taylor and was living in sin at the moment, which made it all around less painful for her to go to the well alone, after the others had gone.
Imagine her surprise to see a strange man sitting beside the well when she arrived with her empty jug. When he lifted his head to ask for a drink, she sees by his complexion and features that he is a Jew, which puzzles her. Was he lost? Has he lost his faith, to be talking to her like that? The Jews had endless rules about what they could and could not eat and drink. She knows that much at least, and she knows that this man will be breaking the law if she lets him sip from her jug.
So they talk about it, and while it is never clear whether they are on the same page, she understands that she wants what Jesus is offering her. “Sir, give me this water,” she says, which is when he tells her to go fetch her husband. It is an abrupt change of subject, to which she might object. She might say, “I thought we were talking about religion. Why are you getting personal?” Or she might lie. Instead, she squares her shoulders and looks him right in the eye.
“I have no husband,” she says, and with that shred of truth from her, he tells her the rest of the truth about herself. Note that he does not pull away from her. He still wants a drink from her, and he wants to give her one too, only the intimacy of it all seems suddenly too much for her.
So she changes the subject back to religion again, trying to draw him back into an argument about Jews versus Samaritans. Do you blame her? If he knows about all her husbands, there is no telling what else he knows about her, and she decides she would rather not find out. It is time to introduce some mental static so that the man with the X-ray eyes cannot read her so well, time to step back from him and cover herself up again.
But it does not work. When she steps back, he steps toward her. When she steps out of the light, he steps into it. He will not let her retreat. If she is determined to show him less of herself, then he will show her more of himself. “I know that Messiah is coming,” she says, and he says, “I am he.”
It is the first time he has said that to another living soul. It is a moment of full disclosure, in which the triple outsider and the Messiah of God stand face to face with no pretense about who they are. Both stand fully lit at high noon for one bright moment, while all the rules, taboos and history that separate them fall forgotten to the ground.
By telling the woman who she is, Jesus shows her who he is. By confirming her true identity, he reveals his own, and that is how it still happens.
The Messiah is the one in whose presence you know who you really are — the good and bad of it, the all of it, the hope in it. The Messiah is the one who shows you who you are by showing you who he is — who crosses all boundaries, breaks all rules, drops all disguises — speaking to you like someone you have known all your life, bubbling up in your life like a well that needs no dipper, so that you go back to face people you thought you could never face again, speaking to them as boldly as he spoke to you. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.”