Saturday, March 22, 2014

Words by the Well

John 4:5-29
Lent 3
March 23, 2014
William G. Carter

"Come and see a man how told me everything that I had done. You don't think this is the Messiah, do you?"

It is always risky to end a sermon with a question. The preacher can ask something and leave it dangling in the air, like a piece of fruit hanging from a tree. The curious will come close, survey what they see, and declare, “It looks like a piece of fruit.” Others will keep walking by, unwilling to stop, going wherever they thought they were headed. It’s only the hungry who reach out, grab the fruit, and take a bite. Everybody else passes by.

This anonymous Samaritan woman is the first female preacher in the Gospel of John. She leaves behind her water jar, goes back to her village, finds some townspeople and asks, “You don’t think this could be the Messiah, do you?” Her question stays dangling in the air.

Now, if you know the rest of the story, you know it’s enough for the whole hungry town to search for Jesus and ask him to stay with them for a while. They come to trust that he is the One who satisfies every human longing. But we never learn what happens to this woman. She is quickly dismissed offstage. Her job was to ask the question of neighbors who will move on beyond her. To this day, nobody ever remembers her name.

What we remember is the conversation. That’s what John gives us. It is the longest conversation that Jesus has with any single person in the whole Bible. He talks longer with her than any conversation he ever has with Peter, James, or John. He speaks with her longer than his backstage conversation with Pontius Pilate.

I can’t tell you what a remarkable conversation this is. He is a Jew, she is a Samaritan. She is a woman, he is a man. They step over the barbed wire of racial differences and religious divisions, to say nothing of the cultural rules that declare men should never talk to women in public.  

Jesus starts the conversation. “Give me a drink.” She is astonished that he speaks to her, and she is feisty enough to tell him so.

Jesus pushes back. If you knew this is, he says, you would ask him for living water. She replies, “Where’s your bucket?”

Leading her into the depths, he speaks of the gift of living water which gushes up into the life of the eternal God. She says, “I’ll take it.” She’s tired of being thirsty and weary of going to the well.

What she doesn’t know is this is John’s version of Jesus. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus knows everything. He knows she has been discarded by five husbands in a row. That’s how it worked back then. The husbands had the authority to get rid of their wives, even if it was the smallest matter that prompted the dismissal. Jesus knows this woman’s wound. He knows her pain, he knows her disillusion with one marriage after another. More to the point, he knows her. He is the One who will later say in this book, “I am the truth” (14:6) and he knows the truth about her. He comes that close and he stays there.

Well, it’s a little too close, so she steps back and puts up a barrier. She decides to pick a fight about religion: “This Samaritan mountain is our holy mountain, but you Jews say the holy mountain is in Jerusalem. We’re different, you know. We have separate temples on separate mountains.”

Jesus says, “Lady, God is not bound to a mountain nor a city. We’re talking about God, the Source of all life. God is Spirit, free like the wind.”

I can see her pausing to consider this. Then she says, “I know that Messiah is coming.” Jesus looks at her and, with the full weight of the Old Testament, he says, “Yahweh! I am.” It’s a holy moment, a holy holy moment. . .

. . . So leave it to the twelve disciples to bumble in at that precise minute, to interrupt the whole thing, and to murmur among themselves, “Why is he talking to her?!?” She is a Samaritan, she is a woman. She’s standing by the well at high noon with none of the other villagers around, so they can only guess what kind of person she is – and Jesus is talking with her. Surely they murmured, “What’s going on here?” and they missed that Jesus has revealed to her who he is.

Please note this is a conversation. Not a one-sided speech. Not a defensive statement of theology. It’s  a conversation. It moves from the shallow end of the pool into great depths. We never actually find out if Jesus got his cup of water. That’s not the point of the conversation. The point is that the woman came for water and she left with the well.[1]

Even so, as she scurries off to spread the word to the townspeople, the thing she talks about is the thing she can’t totally possess. “There’s a stranger who told me everything about myself.” She can only invite others to “Come and see.” Then she dangles the really big question in the air: “You don’t think this might be the Messiah, do you?”

We’ve heard a conversation about faith, about the kind of faith that gives us life and trust. That’s the living water that Christ gives. To hear other people talk about it, faith should never have any questions, just an orderly stack of answers. God says THIS. Jesus is THAT. There should be no discussion, only the description of correctness, what we should and ought to believe.

Ever hear anybody talk like that? I’m afraid what they are missing is what John says about God, both in this story and the story last week of Nicodemus. God is Spirit. The Spirit blows where the Spirit blows. That is how God is – free, unbound, wild, life-giving to whomever God provides such abundant life. It’s going to be frustrating for anybody who confuses faith with certainty, especially anybody who handles the things of heaven with a lot of their own control needs.

Faith is what comes as a gift, like living water from a Savior who has no bucket. Faith can blow in on the Spirit’s wings, and for the minute we may see everything we need to see. We trust the Source. We experience the kindness of heaven. But just as quickly it comes, it can slip away. That’s the nature of faith, at least as the Gospel of John describes it. Faith is not something we convince ourselves into believing. Rather it’s the evidence of God’s Spirit blowing freely upon us, bringing us to moments of understanding, filling us with trust.

You know something? Other than Jesus, in the Gospel of John there is not one person whose faith is finished and complete. Not one. Last week you heard about Nicodemus, the night-time Pharisee. He slips in and out of this book three different times, and by the last page there is no evidence he has memorized the Apostles’ Creed.

There are people healed by Jesus all throughout the book. But usually, right after the healing they slip back into the crowd, or Jesus does. We never do hear much more about them, whether they go off and start churches, or whether they keep believing into the next week or month. Jesus heals them, and it is one more moment of grace and truth in their lives. They will have to keep working out what it means.

Or the twelve disciples - they are certainly a work in progress, every one of them unfinished. This is the book that speaks of Doubting Thomas, after all. The Risen Lord asks him a dangling question: “Have you believed because you see? Well, blessed are those who do not see yet come to believe.” (20:29)

In the Gospel of John, everybody’s faith is in process. God is still working on each person bit by bit. Just like this conversation with the woman at the well. It starts so simply: “I’m thirsty” – “Where’s your bucket?” But then it goes deeper. She first calls him “a Jew,” later says “Are you greater than Jacob?” Then she says “I perceive you are a prophet,” then she names the “Messiah.” At the very end he is “Savior of the World.” Her understanding increases as the revelation grows larger and larger during the conversation. Meanwhile it is missed by those who wonder, “Why is he talking to her?”

The point is simply this - - faith (if is real faith) is something that lives and grows. Faith is never once and done and finished. Faith ebbs and flows because it is the life of the Spirit within us. Sometimes it explodes in a burst of understanding. Other times we have to hang in there like an impossibly long February.

I like how some of the church kids have explained it to me over the years. I’ve written these down. One middle school boy said, “If God told us everything at once, we couldn’t understand it all. Our hearts are too small.”  

Or there was the teenage girl who blurted out, “I said my prayers every night, just like I was told, and then one night I realized somebody was listening.”

Or that wild kid who came back from the national youth rally. He said, “Rev, now I know what you’re talking about! My parents don’t get it, but I do.” I had to explain that’s how it is with all of us. And I added that’s the best reason I know for sitting in church and listening to sermons week after week. Some morning you might actually wake up.

Remember what the Samaritan woman said? “Come and see a man who told me everything about myself. You don’t think this is the Messiah, do you?”

I like how she says it. It is an invitation, to come and see. It is within the range of her experience, so she’s not manufacturing any extra words. It is honest with her own uncertainty, so she doesn’t have to prove anything. There is nothing judgmental or superior about it; in fact, the Jesus who knows about her life does not judge for it, but brings the truth into the open so it can be healed. How refreshing!

Before she slips away into her town, let me affirm what she does. She is not a parrot mimicking what other people told her to say. She does not hand out packaged answers to questions that nobody is asking. She doesn’t declare, “You better believe or you’re going to hell.” Oh no, she avoids that kind of arrogance. In the end, she simply asks the question about Jesus, and gives the necessary space and time for everybody to answer it on their own.[2]

And they do. The people in her town say, “We believe this is the Savior of the World.”

Have you ever had a moment when you believed that is true?

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] A great turn of phrase shared by F. Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012)  273.
[2] Thanks to Fred Cradock for these insights in “The Witness at the Well,” The Christian Century, 7 March 1990.

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