All over the country, maybe even all over the world this morning, preachers like me are calling this poor woman at the well bad names.
I can almost hear the allusions to her shady past, or her loose reputation; the way she shamelessly devoured her men one after the other, leaving them behind like broken toys.
We preachers have gotten a lot of mileage out of the deep, dark secrets that this poor, wretched, woman must have carried to the well where Jesus was.
I like to think we mean well; that we like to talk about transformation and redemption from sin, so we talk about her sinful past.
But I’m thinking it’s also partly because we just don’t know what else to say about nameless women.
So we call them whores and go on with our lives.
We’ve got a lot at stake in maintaining the character of a spotless Jesus who calls us to change.
So, we heap our scorn on the woman who dared to fetch water in the middle of the day.
It seems to be the only way we can make sense of Jesus; the man who unfolded her story like a picnic blanket right before her eyes.
I know how preachers are supposed to preach this story, because I’ve heard this sermon before (probably most of us have).
We’ve heard it all before; how she was probably a prostitute because why else would she be alone at the well in the middle of the day? How else do you account for 5 husbands?
But the question that keeps coming to my mind is: What do we make of this guy who’s just hanging around the well with no bucket?
The typical interpretation here is that Jesus could see right through her, and so he reaches out like a knight from high on his spotless horse, to rescue this woman from the sin that swirled around her.
We read this story like that because we prefer a clean, untarnished image of God.
We need an image of God who comes to the rescue when we need him most.
We prefer a Jesus who waits at the well with nothing better to do, just because he knows we need him to meet us there.
The problem is, the text doesn’t actually say any of what we’ve taken for granted.
There’s no evidence in this story that the woman deserves our scorn or the reputation we’ve given her.
There’s no reference to sin in the story, Jesus never invites her to repent, and he offers no forgiveness.
The most we have to go on comes in verses 17 and 18, where Jesus says to this woman “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
So why do we assume the worst?
…This is a story that took place 2,000 years ago.
Women’s rights as we know them weren’t even a concept back then.
Women were seen as something like cattle or slaves, which means they were just a step above property.
…so if this woman had 5 husbands, who’s fault was it?
Now remember, I studied social work. So I’m pretty keen to avoid blaming the victim.
She very easily could have been widowed or abandoned multiple times to fend for herself.
Tragic? Yes. Sinful? Not exactly.
But you might be wondering about the man she’s now with?
If he’s not her husband and she’s living with him, what about the sin there?
Well, how do we know they were being sinful?
Jesus doesn’t address the issue, so why do we feel the need?
How do we know it wasn’t a kind old man who took her in; maybe a distant relative with means to support her?
Or, in ancient times when a husband died and left no children, it was his brother’s responsibility to take his wife and produce an heir for the family.
The dead husband’s brother wasn’t exactly her husband, so was the arrangement in that case sinful?
No, in fact, it was part of the Levitical code of conduct.
All I’m saying is, there are any number of ways to interpret the story here at Jacob’s well without turning the woman into a tramp.
And if she’s not a tramp, then how’s that change the story?
…Well, for one thing we can see more clearly that Jesus is the one who’s needy. He’s the one who has thirst, but no bucket.
He’s the one with no business at the well.
The woman brought her bucket. She had a job to do.
If she’s not a tramp, then Jesus becomes the stranger in this story, not the woman.
Verse 5 puts them in Samaria, not Judea.
For you women in the room, if this story was written today the situation might be something like if you were walking out to your car in some far-flung part of the Wal-Mart parking lot and there was a strange guy waiting there, someone who’s not from around here…and he asks you for a ride.
It stands in stark contrast to the encounter we heard about last week; where powerful and put-together Nicodemus comes to meet the Jesus he already knows for answers to questions he already has.
This week our woman at the well is basically property without a name. She wasn’t looking for Jesus, she was just doing her job, and Jesus is the one with questions. Two completely different stories featuring completely different characters in completely different settings.
Yet the connecting link in both stories is that Jesus posed a threat to those who approached him.
It’s hard for us to read it like that though, because we’ve domesticated him into a perfect little spotless angel who rescues us from the messes we make.
The truth is that an authentic encounter with Christ moves us into deeper understanding and increased vision. He is no angel; He is the Word of God in human flesh, the Savior of the world, at who’s name every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Christ is Lord.
What unfolds for the woman at the well is a steady revealing of this reality; a steady un-veiling of the mystery of God!
With every exchange they have in this story, she gains understanding until she finally goes to spread the word.
And by the end of this interaction the people of the town say to this woman “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world!”
See, that’s the “Living” part of the Living Water that Jesus gives her!
It starts like a spring, welling up in the knowing and the sharing of her story.
Whether it’s tragic or sinful, it’s not really the point.
The water of life begins to flow in the sharing of our stories, one to the other.
And as the distinctions between us begin to erode and the boundaries we erect get washed away, God is more fully known and more fully revealed!!
The conversation begins with the Living Word of God asking for a drink of water to quench his thirst. And he gets it, though not in the way we expect.
Conversation; getting to know the stranger; developing relationships where Christ is revealed; these are the things that quench the thirst of God!!
When Samaritans and Jews begin to get along; when the rich and the poor, or the Mennonite and the Methodist, or the Old and the Young start to know each other; that’s the Living Water that quenches the thirst of God.
When that starts to happen, can we help but leave our water jars behind in our rush to tell the world what’s going on? “Come, see the man who told me everything I had ever done!”
…I know this is a little different interpretation than we’re used to hearing, but I see this in the last thing Jesus says to his disciples in this passage, too, after the woman leaves and they think someone brought him food, he explains that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. We reap what we did not sow; we reap the benefits of others’ labor but it’s OK, because when we know each other like Living Water, the goods flow freely too!
The reaper shares with the one who sowed, and the one who sowed does not grumble, for we are brothers and sisters together in God who is the Word of Life, who is the Light of the world, and who is the Living Water flowing through us and pouring upon us.
If you’re like me, you’re used to reading this story like Jesus was using some kind of Divine Magic trick to know her story and eventually convert her entire village.
You might think that Jesus somehow knew exactly what to say to her, to reach down from his white horse and pluck her from the clutches of sin.
*But there’s something about the way he asks for a drink.
There’s something about a God who thirsts that I find attractive.
It gives me hope that He is not so distant that I can’t find him at the well, wanting a drink that I can provide.
You might be uncomfortable with the image of a thirsty God, and I can understand why.
But the challenge I’ll leave with you this morning is to boldly approach both yoru strangers and your friends in the knowledge that Living Water is accessible, but you have to go beneath the surface with them in order to find it.
You don’t need a bucket to quench the thirst of God; just a willingness to go below the surface, as threatening as it might be, and to acknowledge that Christ is Lord.
Drink deeply from Christ, the well of living water.