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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

The Woman At The Well

Third Sunday in Lent

So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.

Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

“I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “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.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”

Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”

Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” They came out of the town and made their way toward him.

Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”

But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”

Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”

“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”

Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers.

They said to the 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.”

John 4:3-42

The world’s favorite Bible verse is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” But even though many of us have memorized this verse, we may have missed how inclusive the love of God really is. A good example of how far God’s love reaches is in John’s next chapter, today’s Gospel lesson, where we read of the famous conversation between Jesus and the woman at the Well of Sychar.

This encounter was unusual for several reasons. In the first place, it takes place in Samaria. Now that location might not mean anything to you – though it might have more meaning if I tell you that today it’s often called the West Bank. When we were in Israel, we never traveled through the West Bank, or Samaria, and neither did the Jews of Jesus’ day. In the first place, it’s dangerous and in the second place, the Jews hated the Samaritans. The Jews of Jesus’ day would not have only been surprised that He went there, they would have been offended. Although Samaria lay between Galilee in the north and Judea in the south, and so was the most direct route between the two, most Jews would cross the Jordan River and go the long way around in order to avoid passing through the territory of the hated Samaritans.

In verses 3 and 4 we read, “So he left Judea [in the south] and went back once more to Galilee [in the north]. Now he had to go through Samaria.” The reason He had to go through Samaria was to meet this woman!

You have to know a little of their history to understand why the Jews felt this way about the Samaritans. It began in 722 B.C., when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was defeated and carried away by the Assyrians. Captives from other countries were settled there, bringing their own gods with them. They mixed their worship up with the worship of Israel’s God so that the “purer” Israelites wanted nothing to do with them. In 586 B.C. the people of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, were carried off into captivity in Babylon (which is Iraq today). When they began to return in 539 B.C. they were horrified by the mongrel religion of the Samaritans. From then on, the hostilities were fierce (and still are today).

So you see, there are some surprises in this passage of scripture. First of all, Jesus is in Samaria, speaking comfortably with a Samaritan. A Samaritan woman, no less – that’s the second surprise. That was a definite breach of accepted social customs! Men of Jesus’ day, especially rabbis, didn’t speak to women without their husbands being present. And she’s not only a woman, but the third surprise is what kind of a woman she is! She is a sinner! Our first clue to her character, and her reputation, is the timing of her visit to the village well. It’s noon, an unusual time for a woman to be drawing her day’s supply of water. She probably chose this time of day to avoid the other women who probably didn’t think much of her, since she’d had five husbands and was currently living with a man who wasn’t her husband. She wasn’t exactly a model of propriety!

So this brief encounter contains a lot of social dynamics: a Jew accepts a Samaritan as a social equal; a man engages in conversation with an unattended woman; a holy man respectfully listens and responds to a sinner’s inquiries about God!

The woman is aware of the risks Jesus is taking. She’s surprised that He speaks to her, even more surprised that He’s willing to drink out of her cup, and still more surprised that He offers her something He calls “living water.” She’s never met anyone like Him before! Neither have we! His love is blind to distinctions of race, or color, or sex. He can truly love the sinner, while He hates the sin! That’s not so easy, is it? It’s easier to understand how Jesus’ disciples felt when they returned from their shopping trip to find their master sitting at the well talking to a woman, a Samaritan woman, a sinful Samaritan woman! They were shocked that He could accept this person that they all found so unacceptable.

Acceptance. That’s what this story’s about, because that’s what love is about. Or at least, that’s where love must begin. To accept another person is to receive him or her without prejudice. That is, without pre-judging. Without deciding ahead of time whether a person is worthy of our attention. Without insisting that the person change to meet our expectations. Without waiting to see if other people approve of our acceptance.

Our prejudices are so deeply rooted we can hardly function without them. They make life easier. They eliminate most of the human race from the list of persons we have to deal with. Jews don’t have to speak to Samaritans nor Samaritans to Jews. The English and the Irish can look down their noses at each other. The Poles and the Russians get along like Germany and France. Hindus can hate Muslims; Muslims can hate Christians; Protestants can put down Catholics; and Catholics can banish Protestants.

We can go on. Republicans can dismiss all Democrats as reckless spendthrifts; Democrats can castigate all Republicans as greedy aristocrats; teenagers can say all parents are old fogeys; and the old fogeys can say that all teenagers are juvenile delinquents.

There’s more. All bankers are calloused; all lawyers are crooks; all preachers are hypocrites; all doctors are in it just for the money; all union leaders are gangsters; all government workers are lazy; all politicians are thieves; and all blondes are dizzy.

But Jesus isn’t like the man who said, “Of course I love the human race. It’s just people I can’t stand.” Jesus loves people. He loves individual persons. He loves this person, this woman, this Samaritan woman, this sinful Samaritan woman. He shows His love by accepting her. And He shows His acceptance by listening to her.

The Lord wants to help her, so He begins by listening, which is harder work than talking. When our children act up, we parents say, “I’m going to give him a good talking to.” Maybe it would be better, more often than not, to give him a good listening to! Love demands acceptance, and acceptance involves listening.

How many marriages have gone sour because after the honeymoon, when the initial infatuation has worn off, husband and wife are too busy, or too prejudiced, or too selfish, or too lazy to listen to each other? So they grunt at the breakfast table, leave notes on the dining room table, and perform the expected rituals of kitchen and bedroom. But they talk without listening and cohabit without communicating. Each insists on the right to talk but turns a deaf ear to the task of listening.

But Jesus listens – even to a sinful Samaritan woman – even to you, and to me! Because He loves us, and He accepts us.

There’s another lesson in this story, and that is that love and acceptance always include forgiveness, too. John 3:17, which should be quoted with John 3:16, touches on this fact: “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.”

Why shouldn’t He condemn the world? What’s the world done to deserve being saved? Not a thing! Yet God loves us anyway. He forgives us for what we’ve done, and He forgives us for being who we are. There’s no prejudice in Him. We have trouble forgiving people for being different from us, but God doesn’t. He made us all, and He loves us all, “Red and yellow, black and white,” thin or fat, tall or short, young or old.

To love, is to accept, is to forgive. I can’t really love you until I forgive you for being who you are. Even if you’re tall. Or short. Or cranky. Or reckless. Or a Samaritan. Or a woman. Or a sinner.

Someone wrote: “To love the world to me’s no chore, my big trouble’s the man next door.”

Jesus not only loves the world, but He loves the woman next door. He accepts her. He forgives her, even as He leads her upward. What begins as a simple request for a drink of water moves upward to a question about proper worship and concludes on the highest possible note, a revelation of the nature of God. Jesus lifted her attention from the matters of everyday living to the possibilities of an abiding relationship with the living Lord. Up to now her life had been governed by her physical thirsts; Jesus offers her water from the well of eternal life. She’s thought of God as residing in an earthly temple; Jesus lifts her to a vision of a God too great to be confined to a temple. His love, His acceptance, His forgiveness make her free to talk about what’s in her heart. And she wants to talk about the Lord. She may be living in sin, but she’s thinking about God.

When a group of Nazi concentration camp prisoners arrived in Copenhagen at the end of World War II, there was a man at the railroad station who kept shaking their hands and congratulating them on having survived Hitler’s madness. “You are beautiful people,” he kept telling them. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “welcome to Denmark.”

One of the women couldn’t take it. She knew how she looked, and remembered how she’d lived. She was a woman, all right, but she was no lady. “Lady? I’m not a lady,” she protested. The man said, “To me you are very much a lady.” “Look at me!” she screamed to him. “You are very beautiful,” he told her. When he left, they found out that he was the King of Denmark.

The conversation was never forgotten. A king had called them beautiful. It made all the difference in how they saw themselves. A king had lifted them from the squalor of the concentration camp to acceptance as real persons.

“Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” He has treated me with love and acceptance. He’s lifted my spirit. Could He be the Christ? He could be. He is! And He loves and accepts us. May we in turn love Him, and accept the forgiveness He offers us. And then, may we love, and accept, and forgive one another. We can – with His help.


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