Sermon for Third Sunday in Lent, Year A, "Encounter with Jesus: Jesus and The Woman at the Well," John 4:5-42
Encounter with Jesus: The Woman at the Well
I came upon this video of The Woman at the Well many years ago, and it has remained one of my favorite reflections on this passage of scripture. “For to be known is to be loved, And to be loved is to be known. Otherwise what’s the point in doing either one of them in the first place? I WANT TO BE KNOWN. I want someone to look at my face And not just see two eyes, a nose, a mouth and two ears; But to see all that I am, and could be.”
The gospel of John is the only gospel where we find this passage, and it marks the single longest conversation Jesus has with any individual in the scriptures. Jesus is travelling from place to place and his destination causes him to travel through a Samaritan city. The Jews and the Samaritans didn’t get along. In fact, that’s putting it mildly. They considered each other enemies, Jews and Samaritans. They had shared religious ancestry, but over the centuries they had divided and come to have deeply different religious beliefs. When John says Jews and Samaritans don’t share things in common, he’s understating. But, Jesus travels through this Samaritan town, and stops at a well.
A Samaritan woman, unnamed like so many women in the Bible, comes to the well, and Jesus asks her to draw him some water to drink. She’s surprised he would address her, an unknown woman, a Samaritan. But Jesus tells her, “if you knew the gift of God, and who it is [that is talking to you], you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman is naturally confused by Jesus’ strange talk. How can he get water without a bucket, she wonders? Jesus says, “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 responds, even if not understanding fully, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus goes on to tell the woman all about herself. He asks her to bring her husband to the well, and she says that she doesn’t have a husband. Jesus responds, “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.” The woman responds to this saying only, “Sir, I see you are a prophet.” They debate a bit, about their different religious views. Jesus tells her, “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship God in spirit and truth.” The woman says she knows that the Messiah is coming. Jesus says he is the Messiah.
The disciples show up, and Jesus’ one-on-one encounter with the woman comes to an end, but the story doesn’t stop there. The woman leaves her jar at the well, perhaps a sign that she is ready for a more lasting kind of water, and goes to the city, telling everyone, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” Because of her witness, many Samaritans come to be followers of Jesus, and Jesus stays in town longer than planned to be with them.
There are so many parts of this long passage we could focus on, and still just be skimming the surface of this text. It’s hard to process the whole thing. But I found myself this time particularly drawn to the woman’s response to Jesus telling her about her life. Jesus says she has had five husbands, and that the man she is with currently is not her husband. So many interpretations of this text focus on The Woman at the Well as a sexually immoral woman. What kind of woman, especially in the time of Jesus, would have had five spouses? Still, Jesus doesn’t say anything condemning. There doesn’t seem to be any judgment in his words. He’s very direct. He states the truth about her. And yet, somehow, in his words, Jesus says enough for her to feel transformed. When she goes and tells the other in her city about Jesus, she doesn’t tell them about the rest of their long conversation. She just says, “This man told me everything about my life.” Surely, the fact that she was married five times, and living with yet another man would have been common knowledge. Clearly, the woman hears more in Jesus’ words than just the words themselves. Jesus sees her and knows her.
What about us? Does Jesus see us? Know us? For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been sorting through all of my photographs – the ones that I actually have printed out, from the pre-digital era. You see, I bought a certificate that will allow me to get 1000 photos scanned by a service that will then put them all on a disc, so I can have them in a digital format, and share them online, and send them to friends, and do all the other things we like to do with our photos these days. As I was sorting and sorting, I was struck by the change in photography over the years. Of course, there’s the improvement in the quality of our cameras. Today’s images are crisp and sharp, and I have so many piles of pictures that would have been great images if they weren’t dark and blurry. But you know what else is different? So many of my old photos include images where someone’s eyes are closed, or where the shot isn’t centered quite in the right way, or someone’s thumb is in the photo a bit, or you’ve caught someone in an awkward pose or making a funny face or otherwise messing up the perfect photo. Today, I can easily take a dozen photos if I’m trying to capture a moment, and I can delete the eleven versions that aren’t quite right, so that the only one I’ll share is the one that looks perfect. No more eyes closed. No more hairs out of place. No more someone looking the wrong way, at least not with a little extra effort. But I wonder about all the real life we’re deleting in those other photos that never see the light of day. Of course, I want to look my best. But I wonder what it says when we only want to show each other these perfect versions of our lives.
Does God see us? Know us? The non-perfect version of us? Do we want God to see us and know us? I think of the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis. Along with some influence from the serpent, Adam and Eve disobey God’s commands, and they eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And once they eat of it, they become aware that they are naked, and they’re ashamed, and they hide from God. They become acutely aware that God can see them – really see them. And they’re ashamed and scared because of it.
Do we want God to see us and know us? At one of my churches, we studied together the classic work by Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline. In the book, Foster examines several spiritual disciplines, like prayer, worship, solitude, and fasting, and invites readers to try engaging in each practice. My class members did fine – until we got to the chapter on confession. In the chapter, Foster talks about the meaningful impact confessing his sins – not just privately to God – but confessing them to a friend in Christ – has had on his faith journey. He writes, “Confession is a difficult Discipline for us because we all too often view the believing community as a fellowship of saints before we see it as a fellowship of sinners. We feel that everyone else has advanced so far into holiness that we are isolated and alone in our sin. We cannot bear to reveal our failures and shortcomings to others. We imagine that we are the only ones who have not stepped onto the high road to heaven. Therefore, we hide ourselves from one another and live in veiled lies and hypocrisy. (145) Foster shares about writing his sins out, one by one, on a sheet of paper, and reading them to a trusted friend and guide. When he was done, he went to put the paper with his confessions back into his briefcase, but his friend took the paper from his hands, ripped it into a hundred tiny pieces, and threw the pieces into the trash can. In this fact, Foster felt overwhelmed with a deep sense of forgiveness. He writes, “We do not have to make God willing to forgive. In fact, it is God who is working to make us willing to seek … forgiveness.” (153)
We do not have to make God willing to forgive us. Do you know that? Believe that? Do you know that God is working to make you ready to seek and receive God’s forgiveness? You do not have to make God willing to forgive you. This is the truth: Jesus already knows you. Jesus can already tell you everything about yourself, even what you’d rather keep hidden. God already knows you. In fact, God created you – every part of you. God knows you inside and out, and love you entirely. Listen to the words of Psalm 139: “For it was you [God] who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” God already knows you. Or there are the words from 1 Corinthians – I’ve already told you that they’re some of my favorite: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” God knows us, and knowing us, loves us.
Jesus really saw the woman at the well, and he really knew her. And she wasn’t afraid. She didn’t hide. I think she was relieved, overjoyed that someone finally really knew her. Even thousands of years later, it’s easy for us to tell ourselves we know her story. Married five times! Well, at least we would never do that. Do we stop to ask ourselves why she’d been married so many times? A woman in Jesus’ day could only initiate a divorce in extremely limited circumstances. Or was she widowed? Did she lose more than one spouse to death? Was she considered barren? Did she keep getting offers of water to drink that weren’t the living water of which Jesus spoke? Maybe she was looking for someone who would come to know her fully and still want her, still love her, even after all they knew. Jesus knew this woman, and she was relieved. He didn’t speak with judgment. He told her the truth. He actually took time to speak with her, to spend time with her, to treat her as someone of worth. She was so moved by this, she couldn’t wait to tell others. “He told me everything I have ever done,” she says. And her unspoken words are: “And he still wanted to talk to me.” Jesus saw her, knew her, loved her. She didn’t hide from it, being known. Instead, she let it change her life.
Friends, God already knows you. There is nothing, nothing that you have to hide from God. You don’t have to convince God to forgive you. God is already longing for, working for a deeper relationship with you. What would our lives be like if we let ourselves believe that? What if we remembered, when we are ready to stand in judgment of each other, that God knows that person already too, loves them too. Come and see, friends. Come and see this Jesus, come and see God who knows all about me, and all about you. Amen.