Lent 3A – John 4:5-42: The Samaritan Woman at the Well

This is the sermon I preached last Sunday at my church Redemption Church. If you are a pastor feel free to copy & steal everything.

2014.03.23 – Lent 03
John 4:5-42 – The Samaritan Woman at the Well

We are in the season of Lent – our own 40 days in the wilderness during which we practice these little fasts. Not in order to punish ourselves, but just to create some disorientation; and hopefully (on the other side of it) to receive a NEW ORIENTATION from God, a new imagination for faithfulness. In our passage today we find Jesus, again, in a kind of a wilderness. This time it is a cultural and religious wilderness called Samaria.

Tony Campolo tells a story about a time when he was speaking at a Pentecostal college. Before he spoke they had a time of prayer w/the volunteers helping w/the event. And during the prayer this guy started praying for a man named Charlie Stoltzfus. As the man prayed he kept saying the name “Charlie Stoltzfus.” His prayer went something like; “Dear Lord, you know Charlie Stoltzfus. He lives in that silver trailer home down the road about a mile. You know the trailer, Lord, down the road from the church on the right-hand side of the road … it’s silver.”

Campolo was thinking, “I don’t think God needs to be told where this guy lives,” but the man kept praying. “You know, Lord, Charlie… he left his wife and kids this morning, and Lord, we pray you would step in and do something for him; that you would bring that family back together somehow. So we pray for Charlie Stoltzfus & his family down there in that silver trailer home right down the road from the church here… on the right hand side.”

Finally the prayer time was over, Campolo gave his talk, & got in his car to drive home. On his way home, he saw a man looking for a ride, so he picked him up. He said, “My name is Tony Campolo.”

The guy shook his hand and said, “Charlie Stoltzfus.” Tony’s eyes grew wide open, and he knew immediately what he had to do. He turned off at the next exit, turned the car around, and headed back the other way. Charlie started to look a bit uneasy, and he said, “Hey, mister. Where are you taking me?”

Tony – you gotta picture Tony; he’s like the Don Rickles of preaching; eyes squinting, nose all wrinkled up – Tony said, “I’m taking you home.”

Charlie’s eyes narrowed and he said, “Why?”

Tony said, “Because you left your wife and kids today.”

Charlie just stared back at Tony in shock. He drove back by the church, down the road about a mile and sure enough, he found a little silver trailer home on the right side of the road and parked in front of it. Charlie, in shock, said, “How did you know where I lived?”

Tony said, “God told me.”
Then they went inside, and Tony talked to Charlie and his wife, a long conversation. Through that conversation, they had an encounter w/God that was real & lasting. They got into marriage counseling, and over time their marriage was healed & today…get this… Charlie Stoltzfus is a pastor (it almost seems inevitable, right?).

Today’s text is a little bit like that story. Somehow, through the strange working of the Spirit, Jesus knows a lot about a woman he meets. She’s going to have an encounter with God, and become a preacher in her own right.

“3Jesus left Judea and started back to Galilee. 4But he had to go through Samaria. 5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The 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.)”

Middle Eastern village women avoid the heat of the day by carrying the water 1st thing in the morning. And for reasons of safety and propriety they come as a group. But this woman is there alone & in the middle of the day. So either she’s a social outcast for some reason. Or she’s up to something.

That she could be up to something is indicated by the fact that in the Ancient Middle East, wells were like single’s bars – that’s where men went to initiate contact with women (hook up). Jacob & Rachel met at a well. Moses & Zipporah met at a well. Maybe that was her game…. maybe it was that she couldn’t stand the dirty looks & whispers from the women who had not been through five divorces. Either way she’s right to be puzzled when JS speaks to her.

What Jesus should have done when he saw her coming was to withdraw to a distance of at least 20 feet (the distance prescribed by custom). Instead he speaks directly to her – which was a scandal. Ken Bailey, a NT scholar who spent 40 years living & teaching in the Middle East says that JS’s simple request subverts 4 cultural taboos.

First, he breaks the social taboo against talking to a woman in public. Bailey said that he spent 40 yrs in the Middle East, & never once crossed that social boundary or saw it crossed. Men did not even make eye contact w/women they didn’t know in public… much less speak to them. A rabbi wouldn’t even speak to his wife in public. But, Jesus talked to this woman & many others. He invited them into his band of followers. They travelled w/him; & they financed him. Apparently Jesus had no use for the cultural taboos concerning women…

Second, Jesus ignored the centuries old conflict between Jews & Samaritans. How many of you knew before you came that Jews & Samaritans despised each other? How many of you know why? Here’s the back story.

After Solomon died, Israel split into 2 kingdoms (had 12 tribes). Tribe of Judah was alone in the Southern kingdom. Their capital was Jerusalem, and their temple was on Mt. Zion. The tribe of Levi (priests) were given no land, which left 10 tribes. They formed Northern kingdom of Israel. Their capital was Samaria & their Temple was on Mt. Gerizim. The North was actually more prosperous & powerful than South. They became a major power alongside Egypt, Babylon & Assyria. But they were besieged by Assyrians and by 722 B.C. they were completely destroyed. It was a physical & cultural genocide… they literally ceased to exist. After that they were called “Ten Lost Tribes” of Israel.

The Southern kingdom of Judah was all that was left of Israel. Shortly thereafter they were conquered by Babylon, and the best and brightest were carried off into exile. Israel ceased to exist as a nation.

Meanwhile back the former Northern Kingdom, the Assyrians who had settled there began to worship Yahweh along w/their own gods (this was common). After a few centuries they were worshipping only Yahweh. These Samaritan Jews had only Torah (not the prophets & writings). And, here’s where the real problem comes: When the Jews from the Southern Kingdom returned from exile, they heard about these Samaritan Jews up North, (10 lost tribes). The Jews rejected the Samaritans, calling them half-breeds. They said their worship was illegitimate. So they became bitter enemies.

As an Aside: There are still Samaritan Jews living around Samaria to this day. Scientists did a genetic pedigree of them in the 1960s. They detailed as far back as 13 generations & found that Samaritans were actually comprised of 4 lineages that included the tribes of Manassah, Ephraim, and Levi… just a little trivia… they really were (at least partially)of Jewish descent…

But the damage was done & they took every chance to hurt each other. Samaritans let the Greeks use their land to attack the south. Southern Jews retaliated by destroying Samarian temple. Samarians responded by desecrating the Jerusalem temple during Passover so nobody could observe the Passover feast… needless to say, Jews didn’t speak to Samaritans & certainly didn’t have a drink together. So Jesus is breaking that taboo as well.

Third, Jesus acts in humility by asking her for a drink. Jacob’s Well actually still exists. It has a big capstone over the mouth of the well – 5 ft across & 20 inches thick w/a small hole in it. They would build a short wall around the hole to keep dirt out & prevent children from falling in. They set their jars on the wall to fill them w/water. That’s probably what Jesus was sitting on.

Wells didn’t have a community bucket. Travelers would carry a soft leather bucket they’d unroll & keep the mouth open w/2 crossed sticks. It’s a good bet JS’s disciples had their bucket w/them. They went into town to buy food. So he asks her for a drink – which puts him at her mercy. This was an act of humility – she could’ve told him no.

Fourth, Jesus asks for a drink out of HER bucket. Jews & Samarians didn’t share dishes – even to this day they don’t. Ken Bailey tells a story of when a Samaritan high priest came to visit his friend. Expectations of hospitality required them to offer him something to eat or drink… but they were unclean to him. The host had to hold a plate with a piece of fruit on it (skin on). The plate, & the peel of the fruit was all unclean. The priest would take his own clean knife & peel the banana. He’d drop the defiled peel onto the defiled plate held by the defiled Gentile host & eat only the inside of the fruit (clean). Can you imagine what that would make you feel like as a host? This guy couldn’t deign to touch the peel of a banana you touched? They took this stuff seriously…. still do.

So JS asks this Samaritan woman for a drink – it’s not like you & me asking a waitress for more water – He’s redefining faithfulness here. “I don’t care if you’re a woman, I don’t care if you’re a Samaritan, if I have to take a posture of humility, or if it’s ritually unclean to share. You are a fellow human being – let’s just act like that’s true.”

It was so strange that even the woman questions his actions. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”

“10Jesus 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.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but 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.” 15The 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.””

She’s poking fun of him. “Where’s your bucket, mister? Are you greater than our Father Jacob?”

Anybody else would’ve said: “What do you mean OUR father Jacob? WE don’t have a father Jacob. I have a father Jacob. You have a gentile father… so get my water & be quiet.” What he said instead was “How about this: I can give you a spring of living water, and after you drink it you’ll never be thirsty again.”

To our surprise the woman makes a kind of unguarded response. She says, “I tell ya what, sir: could go for that… then I wouldn’t have to keep coming here to draw water in the middle of the day. It’s actually a kind of a vulnerable thing to say & JS takes notice. His next move is the crux move of the text:

16“Go, call your husband, & come back.” 17The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband…”

Jesus puts his finger right on the pain of her life. He sees to the heart of her life, to the thing that is really killing her.

I have to warn you: this is one of the things that’ll happen to us when we enter a season of disorientation. It’s almost exclusively a function of the wilderness. Not until we get to the end of our abilities, do we start to be able to see & admit what is really happening in our lives.”

When I teach on leadership I notice that some students just have all the answers… have it all together. Others are a mess, wandering in the wilderness in a season of disorientation. Invariably they are the ones who take the class to a whole new level. It’s as though our lives require a season of disorientation to get us to just tell the truth about our own lives. Jesus helps this woman to do that – it’s an act of deep compassion. He puts his finger right on the place it hurts in her own life.

I love the way Eugene Peterson’s The Message version renders this section:

15 The woman said, “Sir, give me this water so I won’t ever get thirsty, won’t ever have to come back to this well again!” Pregnant pause…

16“Go call your husband and then come back.” Another tense pause….

17-18 “I have no husband,” she said.

“Oh, that’s nicely put: ‘I have no husband.’ You’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re living with now isn’t even your husband…” Another pause while she tries to collect herself – eyes wide open now.

19-20 “Oh, so you’re a prophet! Well, tell me this: Our ancestors worshiped God at this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place for worship, right?”

This always seems so funny to me… she actually tries to change the subject… with Jesus! It takes some moxy to try the slight-of-hand on Jesus. What’s ironic is that she actually asks the right question. When sin is exposed the next question is of forgiveness, right? How will this be atoned for? Where is the seat of mercy? Is it in the temple in Jerusalem, or the one on Mt. Gerizim? Jesus’s answer is a complete surprise. Reading from The Message again:

21-23 “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem. You worship guessing in the dark; we Jews worship in the clear light of day. God’s way of salvation is made available through the Jews.

Just a quick aside here: I don’t think Jesus was being elitist or mean; He’s just saying that because the Samaritans only have Torah (law) & not the prophets & writings (justice and mercy), their picture of God was incomplete; it was all law w/no justice & mercy. They don’t have a complete view of God don’t have full picture.

Then he gets to the heart of the matter:

But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. 23-24 “It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”

25 The woman said, “I don’t know about that. I do know that the Messiah is coming. When he arrives, we’ll get the whole story.”

26 “I am he,” said Jesus. “You don’t have to wait any longer, or look any further.”

Where does forgiveness come from: Mt. Zion? Mt. Gerizim? Jesus says that both of those are obsolete answers. They are too small. They put God in a box behind a curtain in a temple where nobody except elite Jewish men can see him once a year. What God is really after is true worshippers; race & nation don’t really matter; where your temple is doesn’t really matter.

For us, living on this side of the cross it seems so obvious, you know? …as though God would care if you are a Samaritan or a Jew. It’s really hard for us to see what a radical thing it was to say: “It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship…”

Worship isn’t about geography, or pedigree, is about engaging your whole body, mind, soul, and spirit, with the spirit of God…. and this can happen anytime & anywhere… about you getting honest w/God. That’s a wilderness thing… that’s a lent thing… AND, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, or a Samaritan… or for us: Catholic or Protestant, Calvinist or Wesleyan, Evangelical or Mainline, Pentecostal or Anabaptist. Those are the distinctions that WE put in place so that we can try and be in control of worship… in control of who is in or out w/God.

There’s a well known missiologist named Paul Hiebert – a missionary kid who grew up in India. He went to Tabor college in Hillsboro, KS, and taught at K-State for years, then Fuller Seminary & Trinity. Hiebert pioneered the concept of bounded and centered set.

He said that the mistake most Christians make is that they think that Christianity is a bounded set. We create a border separating those who are in/out. A bounded set is defined by its boundaries. It’s like a ranch with a fence around the entire property. The ranch hands spend all their time working on that fence. If a wild animal gets in, they have to shoot it. If they bring in a wild mustang they break it first… so its safe. All of the energy of the bounded set goes into determining who is in & who is out & maintaining the boundaries.

Paul Hiebert said that the church is really meant to be a centered set, not a bounded set, & a centered set has no fences, no walls. So people don’t waste energy guarding the borders. There’s no us/them, or in/out thinking in God’s kingdom. Nobody is kept out because their beliefs aren’t perfect. Everyone can be loved and belong no matter what stage of brokenness or redemption they are in.

Hiebert says that what keeps this from being just a random community or social club is what lives at the center of the community. Instead of boundaries to keep people out, the centered set has something compelling at the center which pulls people in. A centered set is defined not by its boundaries, but by its center. There are no gatekeepers, just people who are slowly being pulled ever closer toward the center.

As people draw closer to the center, they find that they are actually growing closer to one another. They also know that sometimes they seem farther out than at other times in their lives – and they can work on that. But that doesn’t mean they’re outside the fence. They are still looking toward the center & defined by the heart of the group.

Long ago, when a rancher had a huge spread, a fence wouldn’t really do much good. So instead of building fences, he’d dig wells. What they found was that the animals would never stray too far from the wells. They wouldn’t want to wander too far from that source of life. That’s a centered set.

A Bounded Set is defined by its boundaries – that becomes the issue of ultimate importance: who’s in & who’s out. Only those who say the Sinner’s Prayer are in / all else out. Only those w/correct doctrine are in / all else out. Only those w/gift of tongues are in / all else out. Only those w/right baptism & communion rites are in / all else out. They spend all this time & energy maintaining boundaries – it can be fierce. Jesus obviously didn’t care about in & out. He was about a centered set – everything is defined by it’s proximity to the Father.

Jesus wasn’t about in/out it, he was about near & far. He was always saying, “You are very near to the kingdom.” Or “You are not far from the kingdom.” Or his favorite: “The kingdom of God has come near.” Jesus wanted them to stop thinking so much about their boundaries, and start worshipping the only thing that lives @ the center of all life: God the Father… creator & sustainer of all life, who was being revealed in Christ… who they were now called to worship in Spirit & truth.

First he gets this Samaritan woman involved, her head’s spinning. Then his disciples come along – they get completely disoriented. Then he’s invited into the town & stays there for 2 days… all of these people come to faith in Christ.

Jesus creates this amazing situation in which people stop thinking about who’s in & who’s out. They stop thinking about the boundaries. And instead they start thinking about the CENTER… what’s God up to in the world? How’s God moving right here & now & it was absolutely transformational for this woman & for the whole community.

But if you’re going to do this – go with a centered set instead of a bounded set, you have to be sure you know what’s at the center.

At Redemption Church we believe that God calls us to live in faithfulness to Jesus Christ, and to Christ’s Body, the church. Our center is that we share a common life of worship and mission that is centered on the Lordship of Jesus Christ. In our community this involves 4 major pursuits:

The first is Worship: This passage is really all about worship. We want to be people who worship God in Spirit & Truth; both gathered weekly worship & times of private worship: prayer, scripture, and Sabbath rest.

The second is missional living: It’s interesting that after their conversation, the woman forgets about her jar, runs back to town & starts telling people about Jesus. It says: 39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” We want to engage with God’s mission: Personally: with our friends, family, neighbors & coworkers. Corporately: w/ESL & Homeless & Snow Brigade & Community Garden & collective efforts toward mercy & justice.

The third is following God in the big issues of life. We don’t want to be people who just talk about believing in Jesus. We want to actually follow the teachings of Jesus in regard to the big issues of life, including: Money, Sex, and Power.

The fourth is seeking relational & emotional wholeness. Most of the problems that derail a church’s life are either relational problems – can’t get along, selfish, un-forgiveness, or emotional problems – when people won’t get healthy & face their own stuff & change. We want to seek relational & emotional wholeness (redemption in all 4 directions): self & god, self, others, world

These are not fences… not things we hold up & say “If you don’t do these you aren’t a Christian.” These live at the center of the life that Jesus imagines for us at Redemption Church. These 4 pursuits are meant to anchor our lives in concrete practices that are centered on the Lordship of Jesus.

At any given time there’s probably not a single person in our community firing on all 4 cylinders.That’s the beauty of the community. When I’m down, you might be up & vice versa. The strong help the weak – knowing they’ll be weak at some point. The weak rely on the strong – knowing it’ll soon change around. None of us have it all together – just a bunch of ragamuffins trying to practice a long obedience in the same direction.

When we jack it up, we just keep reorienting our lives toward the center: A life centered on the worship of Christ, the love of God the Father, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

What we find is that it’s not so much that Jewish temple worship or Samaritan temple worship was false. It’s that it was just a shadow of the good things to come. Those forms of worship were pointing forward to the reality that has come to us in Christ. Now Christ is the place where God is honored & worshipped. Paul calls the church the body of Christ – the holy temple – the place where God is now present w/his people.

So, in the end, what will transform you as a person is not if you have the right heritage, or if you worship on the right mountain. It’s not even about if you know the right answers to all of the important theological questions. What will transform you is not merely the knowledge that what Jesus is saying is true, (nor the belief that this is true). What will transform you is the experience that this is true…

This is why we need each other.
This is why we need to stop building walls to keep people out.
This is why Jesus makes the promise:

“…the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”

 

About Tim Suttle

Tim Suttle is a pastor, writer, and musician. He is the author of several books: Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture (Zondervan 2014), Public Jesus (The House Studio, 2012), and An Evangelical Social Gospel? (Cascade Books, 2011). Tim's work has been featured at The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Sojourners, and other magazines and journals. Tim is also the founder and front-man of the popular Christian band Satellite Soul, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. He has planted three successful churches over the past 13 years and is the Senior Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan. Tim's blog, Paperback Theology, is hosted at Patheos.


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