Sermon preached by Fr Tom Hurcombe
on Sunday 15th March 2020 (Third Sunday of Lent)
Exodus 17.1–7; Psalm 95; Romans 5.1–11; John 4.5–42
To help us understand Jesus’ meeting the woman of Samaria, let’s look at the story so far. Chapters 2 to 4 are a unit in John: starting in Cana, Jesus attends a wedding with his disciples and his mother. The steward of the wedding thanks the bridegroom for the wonderful wine, which we know Jesus has provided (does this make him a bridegroom?). Then Jesus takes his disciples up to Jerusalem for the Passover. He cleanses the Temple, and claims that he can replace it in three days, implying that he is the Temple. Then in chapter 3, as we saw last week, he talks with Nicodemus, who doesn’t quite ‘get it’; Nicodemus doesn’t so much leave, as fade away. Then Jesus is baptising like John, who claims to be the ‘friend of the bridegroom’ – what we would call a ‘best man’, who would also be part of haggling the dowry. Then Jesus ‘must go to Samaria’, which is where today’s gospel begins. After, he will continue north to Cana, which he left two chapters ago.
So, here we are at the well outside Sychar, Jesus, exhausted, sits on the well for a rest. A well would be a hole in the ground covered by a heavy rock to protect it. Wells are places of betrothal for three Old Testament patriarchs, meeting brides-to-be who are watering their father’s flocks: Abram’s servant meets Isaac’s Rebekah (Genesis 24), Moses his wife Zipporah (Exodus 2) and Jacob falls in love with Rachel (Genesis 29). The well in our story is not the same well where Jacob met Rachel, but it feels as though it is.
It’s ‘about noon’, the time of Jacob’s betrothal meeting, and along comes a woman from the city to get water with her water-pot. About women and figural (allegorical?) interpretation: when Nicodemus comes at night, he seems to be ‘in the dark’ as to who Jesus really is; when the woman comes in broad daylight, rather than suggesting she might be a person of the light, perhaps even enlightened, interpreters have suggested that this proves that she is not only a ‘hussy’, but a ‘brazen hussy’. She can’t win.
Jesus asks her for a drink. How could a Jew ask a Samaritan (woman) for a drink? They can’t share drinking vessels.
This well, like many others, is fed by a spring, that is running or ‘living water’. There is a legend that when Jacob uncovered the well for Rachel it filled up and overflowed, and continued to do so for the twenty years he served Laban – living water indeed.
If she knew who Jesus was she would ask him for a drink, and he’d give her living water.
‘How can you?’ she asks. ‘Are you greater than our father Jacob who gave us this well?’ Note the ‘our’ – they share an ancestor here. But apparently a drink of the water Jesus is talking about would mean you would never thirst again. Indeed, you would become a spring, gushing up to ‘eternal life’ – not so much living for ever, as a divine quality of life.
She may not be entirely clear as to what exactly this might mean, but she asks: ‘Give me some of that; then I’ll never need to come back here.’ Jesus seems to change the subject: ‘Go call your husband.’ ‘I don’t have one,’ she replies. ‘Quite right,’ says Jesus, ‘you’ve had five, and the one you have now isn’t your husband.’ This has been interpreted as proof of her promiscuous life style. There are a number of reasons this may not be entirely her fault. (Inability to conceive, or levirate marriage.) Some even think this is not ‘real-life story’ but a parable. But whatever the details, what is eminently clear is that Jesus does not even slightly condemn her for what so many have seen as her immorality. The Victorians revelled in her being a prostitute whom Jesus rescued – which just happens to be a common male fantasy – (especially with an ‘oriental’).
‘Sir, I see you are a prophet.’ The Samaritans were expecting a Messiah, but not a king like David, but a ‘prophet like Moses’ who would tell them everything (Deut 18:15).
So, the woman (what is her name?) continues to follow Jesus’ thread very closely. ‘We Samaritans worship on this mountain, but your lot say Jerusalem.’ Jesus says that the days are coming, and already exist, when people won’t worship God on either mountain. But in ‘spirit and in truth’.
There’s a real irony here, because the Jews under John Hyrcanus trashed the Temple on Mt Gerazim 150 years before Jesus and the woman meet. But by the time John is writing his gospel the Temple in Jerusalem (Mt Zion) has been destroyed as well.
‘I know Messiah is coming; when he comes, he will tell us everything,’ she says; (for the Samaritans this would mean telling them where all the treasures from their Temple were buried). In our reading Jesus says ‘I am he’. In Greek it says ‘I am’. The ‘he’ might be implied, or not. Surely, Jesus, uses this first of his ‘I am’ sayings; and to a Samaritan woman! He’s also hinting that he is God – the great ‘I am’.
Just then they are interrupted by the disciples, disturbed by the fact that he’s talking, not so much to a Samaritan, ‘but to a woman!’
Interrupted, and perhaps not entirely ‘getting’ what Jesus had just said, she leaves her water-pot there, and goes off to share the ‘good news’ with her neighbours. ‘A man who told me everything I ever did. He can’t be the Messiah, can he?’ A little hesitant perhaps, but she is the first person to go and preach the ‘good news’ about Jesus. Many have seen her leaving her water-pot as a sign that she didn’t understand, but surely it is a sign that she did ‘get it’: most of what Jesus said, and having tasted the ‘living water’ didn’t need her water-pot anymore.
‘Eat something,’ say the disciples. ‘I have food you don’t even know about,’ Jesus says – the work of his Father. Surely, they say, no one has fed him? Yes, she has: their conversation was like food and drink to him.
Then Jesus points out that it’s time for a harvest of evangelism; the fields are ready for gathering. Many Samaritans believe in him already. So, she’s the first evangelist to preach the good news about Jesus, and people have responded. And she’s a Samaritan woman! They then ask him to ‘abide’ with them – stay with them – which he does for two days, then back up north to Cana where he started out.
In the Orthodox and Catholic Churches the Samaritan woman is a saint and martyr. The legend goes that she and her five sisters (and her two sons) were evangelists, taking the gospel to Spain, North Africa and Rome; where they’re martyred by Nero.
They call her ‘Photini’, meaning ‘luminous’ or ‘enlightened one’, which she was, especially after her long and theological betrothal conversation with Jesus.
She has given us lessons on how to listen to Jesus, and to spread the good news about him. Let us take up her challenge.