St. Luke’s UMC
March 24, 2019
John 4:4-30 (selected verses)
So far in our series Jesus has encountered people who treated him like the somewhat disparaged outsider. Nathaniel said of him, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Nicodemus, the learned Pharisee, went to see Jesus at night because he didn’t want to be seen. But this week, there is a role reversal. Jesus is the insider and the woman he encounters we could call disparaged outsider. Let us pray…
You know how in subway stations in big cities you often find panhandlers playing instruments with their case open so people can give them money. Well, take a look a Washington DC subway station one day during rush hour…(play video)
The “panhandler” was world renowned violinist Joshua Bell. He played one of the most complicated pieces of music on a violin worth $3.5M. The evening before he performed a concert in which the average ticket price was more than $100. (This was 10 years ago!) How easy is it to make assumptions about people in passing? To assume that someone is just another ordinary violinist, nothing special. And walk right past a virtuoso. 1100 walked by in the 45 minutes he played. Except the one woman at the end who recognized him. No doubt she loved hearing the violin and stopped long enough to realize who was playing, but what if were open all the time to the significance that exists in people we pass?
Today’s encounter story in the Gospel of John is about one such time when two people who could have made all kinds of assumptions about each other, but they were willing to go deeper, and discovered a moment of incredible significance.
Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, that little detail alone hints at the significance about to take place. Most of Jesus contemporaries, meaning Jewish men, would not have been open to anything great. Even the woman doesn’t show at first any sense that this could be a life-changing experience. But Jesus shows how God is always on the lookout to turn a casual exchange into something special.
The story begins by saying Jesus had to go through Samaria. Why? (Show map) This map shows us where Samaria was located. Jesus was Judea to the south of Samaria, and he wanted to go to Galilee north of Samaria. So he had to through Samaria, right? Except most Jewish people in that time did not. Because of the animosity toward Samaritans, they traveled to Perea to the east, on the other side of the Jordan River, making the trip twice as long. Take off map.
Have you ever done that? Have you ever gone out of your way to avoid someone? Maybe in the grocery store. What you need is at the end of an aisle, but you see someone you want to avoid, so you travel three aisles over and circle around to get what you need. We all have our Samaritans don’t we? Who are yours? If we follow Jesus, there will be times when he takes us through Samaria.
Jesus’ disciples went to buy food leaving Jesus alone, which is a good thing, because Jesus meets a Samaritan woman. Sometimes it’s easier share faith when religious people aren’t around! They meet at Jacob’s well, a place mentioned in the Book of Genesis. Its noon and the woman has come to draw water. It wasn’t unusual to see a woman fetching water, that was a job often done by women at the time. What was unusual, was to be there at the hottest part of the day. Typically women would go in the morning or late afternoon when it was cooler. They also would travel together. This provided company and time to visit and catch up on the latest gossip. Some commentators even point out that Jacob’s well would have been some distance from the village of Sychar. There would have been wells much closer to the edge of town.
So, do a little investigative work and ask, Why was this woman there? Why do you think this woman was alone at the well during the hottest part of the day? We aren’t told. So let’s not get judgmental. Maybe she was just a loner. Maybe there was an emergency and she needed water right away and the other wells were dry. We don’t know, but it’s obvious that what Jesus saw was out of character. He could have easily said, “This is a weird situation, just ignore her.” In fact, social custom would have said that’s what he should do. A Jewish man did not talk with a strange woman in public. A Jewish person was not to interact with a Samaritan. Jesus broke all kinds of barriers here. But instead of seeing reasons to avoid someone, Jesus saw reasons to connect.
Have you ever seen people in a situation that doesn’t fit, and you could avoid or interact? Years ago when I was a young associate pastor I would often leave the church at lunchtime and drive a couple blocks away where there was a hot dog stand. It was a quick, cheap lunch. One day I intended to get a hotdog, but I couldn’t turn left. Traffic was backed up. So I went right, and traveled around the block to get to the intersection where hot dog stand was. While the guy was fixing the hotdog, I asked what the traffic was all about. He pointed at a pickup truck at the front of the intersection and said, “That guy just stopped his truck.”
I walked over and noticed he was sitting behind the wheel eating a sandwich. I said, “Are you okay?” He said, “Sure.” I said, “Well you know, buddy, you have a lot of traffic backed up.” He said, “Yeah, I see that. My truck stalled, so I thought I’d eat lunch.” I said, “Well, why don’t we roll your truck into the parking lot so people can keep going?” He said, “That would be great, would you do that?” I said, “NO! You’re going to get out of the truck and help me.” So he did, and we rolled it out of the way.
I regret that all I did next was get my hotdog and go back to the office. I wish I would have engaged him a bit more. I imagine there were some reasons for his being there. Maybe a lot of things had stalled in his life, and his truck was the last straw, and he just decided to eat lunch. I don’t know. I wish I had taken time to get to know.
That’s what Jesus does. He begins a conversation with this woman. Don’t miss how radical this was. In that time Jewish men didn’t just casually enter into a conversation with women they didn’t know. That was socially taboo. At the same time, A Jewish person wouldn’t associate with a Samaritan. Remember average persons would go out of their way to avoid just such encounters. What would this encounter look like today? What are ways people today experience being on the outside? What does Jesus, by his example, teach the church about the way we should live?
Notice how easily Jesus begins a conversation. He asks if the woman would give him a drink. She shares her surprise that a Jewish man would ask her, a Samaritan, woman for a drink. And that’s all the opening Jesus needs to turn the conversation in a spiritual direction. He says, “If you knew who was talking to you, you would ask me for a drink and I would offer you Living Water. Like we’ve seen in previous stories Jesus uses words with double meaning. Living water often referred to a bubbling spring. That was always preferable to water from a cistern that can turn brackish. But living water also has a spiritual quality. The woman interprets things literally, she can’t understand how Jesus could offer her water when he doesn’t even have a bucket. Then notice what Jesus says, “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.”(vv13-14)
She doesn’t understand the spiritual meaning Jesus intends. Just as water refreshes the body when it gets dry Jesus offers refreshment to the soul. Sometimes life becomes dry. It is a dull routine like going to fill a bucket everyday. Have you ever felt that way? Do you ever look at your life as a series of events, you get up in the morning, go to work, come home tired, fix dinner, do some cleaning, go bed and get ready to do the same thing all over again the next day and wonder, “Is there any more to life?”
Maybe that’s what this woman represented. Jesus talked about the life he offers being like a spring welling up inside them. New life comes from the inside not the outside. Sometimes we want to solve a inner need with outer resources. If we just had more stuff, took a great vacation, got a new house, we would be happy. But a spiritual need is not solved by material resources. It comes from the inside.
A few years ago Forbes Magazine had an article based on a study by the British Journal of Psychiatry reporting that more than ten thousand suicides between 2008 and 2010 can be linked to the economic crisis of that time. Jesus offers living water that springs up within us, welling up to eternal life. https://www.forbes.com/sites/melaniehaiken/2014/06/12/more-than-10000-suicides-tied-to-economic-crisis-study-says/#32be40157ae2
What gives you inner peace? What are the times in your life when you were the happiest? How much of those memories depended on material things? What helps you stay connected to Jesus as a source of inner peace?
Jeff Lohse is a member of our church. He had a successful career as a Global VP with AT&T. When he retired he joked that he had more friends in Amsterdam than Indianapolis. Soon after retirement two very important people in his life died, his adopted aunt and uncle. They weren’t related, but they were like family. He learned they had named him as the executor of their estate which meant a lot of financial responsibilities started coming his way. He plowed into figuring out where their will was. It took a lot of doing, but in the end he found out they had quite a sizable estate and left it to three little, struggling Methodist churches. The couple wanted to support scholarships through the churches for kids in small communities to go to school. As he got involved in the process Jeff felt like God was using him to make a difference in other people’s lives. He had never quite felt that way before, but he was open to the way God met him through these encounters. He has gotten involved in service opportunities through our church. He said throughout his career he was just a Sunday morning church person. But now, this guy who had assisted Fortune 500 companies and led global initiatives says, “What I am doing now is the most important stuff I’ve done in my life.”
Take picture of Jeff off.
That’s quite a statement isn’t it? Joy, fulfilment, having something that gets you out of bed in the morning, comes from within. It is like a spring of water that bubbles up.
Let’s return to Jesus and the woman at the well. This is the point in the conversation where Jesus seems to turn things in a strange and uncomfortable direction. He asks the woman to bring her husband. She says she does not have one. Jesus acknowledges that she has had five husbands and that she’s not married to the man she’s currently with. Interpreters have long used these verses to claim a moral laxity on the part of this woman, but don’t forget the laws of that time. Women had no rights. If a woman’s husband died, then the dead husband’s brother, if he had one, was obligated to take his sister-in-law as a wife. Who knows but that the brothers did not want this woman, and she’s merely been passed down through the family like an unwanted possession. Maybe for no fault of her own, life has made her feel unwanted and like she is on the outside of everything in her world. We can’t say for sure. But for some reason she’s at a well the furthest distance from her village at the hottest part of the day all by herself. Surely there is a reason. No one chooses to make life harder for themselves. Often people’s lives are hard already and they are making the only choices they think they have.
The woman must have felt uncomfortable because she tried to change the subject. She brought up the controversial topic of worship that led to her acknowledging that one day the Messiah will come and straighten out all that business, and that’s when Jesus says to her, “I am he.”
In other words Jesus didn’t bring up the issue of her husbands to judge but reveal his identity to her. Just like the story of Nathaniel, when he felt Jesus saw into his soul, the woman realized that Jesus knew all about her life. But not just that, she felt accepted in his presence. When she told her village that she met a man who told her everything she ever did, what was she saying? “He knows me and still accepts me!”
Some people today say, “If I had an experience like that I would believe too. If God met me in a person who knew everything about my life I’d believe.” Perhaps God does meet us like that, but we don’t always realize it. Just like the people in the subway walking past a renowned violin player, we don’t realize in the moment that God is encountering us.
Have you had the experience in worship listening to a sermon and felt like the pastor was talking about you? As if the preacher had been reading your mail? I know some of you have. You’ve come up to me after a service and said, “How did you know what was going on in my life? I felt like no one else was in the room, because you were talking directly to me.” And, of course, I didn’t. That is how God works. If you put yourself in God’s company that is going to happen. God is going to show you, that God knows all about your life. God knows what you are dealing with. And God wants to give you fresh resources if you will trust him.
So the woman drops her bucket to go and tell her village about Jesus. Now think about this for a moment. Her bucket represented the boring, dull routine of her life. She would need that bucket again. She would still need to draw water, but that day she dropped it, because she a resource for living that bucket couldn’t carry.
What does your bucket look like? What symbolizes the routine of your life? Buckets are good. They are necessary. (pic of bucket)But they are made to carry our deepest needs. Sometimes we have to drop our buckets to recognize there is something much better to live for. In fact, when we receive Jesus offers, it changes how we approach our buckets.
In 1969 Dr. Oliver Sacks worked with an experimental drug to help patients with what was called “sleeping sickness,” something that kept people in a kind of catatonic, coma-like state. They weren’t completely unconscious, but they were never fully awake. The drug had such dramatic effect Dr Sacks wrote about his findings in a book that became a movie, Awakenings, starring Robin Williams as the doctor and Robert DeNiro, the first patient to be “awakened.”
After thirty years Leonard comes out of his trance. In one scene in the movie he is so excited about his new life, he calls the doctor in the middle of the night to say he has to come see him. The doctor hurries over. Leonard says, “We have to tell everybody. We have to remind them. We have to let them know how good it is.”
“How good what is?” asks the doctor.
Leonard picks up a newspaper: “Read the newspaper. See what they say, all bad, it’s all bad. People have forgotten what life is about, they’ve forgotten what it is to be alive, they need to be reminded, they need to be reminded about what they have and what they can lose. And what I feel is the joy of life, the gift of life, the freedom of life, the wonderment of life!”