Somewhere around the year 30 AD, Jesus and his disciples were preaching the good news of the arrival of God’s kingdom against the backdrop of the Roman empire and their occupying forces.
You could say “it was the best of times and the worst of times.” And because Jesus, in our Gospel reading for today (John 4) is traveling from the Temple Mount and Jerusalem to Mt. Gerizim in Samaria, we could call today’s reading…
“A Tale of Two Mountains”
A long time ago, in a far away place, there lived a woman. She was pretty much your average woman… except that she’d been married five times.
We don’t know her name (I wish we did).
We don’t know how old she was, but if you figure an average of 5 years per husband with a first marriage at fifteen, by the time our story takes place she’s at least in her early 40s.
I mention this because somehow I always pictured her as young, but she wasn’t. She was most likely old enough to be Jesus’ mother. And she felt older – tired, worn out.
The woman lived in the city of Sychar in Samaria, known today as the West Bank. It’s a hard-scrabble land: mountainous, rocky, and dry. She lived not far from Mt Gerizim where the Samaritans worshiped, and not far from Jacob’s Well.
For the women in those days, the daily trip to the well was the highlight of the day. Women spent most of their time working in the extended family compound but once a day they went out and walked part-way up the mountain to the well to get water. And as they went they met neighbors and laughed and talked and caught up on the latest news. “How’s Aunt Mary?” “How are the kids?” And because it was hot, and the water jugs were heavy, the women went to the well first thing in the morning, when it was cool.
But this particular woman – she never went in the morning. She wasn’t welcome. I mean, five husbands…! At best that was a very long streak of really bad luck. If only one of the marriages had ended in divorce – we don’t know that any of them did – but if only one had, she would have been socially unacceptable.
But at this point it didn’t matter – now she was living with a man she wasn’t married to. She was no longer welcome among respectable people. She was shunned by the women of the town. She came to the well in the heat of the day – at noon – so she wouldn’t have to hear their words or look at their accusing eyes.
In a way, after all these years, she kind of liked having some time to herself. It gave her time to think. She was glad that, even as bad as things were, at least she still had her health. She wasn’t begging for money at the city gate, and she’d never been a prostitute. And sometimes as she walked up the path to Jacob’s Well she thought about the ancestors who had walked that path before her: Jacob, the patriarch, the one they called Israel… whose name means “he wrestles with God.” She could relate to that. Standing in the place where Israel stood she sometimes wrestled with God herself. And his sons: Joseph… Benjamin… Judah… all twelve of the brothers and their families. Some people said even Abraham had walked these paths once. When she thought about all the generations that had gone before she felt proud. Proud to be a Samaritan. She may not have been the most upstanding person in the world but at least she was a good and loyal Samaritan.
On another mountain, in Jerusalem, Jesus had just finished having a long talk with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Like the woman, Nicodemus had walked up a mountain alone, at an odd hour, not wanting to be seen. And in his own way he too was wrestling with God. Jesus had talked with him, done his best to answer the unasked questions, and now Jesus was tired and wanted to go home to Galilee. So the next morning he and the disciples set out northward. At midday, exhausted and hungry, the disciples went to grab a bite to eat while Jesus rested by a well.
That day, just like every other day, the woman of Sychar arrived at the well around noon… and a strange man sitting there! This was not good. Everyone knew a woman – a decent woman – would never be caught traveling alone. This was dangerous. Who was he? What was he going to do?
“Think fast” she thought to herself, but it was too late. He’d seen her. There was nothing for it but to get the water and get out as quickly as she could. If he was a decent man he’d ignore her, pretend she wasn’t there.
No such luck.
“Give me some water,” he said. No ‘please’. No ‘hi how are ya?’ Just a demand. From a man who – judging by his accent – had no business making any kind of demands of a Samaritan. Which she figured she’d better remind him.
She asked, “How is it that a Jew like you is asking for a drink from a Samaritan woman like me?”
If the conversation had taken place in our time she might have said: “hon, do you know who you’re talkin’ to?”
Because that’s exactly what Jesus heard, and it’s exactly the question he answered: “If you knew who you were talkin’ to, you would ask him for water, living water, the gift of God.”
Really? –she thought. That was a daring answer. This was a daring conversation to begin with! He’s unconventional. He says curious things. She kind of liked him. And even though he was young enough to be her son there was something about him she respected.
“Sir,” she said, using the Greek word kyrie – as in kyrie eleison, meaning Lord – “Kyrie, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep. How…where… are you going to get this living water?” And she couldn’t resist the temptation to poke at him a little bit, reminding him of exactly which mountain he was currently sitting on. “Are you greater than our father Jacob whose well this is?”
He said, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water I give will never thirst again. The water I give will become on the inside of them a spring of living water welling up to eternal life.”
What is he going on about? She wondered. But suddenly she felt very thirsty… thirsty for hope, thirsty for something to believe in. So she decided to go for it, and ask what he had invited her to ask. “Kyrie, give me this water, so I’ll never be thirsty or come here to draw again.”
He said, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”
The words cut like a knife. WHY?? Why did he have to ask that? The conversation had been going so well… she actually had begun to feel he respected her a little… why?… why was it, every time something important needed to be talked about, a man would push a woman aside and insist on talking to other men? Why? She could barely contain her rage as she spat out the words, “I’m not married.”
Three words. No kyrie.
“Well said,” Jesus replied. “Well said. You’ve had five husbands, and now the man you have is not your husband. What you’ve said is true.”
She could feel the rocks shifting like sand beneath her feet. Who is this man? How does he know? Wait… he knows this and he’s not going anywhere? He’s still talking to me?
“Kyrie, I can see that you’re a prophet,” she said. “Our fathers worshiped here on this mountain, but you Jews say we have to worship in Jerusalem. What’s up with that?”
Some say her question was a dodge, but I disagree. For starters, the husband situation was old news as far as she was concerned. If Jesus could live with it so could she. Second, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If you had the chance to ask one question of a famous man of God – Billy Graham perhaps, or CS Lewis – do you ask him how to improve your married life? Or do you ask the one burning question nobody else has been able to answer? And third, she was giving Jesus the chance to show what He was really made of. Would He put her people down? Or would He speak words of peace? So she asked the number one question on her mind: What is it God really requires of us?
And apparently Jesus thought so too. So he explained how, even though salvation is from the Jews, the time was coming – and indeed had come – when neither mountain would be the place to worship, because people would worship God (who is spirit) in spirit and in truth.
In the deepest part of her soul the woman knew – this was right. It was the answer she’d been looking for, even if she didn’t quite understand it. So she said, “I know Messiah is coming and when he comes he will explain it all.”
And he said, “I am he.”
And their eyes met… and she looked into the human face of God.
She forgot all about the water-jug. (Jesus never got his drink.) But the woman became the first person Jesus ever told straight out that He was the Messiah. You might say she was the world’s first Christian evangelist. Her message was welcomed with joy by the people of her city – she was no longer an outcast.
And the Samaritans – who would never have offered a Jew a glass of water – hosted Jesus and the disciples in their homes for two days. And Jesus and the disciples did what good Jewish boys would never have done: they accepted the invitation.
And she never stopped talking about the day she met Jesus.
The epilogue to our story can be found in the other two scripture readings for today.
In the Old Testament reading, the people of Israel quarrel with God over the need for water. Like Jacob and like the woman they too wrestle with God. All these people have one thing in common: none of them lets go of God until they receive the blessing.
For us also Lent may be a time of wrestling with God. If so, hang on and don’t let go until the blessing comes! Because it will come.
That’s what Paul promises in the reading from Romans: we have peace with God, not of our own doing but through him. Through him we are justified. Through him we have peace. Through him we have grace. Through him we are reconciled to God. Through him.
We DO hear the words “I am he” one more time – on yet another mountain – the Mount of Olives. Jesus says them to Judas and the mob that comes to arrest him, and at these words they fall to the ground. (John 18:6)
“I am he.” This is the ancient name of God – I AM. And there is indeed power in the name.
The testimony is ours.
Preached at Incarnation Church, Strip District, Pittsburgh, Sunday March 23 2014