Lent 3a, Sunday March 23, 2014

March 24, 2014

Thinking Out of the Jar
John 4:5-42
4:5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7 A 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.) 9 The 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.) 10 Jesus 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.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 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.” 15 The 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.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” 27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him. 31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” 39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

The Gospel of John is an unusual piece of literature. As I’ve mentioned before, this was the last of the four gospels to have been written, and it’s just a different creature. Many of the stories in John don’t appear in the other gospels, and the stories that do appear are told with elaborate detail. It’s only in John that we read about the wedding at Cana where Jesus turned water in to wine, it’s only in John that we learn of the nighttime conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, and it’s only in John that we hear of this encounter between Jesus and the woman of Samaria at the well. There are other stories that we’ll be looking at in the next couple of weeks that are unique to John, and there are some very clear messages attached to these stories.

Whereas the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, & Luke relate the various parables Jesus told in order to reorient the thinking of his followers, John relates these full episodes of interactions in order to portray the unique personality and message of Jesus. John tells stories that are designed to help us see the truth about God, the truth about Jesus, and the truth about ourselves. It’s not always so nice to see the truth about ourselves, but I think it’s helpful in these stories to see the way other people do the right and the wrong things.

Today’s story highlights someone who was more astute than your average disciple. Unlike the conversation that transpired between Jesus and Nicodemus, which we read last week, today we are privy to a conversation that took place between Jesus and a woman who sort of got it. We don’t know her name, and what we do know about her isn’t something that most people would want to be known about them. But she wasn’t intimidated by the truth – she found it to be compelling – which is one of the many lessons that we might pick up from this story.

There are a couple of details in this story that I find to be particularly telling. The first detail that we are given is that this conversation took place at noon. Now on one level, it makes sense for an encounter at a well to take place at noon. That’s when people are traveling and needing water. Going to a well is a daytime activity, but I think we are to also notice the contrast between when this conversation happened and when it was that Nicodemus chose to encounter Jesus. Unlike Nicodemus, this woman had no fear of the truth – which is an interesting contrast. Nicodemus was a pillar of Jewish society and this woman had been married five times and was living with a sixth man.

I’m not saying there was anything wrong with this woman. Jesus never expresses any kind of judgment against her. I don’t know what had transpired in her life, but there was some kind of a story there. Jesus didn’t treat her like it was a problem, but people like me are inclined to wonder about people like her. I don’t think Jesus would be surprised that there would be some suspicion of people like her, and I think that makes this story so much richer. It turns out that Nicodemus didn’t want to be seen with the man who turned out to be the son of God, while the son of God had no problem engaging in an extended conversation with the woman who was known for the number of husbands she had had.

This little detail sheds a lot of light on who is standing in darkness and who is in the light. This makes me think we all always need to be careful about who we consider to be redeemed and who we see as lost. In fact what this says to me is that it just isn’t our job to make these judgments about other people. It also reminds me that none of us are ever automatically in or out of God’s favor.

In that most famous of verses in John’s gospel – the one emblazoned in the endzone of so many NFL games – John 3:16, I think I’ve always focused on the verb – the believe word, but I think John wanted us to key on the universal nature – the whoever word in the invitation: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Because it’s soon after we read this verse that we are told this story of the woman from Samaria – a story designed to illustrate the type of person who gets it. And it’s in contrast to the story of the one who should have but didn’t quite get it.

I love the way John plays with the concept of darkness and light, but there’s another detail in this story that jumps out at me. When the disciples return and interrupt the high level theological conversation Jesus was having with the Samaritan woman and turn it in to a conversation about what Jesus ate for lunch, we’re told that the woman left her jar and ran back to her village. The fact that John includes this detail makes me think that there’s something about it we need to notice.

I think it goes back to the beginning of the conversation when Jesus spoke of what it was he had to offer. Jesus spoke of providing her with living water – which isn’t something you need a jar to contain. I don’t think this woman left her jar out of forgetfulness or distraction. When she ran back to her village she didn’t return empty-handed – she returned bearing that living water, and she was able to share it with others. In fact there wasn’t anyone who asked her about the water. She immediately became a powerful witness to the truth – a person people were able to hear.

I don’t know if she spoke with great authority in that village before she left, maybe in that village you gained respect through serial marriages, but there wasn’t anyone who questioned her veracity when she arrived back at the village without any actual water but with a tale about the messiah. This living water that Jesus shared is powerful stuff. It can’t be contained in a jar and when you encounter it it changes everything.

I was listening to the news on the radio one day last week and I heard a story about life in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. I was surprised to learn that there was anything else going on in the world other than a airplane that had gone missing, but I was moved by this story. You wouldn’t expect a story about a girl-scout troop meeting or the formation of a women’s soccer team to be a powerful international news story. And as I say, I didn’t hear this on CNN, but I was struck by this small group of girls who were reciting the Girl Scout oath.

The Zaatari refugee camp is filled with people who have fled the civil war that is raging in Syria. This particular refugee camp has become the fourth largest city in Jordan. It’s an overcrowded and dusty place, but my impression is that it isn’t without some living water. There are some volunteers who have formed a girl-scout troop, and as I say, I was moved by the resolve in the voices of the young girls who aren’t able to live in their own country and who have been hurt by other people, but they were promising to serve God and their country and to help other people at all times.

I was reminded by this story of how many things I take for granted – particularly when I heard about the women’s soccer league that the Jordanian National Women’s team was helping to form. They are working with girls who have never had access to any kind of athletic activities. These girls come from a rural and religiously conservative part of Syria, and some of the girls didn’t know how to run.

It’s sad to think of how constricted some people’s lives are, and it’s not just in poor foreign nations that children’s lives are so deprived. I know there are children in every nation – including our own that are so poorly nurtured and nourished, but when I hear a story of how someone is reaching out with love and respect and breaking down those barriers that maintain the darkness that envelopes vulnerable people I am reminded that there is such a thing as living water.

And it makes me want to drink of that water and to share that water.

And as we learn from today’s story. That living water of Jesus Christ is uncontainable. Living water comes from Jesus Christ, and we are filled with that water when we give ourselves to Christ, but I believe the living water of Jesus Christ has burst out of the institution that bears his name. Whosoever offers life-giving opportunity to someone who is withering away believes in Jesus Christ and has inherited eternal life regardless of what they may or may not profess to believe.

This may sound offensive to someone who doesn’t claim Jesus Christ as their savior. I’m not trying to baptize unwilling converts, but what I am trying to say is that we don’t control God’s living water, and anytime we think we are in control we are sadly mistaken. And the best thing that can happen to any of us is to be overwhelmed by this living water.

May we all have the wisdom and sensitivity and the power of this woman from Samaria who drank from that water and who shared it so well with others.


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