The Samaritan woman can see someone at the well as she approaches…a man, she realizes, as she gets closer. The text doesn’t say, but given the time of day it’s not unlikely that they would have been the only two people at the well. Most would’ve already done their water fetching in the early, cooler hours of the day. Why is she there? Based on what we “learn” about her life later in the passage – that she has had multiple husbands – she may be a scorned woman on the margins of society. It’s not necessary to extrapolate from this that she would have been seen as a loose woman or even a prostitute, because in first century Palestine a woman couldn’t initiate divorce, so her five former husbands must either divorced her or died, leaving her possibly with no stability or support in a deeply patriarchal society. And here sits another man, and not just any man, a Jew. Why is she there?
Jesus can see someone approaching the well as he sits, resting his aching dusty feet. It’s a woman, he realizes, as she gets closer. He knows he’s in Samaria so the fact that she’s a Samaritan woman doesn’t surprise him the way his Jewishness surprises her. We know why Jesus is at the well, because the text does say. He’s tired and thirsty, and he’s alone because his disciples have gone to find food. But why is he at this well? In the two verses that come before today’s reading, John tells us that, “[Jesus] left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had go through Samaria.” Judea, in the southern kingdom, inhabited historically by Jews, with the capital city and center of worship in Jerusalem. Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, where worship centered on Mt. Gerizim. And Galilee, up here. So of course Jesus had to go through Samaria to get there. And yet, the animosity between Jews and Samaritans in this time was so deep, so imbedded – for centuries’ worth of reasons that can be summarized as, “They worship God wrong” – that most Jews would say, “I’m going to Galilee but of course I have to go around Samaria, over the Jordan, through the Decapolis and back over the Jordan into Galilee finally. You know how it is.” But Jesus, a Jew, had to go through Samaria. So why is he really there?
Why are they there, together?
They are there for a conversation.
Last week’s Gospel reading was also about a conversation, between Jesus and Nicodemus, and when we have back-to-back stories with a similar setup – a one-on-one conversation between Jesus and another person – there’s an opportunity to ask what we can learn, not just from today’s story but from comparing it to last week’s. There are two things in today’s story that I want to highlight.
First, the questions. Nicodemus opened his conversation with Jesus with a statement. The Samaritan woman opens with a very cut-to-the-chase question: how are you talking to me? And the questions continue, from the minor – how do you plan to get water without a bucket? – to the major – should we worship in Jerusalem (remember, where the Jews worshipped) or Mt. Gerizim (where the Samaritans thought worship should be centered)? And finally to the most incredulous question of all, the one she asks not of Jesus but of her fellow villagers – “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” She is curious and persistent; she wants to know. In addition to the contrast with Nicodemus’s statements, there’s a contrast with the disciples who, when they return with food, are, reasonably, shocked to see him speaking with a Samaritan woman but who keep their mouths shut, who don’t ask the question that John tells us is running through their heads – “Why are you talking to her?” Imagine what they might have learned from Jesus about crossing boundaries, about the inclusivity of the good news, had they asked. But their lack of curiosity kept them from knowing more about Jesus and more about God in this moment.
The second distinction in this conversation is their vulnerability. Jesus is naturally vulnerable – he needs water, something the woman can get for him. As a woman alone with a man, the Samaritan woman is culturally vulnerable. In order to make his point about living water, Jesus needs her questions; he’s vulnerable to how she interacts with him. And, as her eyes are opened to the living water Jesus offers, she shows her vulnerability in how deeply she needs it, saying, “give me this water.” As Jeanne told us last week, Nicodemus is also in a vulnerable position coming to Jesus. He’s well-respected, in a position of influence among the Jews, and Jesus is a radical. But rather than embrace this vulnerability, he diminishes it by coming to Jesus under cover of darkness. This is such human behavior, it’s so relatable. Feeling vulnerable, we hide in order not to be exposed, not to be truly known.
And yet, when the moment of greatest vulnerability comes – when Jesus tells the woman that he knows about her husbands – she doesn’t flee, she doesn’t accuse Jesus of being wrong, she doesn’t defend herself. She has been exposed, and yet because Jesus too has been vulnerable, and because she has practiced vulnerability already in this conversation and had it rewarded with more conversation, she gets the gift of knowing and being known.
She is known to Jesus. He knows about her husbands, yes, and about her current living situation, yes. And at the risk of being flip or even sacrilegious, Jesus knowing that is sort of like a “cool Jesus trick.” But it’s how he responds to knowing this about her that really shows us and shows her who she truly is. She is known to Jesus as one deserving of this living water. I’m so glad last week when Jeanne read John 3:16 during her sermon that she didn’t stop there but kept going through John 3:17: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus’ knowledge of this woman leads not to condemnation but to the offer of eternal life, living water, Godself.
And then Jesus is also known to the woman. There’s a Greek phrase ego eimi, and while it’s typically translated “I am” its meaning is something more like, “I always have been, am and always will be.” Capital I, capital A, capital M. John, as the Gospel writer most explicit about Jesus’ divinity, has Jesus speaking this phrase 24 times in his Gospel, considerably more than any other Gospel. And the very first time it appears in John is here when Jesus responds to her saying “I know that Messiah is coming,” by saying, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” This way of saying “that’s me,” (ego eimi) would be familiar from the Torah – for example, Moses encounter with God in the burning bush – and the writings of the prophets like Isaiah. Knowing now what she does, she leaves her water, the reason she came there in the first place, to share this knowledge.
As Jeanne mentioned last week, John loves a metaphor. And there may not be a better metaphor for the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ – the knitting together of spiritual and earthly – than the simple act of communication. Sitting face to face with another human, over a well in the hot sun, in a hallway at work, in the dark, over dinner. Talking gives embodiment to our thoughts and feelings and instincts. It takes all of those things, none of which are tangible, all of which are spiritual, and turns them into words that another person can hear and share in and by which we are known. When the woman leaves the well, without her water jar, she has not had her physical thirst quenched. When the chapter ends, Jesus has not eaten the food the disciples brought back. Perhaps John is telling us that they have been filled by these encounters.
A final word that needs to be said in a sermon about how conversation makes us known to each other, in the midst of a global pandemic, which we now know requires us to stay apart, to keep our bodies away from each other. I’d like to suggest two things. When you do have occasion to safely talk with someone ask questions and be vulnerable. Are you feeling worried? Lonely? What are you missing, and how are you staying connected? Get to the good stuff; let deep conversation become as second-nature as singing happy birthday twice while washing your hands. Stay known to each other. And second, talk to God, pray, meditate, write, whatever that looks like for you. Become known to God and yourself as one deserving of living water.