Today’s gospel reading is the story of the Samaritan woman at the well from the gospel of John.
Billy Graham, the famous evangelist, has apparently led a far more blameless life, less open to judgement, than Jesus. Billy Graham has said that it is important as a Christian to be above reproach – quite right, as far as it goes. And I can remember hearing him say that in all his adult life he has never been alone with a woman who wasn’t his mother or his wife. His reasoning is, presumably, that you have to be careful not to give people ammunition for gossip. Just think about that for a moment. How on earth do you manage to avoid ever being alone with a woman other than your mother or your wife.
I remember thinking when I first heard this that life could become like a Whitehall Farce. There you are, in a room with a couple of other people, one of whom is a woman. The other person walks out. What do you do? Do you walk out too? Or tell her to leave? Can you go back in if someone else arrives? What if it’s two women in the room? Does that make it alright? The mind boggles!
Jesus had no such qualms about being alone with a woman. He had no such concerns about what people might say. If he had we would have not had some of the key moments in the gospel of John. In fact, he was happy to be alone with women of dubious reputation. For example, in the story of the woman caught in adultery, brought before Jesus, we are told that when everyone else had gone away, Jesus was left alone with her. No attempt by Jesus to leave in case someone said something – he stayed with her. And here, this morning in our gospel reading, we have a story about Jesus being alone with a woman, and like the woman caught in adultery a woman with a bad reputation. This particular reading from John is, in fact, other than those long readings of the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus that we have in Holy Week, the longest gospel reading of the entire three year cycle of readings. But don’t panic – that doesn’t mean that you’re going to get the longest sermon for three years to go with it!
Let’s being with a bit of background. It’s noon, we are told. Jesus is travelling from Judea to Galilee. Jews on the whole hated Samaritans. They would have nothing to do with them. But Samaria lay between Judea and Galilee. You could, if travelling from one to the other, go around Samaria, but that added several days to the journey. So the quick route was through Samaria, while you did your best to avoid coming into contact with the inhabitants. And Jesus, we are told, has sat down by a well at Sychar, and the disciples have gone off to buy some food. And while he is sitting alone a woman approaches, come to draw water.
This immediately tells us something about the woman, especially in the light of what Jesus says to her after they begin to talk. This woman is an outcast. Drawing water was women’s work, but the women would go to the well together at dawn or dusk, when it was cool. No-one in their right mind would go at noon, when it was hot. To paraphrase Noel Coward, mad dogs and Englishman and Samaritan women shunned by their neighbours go out in the midday sun. This was clearly a women who was not mixing with the rest of the women – so she comes to the well alone.
And at the well, she falls into conversation with Jesus. Or rather, Jesus leads her into conversation, for he talks first. Which must have come as a shock to her. We are dealing with a very conservative culture. Men didn’t engage women in conversation in this way. People, after all, might talk. And as for a Jew talking with a Samaritan – unheard of!
Now, this particular reading from John presents us with a question. How is it, if Jesus has a conversation alone with the woman, that we know so much about it? There’s no indication that he said anything to the disciples when they return from buying food. In fact, we’re told they didn’t ask him about it. How did the gospel writer know what was said?
Well, this woman has a story beyond what we read in John’s gospel. We are told how she went off to find others to tell them about Jesus, outcast though she was, and asking the question, “Can he be the Messiah?” We believe that she turned her back on her sinful life and became a convert to the Christian faith. She became a significant figure in what we know as the Johannine community – the church community for which this gospel was written – which is why the writer could include such a detailed account of the conversation she had with Jesus. The tradition is that at her baptism she took the name Photini which is Greek for ‘the enlighted one,’ that she eventually left her home in Sychar and travelled to Carthage in northern Africa to spread the good news there, and that she was martyred by the emperor Nero. Photini, the Samaritan Woman, is honoured in the Eastern Church on February 26th as a martyr and, like Mary Magdalen, as equal to the apostles.
So what does God have to say to us this morning, though this reading? Well, it reminds us just how intimate, how deep, a relationship, Jesus promises to have with us, if we accept his friendship.
And this morning I’m going to highlight briefly three aspects of the relationship that we can have with Jesus that contrast to any other relationship or friendship that we might have. And to help us remember them, I’m linking them to three words connected with our reading that begin with the letter ‘W’.
Firstly – W is for Woman. Jesus sits at a well and when the woman arrives he talks to her. He puts aside the social norms of the time. Jews wouldn’t talk to Samaritans but Jesus talks to her all the same. Her own neighbours won’t talk to her but Jesus will. Jesus wants to form a relationship with this woman when others don’t want to. So, the first thing about our relationship with Jesus. It doesn’t matter who we are, how popular we are or how lonely we are, or where we come from. Jesus befriends us in a way that others will not.
Secondly – W is for Way of Life. Jesus knows, even though no-one has told him, what kind of life this woman is leading. He knows that she has been married five times. He knows that she is now living with a man to whom she is not married – a scandal at that time. And still he wants to befriend her. And he doesn’t condemn her. So, the second thing about our relationship with Jesus. Jesus knows exactly what we are like. He knows our way of life. He knows what is good about us, and he knows what is bad. He knows what we would prefer to hide. Jesus knows us as others do not.
Thirdly – W is for Water. Jesus promises to the woman the water of life. No matter what her past has been. He promises to show her a new way of life, and to give her what she needs to sustain her in it. Unlike the water from the well which only quenches thirst for a while, the water of life offered by Jesus will satisfy us, sustain us, into eternity. So, the third thing about our relationship with Jesus. Jesus sustains and refreshes us as others cannot.
Jesus, through his meeting with this woman, changes her life in a way that no-one else ever could. And he offers the same to each and everyone of us.
To recap –
W – for Woman. As Jesus befriended the friendless woman so Jesus will befriend us in a way that others will not.
W – for Way of Life. As Jesus knew the intimate details of the woman’s life so Jesus knows us as others do not.
W – for Water. As Jesus offered the woman the water of life to become a spring gushing up into eternal life so Jesus sustains and refreshes us as others cannot.
The woman became, at her baptism, Photini, the enlightened one. May Jesus fill us, like Photini, with his light.
Let us pray
You offered the woman at the well the gift of the water of life.
May we, like her, receive your gift of that water,
and know the refreshment in our lives that only you can give.