You may have noticed that I didn’t post a sermon last week. That’s because I didn’t preach. However, the priest I live with did and she has now sent me her sermon so that I can post it for you.
Perhaps you were surprised this morning when you heard the gospel reading – surprised at its length. Apart from Holy Week when we read the passion gospels, it is the longest gospel you will get in the year. Well you may have been surprised at its length, but were you surprised at its content? This is a gospel story full of surprises. Perhaps for us as 21st Century Christians we miss some of those surprises.
We need to hear it with the ears of first century Christians – especially the Jewish believers in Jesus for whom John wrote his gospel.
The first surprise is that the conversation between Jesus and the women at the well happens at all. The barriers to it are just so great. Jesus is a Jew and the woman is a Samaritan. Between Samaritan and Jew there is a wall of separation no less than what in our time separates the Israeli from the Palestinian. The Jews and Samaritans are related peoples. Both are Hebrews. The Samaritans are from the old northern kingdom of Israel, while the Jews are from the old southern kingdom of Judah. The Samaritans inter-married with non-Jewish peoples, and so lost their ethnic purity, while the Jews maintained theirs. Each group ended up with their own temple, the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim, the Jews on Mount Zion. And so it is a strange that Jesus chooses to travel through Samaritan territory in the first place. That he strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan is even stranger.
There’s something else that makes this conversation beside the well a surprise. Back in that time and in that place men and women just did not talk to one another in public. It was not considered proper. Especially is this so when the man is, like Jesus, a rabbi, a teacher, someone looked up to as an example of propriety. And that is why the Gospel tells us that when the disciples return, they are astonished that Jesus is speaking with a woman.
Still more must be said about this surprising encounter. This Samaritan woman is also someone rejected by her own people. How do we know this? Because she comes to the well to draw water at noon, and she comes alone. Noon is the hottest time of the day. As the song says “only mad dogs and English men go out in the midday sun.” Most of us know from our holidays in hot countries that the hardest work is done in the morning and evening – drawing water and hauling it home is very hard work indeed. This is also work that women do in company with each other. In countries where people still have to go to the well each day, we know they go together – it is a social time, a chance to chat and catch up. But this woman goes to the well at a time when she knows she will be alone. She must see herself as a misfit. Perhaps she avoids others in order not to get hurt again by cruel words or by no words at all.
So for many reasons it is a surprise that this conversation ever happens at all. But the conversation itself contains even more surprises. It’s a surprise that Jesus promises living water. Living water is water that flows, that runs, that sparkles. Such water is a welcome change from water in wells or cisterns that may be flat or even stagnant. At first the woman presumes that Jesus is talking about some hidden stream he knows that is far better than this well. She wants the equivalent of a tap in her kitchen, so she won’t have to haul buckets any more. But what Jesus promises is a source of life in her heart, so that she can truly live. She is confused about what he offers, yet she understands it is something she needs, and needs desperately. It’s again a surprise when Jesus knows the details of this stranger’s life. Those details remain a bit unclear to us, but it’s apparent that she’s had a painful and unhappy time. She’s had five husbands. Did the marriages end through death or divorce? Why is her current husband not really her husband? We don’t have answers to these questions, and perhaps we do not need to have them. What we recognize is that this woman feels alone and exiles herself from her neighbours.
The woman is surprised that Jesus knows the truth about her. She is even more surprised that, knowing the truth, he accepts her. For her, this is an encounter with the holy. This man must be a prophet. And so we come to another surprise. The woman asks Jesus to resolve the long-standing and divisive question of who is right: Jews or Samaritans? Which is the correct temple: Gerizim or Jerusalem? The surprise comes when Jesus raises the issue to a new level. True worship will no longer be dependent on location, but will be a matter of spirit and of truth. The conversation ends with the greatest surprise. The woman confesses her faith in the messiah who is to come, and Jesus says “I am he, the one who is speaking to you”. Jesus reveals his identity not to his disciples, not to his own people, not to their religious leaders, but to this person who is an outcast three times over: a Samaritan, a woman, and an exile among her own people. Jesus entrusts this outcast with his deepest secret, the truth of who he is.
The conversation ends because the disciples come back from their trip to buy food, but the surprises do not end. The woman leaves her water jar there at the well, and runs back into the city. She has an urgent mission. There in Sychar, she tells people to come and see Jesus. “Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done! Can he be the messiah?”
It’s a surprise that someone like this bears witness. After all, she is a reject among her people, a woman with no social standing. Her experience with Jesus is very brief, she has no training, she has not been given a commission. It’s a surprise that people heed her. Yet they do, for there must be something attractive, compelling, authentic about her witness. Here then we have yet another surprise in a surprising story. This unlikely prospect becomes a witness to Jesus, and an effective one at that. No wonder in the Eastern Christian tradition she is known, like Mary Magdalene as “equal to the apostles” and although nameless in the gospel of John, she has in the orthodox tradition the name of Photina, and her icon is on our altar today. She may be a woman of questionable character. She may be someone whose understanding of Jesus is far from complete. Yet she bears witness based on her personal experience. She speaks of what she knows. Not only does she point her own people to Jesus, but she shows us how we can witness to Jesus too.
What unlikely prospects are we as witnesses. Ask the average Christian to go and talk about Jesus to someone and they run a mile – too embarrassed, don’t know enough – we see ourselves as unlikely prospects as witnesses. But surely we can not be more unlikely than the women by the well. If Jesus has spoken to us in some way, if Jesus has accepted us, if Jesus has led us to see ourselves differently, then we have something to tell, and we can bear witness to others just as this woman did. We don’t need to have our life all sorted. We don’t need to know all there is to know about the Bible and theology. What we can do is tell others our experience, and leave the results to God. We can help people to look, not at us, but over our shoulder at Jesus who stands close behind us. Research shows that 67% of people come to church because of someone they know who told them about their experience of Jesus, of their church, and what it had done for them. And people who first come because of us, will soon forget about our witness. It won’t be us they think about but along with those people from Sychar, they will say “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 Saviour of the world.”
God surprises us in many ways, but none is more surprising than our opportunity to witness to Christ based on our own experience. We need no more than who we are now with our experience of the Lord. Let us go out and surprise ourselves with the witness we can give to our Lord and Saviour.