This week’s gospel reading was the story from John’s Gospel of how Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well.
You might think that when it comes to leading a blameless life Jesus was streets ahead of anyone else. You might think that when it comes to preaching the gospel we have a lot to learn from Jesus.
Let me just introduce you to someone who has the edge on Jesus. Billy Graham, the famous Southern Baptist evangelist from the United States, has led a remarkable life. It is estimated that he has preached the gospel to more people than anyone else in the history of Christianity – if you include his crusades, as well as his television and radio audiences, about 2.2 billion people – far more than Jesus ever managed. It’s a truly amazing achievement and he has changed so many people’s lives.
He has also, apparently, led a far more blameless life than Jesus did when it comes to women. What makes me say that? Well, I remember reading once that Billy Graham has said that in all his adult life he has never been alone with a woman who wasn’t his mother or his wife. He has said that a Christian should be above reproach and 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 if you followed this approach 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 do you tell the woman to leave? Can you go back in if someone else arrives? If you’re alone in a room and a woman comes to the door do you refuse her entry, or let her in and promptly walk out yourself. What if you’re in a room with two women? Does that make it alright? There could be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, dashing in and out of rooms! The mind boggles! I had my ministerial development review with the archdeacon a couple of weeks ago – it would have been a bit awkward if she and I had had to cope with another person in the room! I wonder what her reaction would have been if I said I’d brought a chaperone!
Well, Jesus lived in a far far more conservative society that we do today yet unlike Billy Graham Jesus had no such qualms about being alone with a woman to whom he was not related. 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. Jesus risked his reputation where women were concerned in order to that they might hear good news!
For example, in the story of the woman caught in adultery and 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 talked to 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 questionable reputation. Yet he didn’t care what people might say.
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 woman 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 who weren’t their mother or their wife in conversation in this way unless a marriage proposal was in the offing. It simply wasn’t done. 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, asking the question, “Can he be the Messiah?”
The tradition is that she turned her back on her sinful life and became a convert to the Christian faith. It is thought that she became a significant figure in what we know as the Johannine community – the church community for which this particular gospel was written – which is why the writer could include such a detailed account of the conversation she had with Jesus. The Bible text doesn’t, of course, tell us that, but it would make sense as to how the writer knew such detail. There is also an ancient tradition 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 with her two sons 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 this 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 every one of us.
To recap –
W – for Woman. As Jesus befriended the friendless woman so Jesus wants to befriend us in a way that others will not.
W – for Way of Life. As Jesus knew the intimate details of the woman’s way of 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.