Lent 3, March 15, John 4:5-42
The Gospel reading for today is often called "The Woman at the Well." For many years the sermon on this day would be about a sinful woman whose sex life is discovered, and about how many "husbands" she'd had, and the fact that she was not married to any of them.
And when this appears in the Lenten season, of course, the emphasis is on sin and repentance and moral purity--except that it's not the point of this reading.
This is not a story about morality, sexual or otherwise. It has nothing to do with adultery. It certainly doesn't say anything about the immoral behavior of the men she was with. (Have you noticed that nothing is ever said about the men's behavior?)
Women are seldom at the center of our scripture stories. We do them a disservice if we dismiss them too quickly as examples of immorality and little else. We miss what is most important when we take the easy way out, make the woman a villain, and call it quits.
They're not in there because of who they are, though the details set the stage for how remarkable Jesus' message is. They're in there because they did something important, something worth noting and remembering, and something that sets a good example of faith.
Women show up so infrequentlyin our scripture stories, that when they are there, it might be a signal to look closer, dig deeper, wait for the critical message that will be revealed.
First, Jewish men do not talk to a woman in ublic. Second, she is a Samaritan and the long-time enemy of the Jews. In her time, she was a nobody to a Jewish man.
It becomes even more unusual when she meets Jesus. There must be something in this story more important than how many men she had known. We have the longest conversation recorded in the New Testament between Jesus and this woman.
Consider the story. Jesus asks the woman for a drink of water. She expresses her astonishment that he would talk to her. He says to her that if she only knew who He was, she'd be asking him for a drink--a drink of living water.
She says, "Okay. May I have a drink of this water?" He says, "Go Call your husband!" Now, to this point, she's talking about plain old well water. And while that's the drink that Jesus asked from her, it is not the water he offers to her.
So, still with well water in mind, she engages the conversation and doesn't call anyone.
After the woman realizes Jesus is the Messiah, after she realizes what he's been talking about is "living water," she takes her new and tentative and shallow and not-yet-fully-formed faith and tells someone about it.
She goes back to the city, the scripture says, and talked to the people about her experience. "Many Samaritans from that city believed in Him because of the woman's testimony...And many more believed because of (Jesus) word." 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."
That's the highpoint of this story: they become believers! And it all got started when she believed-and when she told someone else of her belief.
Her understanding may have been incomplete; "He can't be the Messiah, can he?" But it was enough to hook people, to pique their curiosity, to invite them in. "Many Samaritans in that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony."
This woman, who is often remembered badly in church history for her sexual relationships, who would not have been considered a credible witness, was an early disciple.
This woman, whose witness and testimony were only as strong as: "He cannot be the messiah, can he?" brought many to faith.
Now think about it: How will history remember you? Will it be for your behavior? Or for your testimony?
This woman, the Samaritan woman at the well, is an example to us of discipleship. However strong or weak or confused or partial or new or unclear or even certain your faith: When was the last time you talked with someone about faith so that they might believe?
We sing at Christmas, "Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills, and everywhere!" And throughout the year, we sing hymns like this one from Charles Wesley: "Ye servants of God, your Master proclaim, and publish abroad his wonderful Name; the Name all-victorious of Jesus extol: his kingdom is glorious; he rules over all."
The encouragement to spread the Good news, to talk of faith and the wonders of God, permeates our scripture and rings out in our hymns. That's what this gospel story is about: not a woman at all, but about Jesus and the living water poured from his hand.
When you get asked for a drink of water, what will you offer from your own well? Well water or living water? Amen