The Woman at the Well

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Haitian kids drawing untreated well water
Third Sunday in Lent
March 27, 2011 John 4:5-42
Peder Stenslie

God has shown us what we need to know to live well… as he would have us live. We are to put our trust in God’s immeasurable love for all his creation. We are to build our hope and lives on his grace and mercy. No more than that is necessary… in fact, more than that, and we will get it wrong.


(Photo credit: Sunspring Innovative Water Technologies from Picassa, Haitian kids drawing untreated well water)

Today is the 3rd Sunday in Lent. During this season, we take time to ponder who we are. We consider our sinful nature. We take time to ponder who God is and how — in spite of our sinful nature — he comes to us in redeeming love.

With that Lenten landscape as our background, we read today about a remarkable encounter between Jesus and a woman of Samaria by a well. This is a wonderfully rich story in the Gospel of John… rich in language, imagery, and meaning.

I think that perhaps the most important theme of this passage… at least during the season of Lent… is how it clearly reminds us that God always comes and acts in ways that confound our expectations. In other words, he surprises us. And our initial reaction to this surprise usually isn’t positive. We fight against it because it goes against the way we think God should be.

It is our nature to misunderstand the way of God, and so we need, over and over again, to have our eyes opened to God’s surprising way and unexpected grace. This lesson does precisely that.

There is nobody in today’s Gospel lesson that isn’t confounded by Jesus. The Samaritan woman at the well can’t figure out why Jesus would even talk to her. She knows that Jews don’t talk to Samaritans. You see, the Jews thought the Samaritans were “fakers” who claimed to be descendants of Abraham… when they really weren’t. They didn’t belong to the family of blessing. They were pretentious outsiders… and so Jews didn’t want to have anything to do with them.

…But Jesus does. He has this wonderful, intimate conversation with the woman. He is eager to pour blessing into her life… and Jesus’ gift fills the woman with hope and excitement.

Jesus’ disciples arrive on the scene as Jesus is conversing with this woman… and they immediately judge that this is wrong. “What do you want? Why are you speaking with her?” they ask. They were upset because he was speaking with a woman. It was a prejudice of that time and culture… a holy man would/should have nothing to do with a woman, because women were regarded as unimportant, insignificant.

But Jesus does want to talk with her. And during the course of the woman’s conversation with him, she talks about Jewish and Samaritan beliefs regarding the right way to worship God. She wants to know which of the two have it right. Jesus dismisses them both.

Everybody is wrong about Jesus and about God in this passage. Everybody. And everybody is us. We are like the Samaritans, the Jews, the disciples, the woman. As Christians, it’s important that we know this fact about ourselves.

One day, early in my teaching career, I had a couple girls linger in my room after the final dismissal bell. They just wanted to engage in some small talk. It was a very light and friendly conversation… joking around, smiling, laughing. Then one of the girls came up with something she thought the class should do… “We should go swimming at the community center, Mr. Stenslie.” The other one agreed, “Yeah, Mr. Stenslie, you should take us to the community center some time.” Then the first girl piped up again, “Yeah… but just the cool kids.” “Yeah. Just the cool kids,” the 2nd girl agreed, smiling from ear to ear.

I was horrified at such cruelty spoken from such sweet, happy faces. They cheerfully, but ruthlessly dismissed whoever didn’t measure up to their standard of cool. The uncool, in their minds, were not worthy of having fun or of being seen with them. But even more than that, I was astounded that these girls could so merrily chirp this attitude to me, and assumed that I would be on the same page as them.

How could these girls not know how upset such a comment would make me? Have they not been with me all these months? Can’t they see how I am? How I try to manage my classroom? After all this time, how could they know me so poorly that they could expect me to respond positively to their “cool club” attitude?

But then I realized that those 2 girls were just being their human selves. They didn’t know me because they were so turned in on themselves. And we all tend to be that way. We get so full of ourselves that we believe we are the standard… what we are, what we feel, think, do… is the right thing, the cool thing. But the truth is… when we think this way, we don’t know anything.

Everybody in today’s Gospel lesson was wrong about Jesus. The Jews… who believed God had no time for Samaritans… and who believed that the right place to worship God was in their Jerusalem…. They were wrong. The Samaritans… who believed that the right place to worship God was on their beloved mountain…. They were wrong. The disciples… who believed Jesus should not be carrying on a private conversation with a woman…. They were wrong. Even the woman… who didn’t think Jesus should have any interest in talking with a Samaritan…. She was wrong.

They were all wrong about Jesus… and God. And during this Lenten season, we are reminded that we are the same as them. We are compelled by our own nature to get it wrong… to misunderstand God… to shape him in our own image, to think we know what he wants, how he thinks, how he works and who he loves.

Jesus shows them and tells them (in today’s lesson) that they are wrong. That God is and acts in a way that defies their expectations… that God is bigger than their ideas about God

In contrast to their way of thinking, Jesus says that “…the hour is coming and is now here when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”

What Jesus is talking about here is that the time is coming when God’s people will understand that there is no right way, no right people, no right belief that is necessary to qualify a person to be called a child of God and to receive God’s love and blessing. The key is God’s love and God’s will to draw all people to himself.

That means that our task is not to figure God out, his plans, his formulas for success, his qualifications for righteousness. We will always get that stuff wrong. Our task is to learn to live by faith, trusting in God’s love, not in our ability to figure it all out and to be right.

During this Lenten season, we see clearly that our attempts to get it right, fail. So we need to let go of that desire we have to tell God what he should be doing, who he should be talking to, how or where he should be talking to them, and so on. We need to let God be God and embrace being a human being.

God has shown us what we need to know to live well… as he would have us live. We are to put our trust in God’s immeasurable love for all his creation. We are to build our hope and lives on his grace and mercy. No more than that is necessary… in fact, more than that, and we will get it wrong.

Live humbly, honestly and openly… and, by the grace of God, we will grow in love and grace… not knowing more than others or being better than others, but like the woman at the well, being fed by living water that satisfies our deepest thirst.