The Samaritan Woman

Acts 11:19-30; John 4:5-42

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Glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Just now, at the Entrance with the Gospel, we sang hymns for the Midfeast: the halfway point between Christ’s Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

At Midfeast, give my thirsty soul to drink of the waters of piety; for thou, O Savior, didst cry out to all: “Whoever is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.” O Well-spring of life, Christ our God, glory to thee!

Those hymns make sense if you know that this Wednesday we commemorated Christ standing in the temple at Jerusalem at the middle of the Feast of Tabernacles, when water from the Sheep’s Pool at Siloam was poured out on the altar in the temple. And in the middle of this feast, Christ begins preaching:

“If anyone is thirsty, let them come to me and drink! Whoever believes in me, as scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified (John 7:37-39).

“Whoever believes in me, as scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”  …As scripture has said? Where is that? The Lord is not quoting a text out of the Bible. He is referring to a constant theme in the scriptures that the mercy of God flows like a river of living water to bless his people.

Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost… Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live (Isaiah 55:1-3).

For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants (Isaiah 44:3).

In that day the mountains will drip new wine, and the hills will flow with milk; and all the brooks of Judah shall be flooded with water; a fountain will flow out of the house of the Lord and will water the valley (Joel 3:18).

But there’s a new thing in Christ’s preaching: Not only will the Lord send grace and mercy like the spring rains on his people — Now he intends to make his people sources of light and grace and mercy in the world: Rivers of the pure water of life are meant to flow from us, as we become partakers in his divine nature.

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This morning, the Lord is saying the same thing to the Samaritan woman, who has not yet become the famous evangelist saint who is soon going to be named Photini in baptism.

Jesus meets her at Jacob’s Well at midday. He and his disciples have been walking all morning; now it’s the sixth hour, twelve noon, time to stop and sit and have a drink of water.

There’s a tradition of storytelling in Hebrew, where romantic stories begin when a man meets a woman at a well.

In Genesis 24, Abraham sends his servant back to his home town to find a wife for his son Isaac. Here comes Rebekah to draw water; the servant asks her to draw water for him and his camel. Come to find out, she is in fact Isaac’s second cousin, and a marriageable virgin. So the deal is concluded, and she comes back to be Isaac’s bride.

In Genesis 29, Jacob meets Rachel at a well, he draws water and waters her sheep, and he promptly falls in love with her, and so on. There’s a familiar kind of rhythm to a story that begins with a man meeting a woman at a well.

In the Philippines, we didn’t bring home a lot of water from the well; we’d bring our tubs of dishes and laundry over to the well-pump and have an hour or two of relaxing social chat while we did the washing up. The neighbor ladies, and one weird foreign priest.

All that would happen just after breakfast, before the day could heat up. In hot climates people take a break during the heat of the day. It’s siesta time (Trivia: Siesta comes from the Spanish name of the prayer service we call the Sixth Hour, at twelve noon.)

But the Samaritan woman is at the well – not in the cool of the morning, but in the heat of noon, all by herself. She’s not together with the wives and maidens who draw their water in the morning, and that’s odd, until we get to know her a bit.

The Lord asks her for a drink, and then says he’s got something better to drink than well-water: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

She answers, sure, I’ll take some of that. “Give me this water so that I will not get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Now he’s ready to have a serious conversation with her. So he says, “Go call your husband and come back.”

“I haven’t got a husband.”

She’s telling the truth. “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”

Now we need to hit pause.

Here in 21st-century America, divorce and remarriage are painful but not uncommon. I think all 50 states have no-fault divorce laws, where anyone who needs to end their marriage can do it legally, and anyone who later wants to remarry is free to go ahead. That hasn’t always been the case in America, and it was definitely not the case at the time of Christ.

A Jewish man could divorce his wife for any reason. Maybe she didn’t give him sons, maybe he just wants a new wife, he didn’t need to give a reason. Under the law of Moses he had to give her a divorce in writing so she kept at least that much honor, and back she went back to her father’s house.

How often did a man ever marry a divorced woman in first-century Palestine? Negotiate a marriage contract with a man for his daughter who is past her teen years? Ruth was a widow when she became the wife of Boaz and an ancestor of Christ. But I don’t think there’s a single example in scripture of a man seeking to marry a divorced woman. This is in Palestine, in a culture motivated by honor and shame, and in that culture a man’s honor called for a virgin bride. For a man to marry a woman who had been divorced by her husband would make him share in her shame.

Of course, the idea that a marriage needs a wedding is a Christian development. When Rebekah arrived at Isaac’s home, he took her to his tent and they were now man and wife. The act consummates a marriage; that’s why St Paul says that a man who joins himself to a harlot becomes one flesh with her. The act unites a man and woman. A wedding is where the Church and society bless a couple’s legal union with sacramental grace and social recognition – in faith that over a lifetime their union will mature into a marriage.

Cultures that have a legal and religious concept of marriage still usually have the idea of a common-law marriage; if you live together you’re pretty much married. But they especially honor a legally married woman as a wife. That’s a social position not every woman can claim. 

The woman at the well was probably once a bride, with a wedding feast, the blessing of her family and friends, and a place of pride as the wife of her husband. She’d have been a teenager, and he was old enough to demonstrate he could support her and a family, so maybe as much as twice her age. We can’t know how her marriage ended, but the Samaritans lived under the law of Moses, so it’s pretty certain it was her husband who had the power to end it and send her back to her father.

She may never have been sought out again as an eligible potential bride, but over the years she has found comfort with a few different men she called her husband.

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I am troubled by the trend in Christianity, especially in the west, to make sexual sin the worst thing there is, and to look in today’s Gospel text for the drama of the promiscuous, fallen woman. We hear that she was a dissatisfied soul, trying one relationship after another but nothing will truly satisfy until she meets the Lord, the One she’s really been searching for. That makes for a dramatic sermon, and it lets us put her in a box and maybe feel a little superior.

But I don’t think this woman fits that mold. In that place and time, a woman without a husband, if she has no other family, has no way to live. Over the years since her wedded husband sent her away, she has found shelter for a time with one man or another. She’s raising her sons and has tried to make a life. And nowhere in this conversation does the Lord reproach her.

“You’ve had five husbands” is not an accusation, it’s a compassionate recognition of her struggle.

I read this account many times and thought I was reading about the conversion of a person who married too casually. I didn’t realize I was reading about an abused person’s journey back to faith and wholeness.

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Christ told his disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant” (Matthew 20:25-26). Jesus turns the idea of authority on its head. The King of the universe comes to be a servant, not to serve; submits even to the injustice of the cross, and says his eyes are on the ones who willingly join him at the bottom of the hierarchy. The last will be first and the meek shall inherit the earth, but those who hunger for power and respect get nothing: “Depart from Me, I never knew you” (Matthew 20:16; Psalm 36:11lxx; Matthew 7:21-23).

*Genesis 3:16 lxx: Πρὸς τὸν ἄνδρα σου ἡ ἀποστροφή σου καὶ αὐτός σου κυριεύσει – literally “To your man [will be] your turning-back, and he will dominate you.”

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them.” That verb, translated “They lord it over people” is not new. It shows up in Genesis 3:16, where God warns the woman that because of sin, the man will “lord it” over her – the same word in Greek – and “your recourse will be to him,” that is, you will keep turning back to him*.

Let’s be clear: This is not God’s plan for humanity. Relationships characterized by dominance and control are fruit of the damage sin does to us. The fear and shame that keep us in situations of control and abuse, and keep us returning to them, is a symptom of living in a world distorted by sin. Our hearts and relationships have grown in the image of a broken world.

Our faith doesn’t teach that anyone is born guilty – but we all inherit a reality, a culture, and a heart formed under the distorting shadow of sin. It takes grace and struggle to come out of that disfigurement and learn to live in hope.

How often does religion in our culture tell women that men are meant to be in charge of them? “It shall not be so among you… Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.”

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In today’s chapter Saint John makes sure we know how many boundaries Jesus is trespassing when he talks to this woman. First of all, she’s a woman! To this day, in a marketplace in Pakistan or Syria, a man doesn’t just casually talk to a woman he’s not related to. In cultures based on honor and shame, he is violating the honor of her husband or father.

And she’s not just any woman – this is in Samaria, so she’s a foreigner, and as St John reminds us, Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. (John 4:9).

Worse than a foreigner, she’s a heretic! She worships God wrong. The Samaritans read the law of Moses, but on their own terms, and they worshiped in their own temple, not at Mount Zion in Jerusalem. And worst of all, we learn that she is a woman whose culture considers her shameful and devalued.

And the thing is, Saint John is not telling a story a story about cross-cultural ministry, or the Lord heroically righting an injustice. Jesus just meets this person, looks her in the eye, sees her, and engages her as a human being.

Jesus has not only come to save sinners and forgive trespasses, but to save people who have suffered sins and trespasses at the hands of others. He saves both sinners and victims of sin by encountering them as persons.

I am cordially allergic to topics like, “How to talk to an atheist about Christ” or “How to answer a heretic.” If you’re the kind of person who has a head for debates, good for you, but that’s not what Christ is doing here, is it. In this conversation there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female (Galatians 3:28). The Father seeks people who’ll seek him, not in Jerusalem or Samaria, not in religious identifications or labels, but in spirit and in truth. That is, in love and in the reality of action. We don’t need a technique or a memorized argument in order to meet someone with eye contact and an honest welcome, whether they’re members of our tribe or not.

If someone of a different faith or politics or sexual identity can sense that you see them, not as a label or an audience in need of a message, but as someone with a name and a place before God, then in time you and I might earn the right to share some of our life in Christ in that space that develops between us.

Last night I was reading in Genesis, where Abraham and Sarah had no child for so long that he took her servant Hagar, and had a child with her. Then (not one of Abraham and Sarah’s prouder moments) Sarah became envious and threw Hagar out. But the Lord cared for Hagar and led her to a wellspring in the desert. He sent her back to Sarah and promised to bless Hagar and her son. Hagar named that well Beer Lahai Roi. The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me (Genesis 16).

The Samaritan woman at the well met the same God that Hagar had met at the well. The Samaritan woman was not treated like a foreigner, a heretic, a woman, a category. The Lord looked her in the eye and saw her.

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh wrote:

We must remember that every person we meet during our lives, even by accident, even on the subway, on the bus, on the street, to whom we look with sympathy, seriously, with purity, without even saying a word, can in an instant receive hope and strength to live. There are people who go through the years, unrecognized by anyone, go through the years as if they do not exist to anyone. And suddenly they were in front of a man they did not know, who looked at them with a depth for whom this person, rejected, forgotten, non-existent, exists.

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One last point. The woman at the well has suffered. How has that experience prepared her to meet Christ?

For a start, we know that the Lord is close to the brokenhearted, and saves those bruised in spirit. The Lord opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. A heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise (Psalm 33:18 lxx; James 4:6; Psalm 50:17 lxx).

If her troubles have humbled her then she is ready to encounter grace.

In our culture, we have a saying: “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” You know, that is not a law of nature. Being wronged, hurt, sinned against, does not automatically make you stronger. That’s how some people choose to package the pain in their past. And if what you’ve suffered has made you stronger, I’m glad.

But “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” is a quote from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and it’s born out of his contempt for weakness and his worship of power, strength, and will. It was Nietzsche’s way of saying the people and circumstances that have bowed my neck and forced me to accept have been of no value unless they made me harder, made my will more tenacious, ensured my ego will never be hindered or defeated again.

But there’s another choice we can make. From the saints we might learn that whatever does not kill me makes me larger. By that I mean that every weakness and suffering that comes to me has the potential to open my heart to include all who suffer.

Some monks have taught us that, along with the prayer for ourselves, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” we have the possibility to include others in our prayer. For those who are sick, suffering, or alone, we can bring them to the Lord in prayer and say, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us.” When we stand before the Lord, there is no “them.” We stand side by side with all the saints, who add their Amen to our prayer. And we stand together with all the people we are praying for: Have mercy on us. That’s “the communion of saints.”

It’s by no means a certainty that suffering will make us kind, or wise, or holy. But it can – if suffering meets a heart that is prepared with the gospel of peace (Ephesians 6:15), whose ego is humbled, and who has begun to taste of faith, hope, and love (1 Corinthians 13:13; Psalm 32:8lxx).

Suffering is not just. In next week’s Gospel we’ll meet the blind man and the disciples will ask, “Whose fault is it that this man is blind? Is he suffering for his own sins, or his parents’? And the Lord will answer in effect, “What!? No! That’s not how any of this works!” Augustine of Canterbury said, “God has one Son without sin. But he hasn’t got any children without suffering.” Suffering happens in a broken world. You don’t earn or deserve the pain that comes to you. It is not just.

But we worship a God who freely accepted the injustice of suffering and calls us to the way of the cross (Matthew 16:24-26). And that means that, instead of demanding, we have the option of letting suffering open in us the gates of mercy, to transform us and let rivers of living water flow from us.

The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in drought, and strengthen your bones; you will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail (Isaiah 58:11).

At Midfeast in the temple, the Lord said,

If anyone is thirsty, let them come to me and drink! Whoever believes in me, as scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water. (John 7:37-39).

And at the end of all things,

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life (Revelation 22:17).

To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.