In this sermon, Rev Elizabeth Raine and Rev Dr John Squire engage in a dialogue sermon bringing new perspective on John 4:1-15.
A Samaritan Christian woman, Erebekka, and a Jewish Christian man, Baruch, have accidentally met at a well just outside of Jerusalem. They are travelling to Jerusalem as they have heard strange stories of Jeshua’ death and resurrection, and are seeking fellow believers. She is with her family, but they are encamped a little way off. He is travelling alone.
B: Ahem. Good day. Shalom to you. I see you have a bucket with you.
E: She ignores him.
B: Look, I know it isn’t etiquette for me to speak with you, after all you are a women and alone, but desperation makes me ask you for a loan of your bucket. I have no means myself of getting to the water and am desperately thirsty. Please help me.
E: She quotes:
“From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’” The book of Exodus.
Seems some things do not change. Why are you so unprepared for your journey, Sir? Why do you venture forth into unknown country without the provision of water? Is this the Jewish way? Perhaps you expected a miracle, such as the one that happened to our ancestor Jacob at the famous well in Samaria. Perhaps you expect the water to gush to the top, as it did for him?
B: Ah, I see you must be a Samaritan.
E: Yes, I am. And I have not forgotten how the Samaritans were treated by the Jews long ago. Your rulers, Ezra and Nehemiah, blamed the men of Israel who had married foreign women for their defeat by Babylon, and they demanded that all such men immediately divorce their wives. Rather than abandon their wives to be humiliated and exiled, our men of Samaria did the honourable thing and refused. For their pains, they got this kind of treatment, reported as the words of King Nehemiah:
I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair ( Nehemiah 13:25-30).
B: Well, I can understand how they felt!! Now, I don’t deny that hostility between Samaritans and Jews is rife. But you Samaritans are also happy to aggravate us Jews in a number of ways – what about when you scattered bones of dead people in the Temple precincts and so defiled the Temple? To say nothing of your long and wholesale rejection of Jerusalem and our priests. You seem to thrive on this conflict!
E: You seem to forget that I am the one with the bucket, and you are the one with the thirst. Are you going to quarrel with me like the people of old did with Moses in the hope this will produce water for you?
B: (backing down) You are right. I apologise. I will not quarrel with you. It is true I have come unprepared – as a matter of fact, I was rather disturbed and excited and not thinking straight when I left home. So please accept my apology. Having said that, I want to dispute your biblical interpretation. Surely the passage you are referring to in Exodus is about lack of faith, not lack of preparedness. He quotes: “Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?’”
E: I confess I have often wondered about this passage. It stresses that the “people thirsted there for water”. They were hustled out of Egypt by God; told there was no time for preparations as such. They were thirsty. THIRSTY. What are you doing now because you are thirsty in a dry land? You are begging for water. What would you have done back then if you needed to get water for your children to survive? Maybe the people were right to quarrel with Moses.
B: Hmmmmm, I see your point. Of course we all need water. And the Lord did supply the water the people asked for – though one must wonder – if they had not asked, would the water have appeared? Which brings me back to my original request of you. Please may I use your bucket?
E: I do not even know your name. Why should I do this for you, a Jew? You must realise that if I served you in this way, I would surely leave myself open for criticism and scorn.
B: I apologise. My name is Baruch. I am travelling to Jerusalem to meet up with some, um, friends. Yes, friends. Fellow travellers on the way, so to speak. I have had some strange news from them.
E: You speak of the way. Do I understand you are perhaps referring to the one who was promised?
B: (hesitantly) Yes, I speak of Jeshua.
E: Ah, then this is all right. My name is Erebekka, I am from Samaria, but we are followers of Jeshua. I am from a village that has become famous for its faith. And such a coincidence – here we meet at a well in the same fashion that one of our women met Jeshua at a well.
B: (reservedly) I have heard of this woman. And her, ah, questionable morals. A serial monogamist, I have heard. Living with someone not her husband, sneaking to the well at noon, such an odd time…you can see the problems, surely?
E: If Jeshua was happy to speak to her, then what is your problem? Who says she was morally deficient? Just put yourself in the place of us women. We live in a world where we have little, if any, voice about what happens in our lives or our bodies. What if her series of husbands came as a result of the death of her first husband, a family passing her around to find someone who would take her on and care for her? In other words, obeying the Levirate laws? And meetings at wells are common in our scriptures. Jacob meets Rebekah at the well of Haran, and Moses and Zipporah meet at a well in Midian.
B: My point exactly. I’ve heard all the old stories about Jacob’s well – everyone goes there to find someone to marry, right? So what is your woman really doing there? Was she planning on finding a man? Imagine how the villagers must have reacted to that one when she returned – “I’ve been at that well and met a MAN”. She was clearly some sort of outcast.
E: I would remind you that she was at the well first, and it was Jeshua who approached her. There could be many reasons why she was at the well in the heat of the day and not the normal times. Maybe it had nothing to do with being an outcast, but had everything to do with the fact she needed water. Remember what it is like to be thirsty? Maybe her child was sick. Maybe the goat knocked over the last bit of water she had. If Jeshua didn’t judge, why should you?
Have you ever thought – perhaps she was at the well during the most miserable part of the day because she was avoiding the judgement of people like you. Maybe she was thirsting for something plain water could not quench. And Jeshua knew this – and her. He did not judge her, he accepted her and entered into conversation. He did not preach at her; he invited a response from her.
B: I am thinking that your claim, that the law of Levirate marriage was the reason why the woman had five husbands, is a little extreme. Imagine being passed through five brothers like that! I believe she may have been divorced five times. Adultery is a logical reason to divorce the woman.
E: If adultery was the problem then I doubt four more men would have married her. The likelihood of no one knowing about the adultery in a small village like ours is really rather slim.
If she was divorced, I expect it is because she is barren. Her current non-husband is probably her protector. Women do not fare well in our society without some kind of male presence in their lives. There is absolutely nothing that is said about her that suggests she is a bad woman, other than she is living with a man who is not her husband. It might be her brother. Or a brother-in-law who has taken her in. There is nothing anywhere in the story as it has been told to me to suggest she was an adulterer or a prostitute or of dubious moral qualities – and yet this is the reputation you would give her.
B: That she was not married to the man she lived with at the present, is quite enough to raise doubts about her. No doubt this is why Jeshua mentioned this piece of information.
E: Maybe this woman was there looking for something else, as well as water. Maybe she went to this well seeking for the wisdom of Moses, of our ancestor Jacob, of all the others who had found comfort at the well. She was looking for something more than water to fill her. And Jeshua knew this.
B: I grant you that this meeting between Jeshua and the woman of Samaria is unusual. The request he makes is somewhat shocking, as he is a lone male addressing a woman in public. Men normally only speak to women in public like that if they were related by blood. No wonder she was suspicious, just like you were earlier. Now tell me – I have heard that Jeshua addressed her in the same terms he used to refer to his mother (John 2:4). This is astonishing! He meets a woman who is probably an outsider, and he receives her as an insider, an intimate who has no cause for shame. I am also told he raised her past, and her present situation, but that he did not shame her. Is this true?
E: I have already pointed out to you perhaps she actually had nothing to be ashamed about. You men are so quick to judge.
Whatever her situation (and I do not concede she had anything to be ashamed of), Jeshua received our Samaritan woman in such a way that she was profoundly transformed. After talking to Jeshua, she reaches out and asks for that living water from him. By the end of the conversation, she leaves her water jar behind and rushes to the village, proclaiming what she has heard. And we know that many believed in Jeshua because of her bold testimony. That doesn’t suggest an outcast, does it? It suggests a woman brimming over with spirit!
B: Well, it is clear she was affected by Jeshua. Very affected. So much that she left behind her precious water jar and the water – water that she must have needed.
E: You forget what Jeshua offered her. Living water. Living spirit. True life. Perhaps she was empty, and then filled to overflowing in her encounter with Jeshua. She didn’t need the jar any more because she became the vessel for the good news and it spilled out to everyone around her. Perhaps if I changed profoundly because I had my deepest thirst quenched, I might have a story to share too. Imagine, then, how really thirsty for water and for life this woman must have been when she went to the well.
B: (enthusiastically, he has grasped what E is on about) I see what you are saying! What transformed this woman could transform our world, and our two peoples. Think of it. The woman at the well was despised by Judeans, whose ancestors had been humiliated by Babylonians. I see now that from generation to generation, humiliation, resentment, and violence have been passed down by people keeping score so that they could seek to get even. Jeshua, with his acceptance and his living water, has set aside all score-keeping, and by treating her as if all were forgiven, he makes forgiveness possible for everyone – even for self-righteous people like us.
E: Speak for yourself, Baruch. But it is Jeshua’s unconventional attitude and behaviour that appeals to me. When you are dealing with Jeshua, we should expect the unexpected. And I like the relationship with God that the story implies. Even though Jeshua offers the woman living water, he asks her first for a drink from the well. He asks her to give him something, even though he offers something much more valuable to her. It is all about give and take. I think God wants that kind of relationship from us humans.
B: Imagine – a whole town full of people who could do that – reach out to each other. Who could, in spite of a centuries-old hatred between these two peoples, accept that they are all equally loved by God. This is indeed a miracle. What is to stop it happening now?
And I can see that this story symbolizes so much. When we are thirsty, the natural thing to do is to ask for a drink. This simple human act of asking for a drink of water should not be a problem. Why is it that we all just cannot talk to one another and help one another? Why is it that race should determine how we treat each other?
E: Perhaps if we all allowed ourselves to be filled with the living water, we might all live life how God intended. Like the Samaritan woman, we all need to acknowledge that we come empty before God. We too can become the vessel for the good news, and spill it out to everyone around us. A living world needs living water. Where would we be without water? Where would we be without living water?
Now, about that drink for you……
As we return in our imagination to the twenty-first century, we are left with a powerful message of hope and transformation from this encounter.
The woman at the well shows us that faith is about dialogue, about acceptance, about asking questions, and about growth. She becomes different as a result of her encounter – she grows with new understanding. This then leads to change in others. She tells them, and they in turn learn, and grow. We learn from the Samaritan woman that when we encounter Jesus, when we accept the living water, not only are we changed, but that revelation has the capacity to change others as well.
Written by Rev Elizabeth Raine
Elizabeth is minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, beginning her ministry here in December 2018.
Over the years, she has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister.More from Rev Elizabeth Raine