Let's Call Her Grace

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, March 15, 2020

John 4:5-42

We’re going to do things a little differently this morning.  Instead of reading the gospel lesson then preaching a sermon, today will be something a little more like a Bible study/sermon.  For one thing, it’s a very long gospel reading, in fact it includes the single longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the gospels.  So it makes some sense to combine the sermon or teaching with the reading.

If you were a 1st century Jewish or Samaritan Christian, almost everything that happens in today’s gospel would be unexpected.  It’s a story full of surprises.  So I would invite you to try to hear it that way—as a 1st century Jewish or Samaritan Christian—and I’ll begin by filling in some background to help you do that.

The first thing that’s unexpected in today’s gospel is that Jesus breaks a social distancing barrier.  He decides to go through Samaria to get back to Galilee from Jerusalem.  True, it’s the shortest way, but Judean and Galilean Jews would almost always take the longer way along the Jordan to avoid going through Samaria because, quite simply, Jews hated Samaritans and Samaritans hated Jews.  I’ll explain why in a minute.  So, it’s unexpected that Jesus decides to go through Samaria. 

The second thing that’s unexpected comes when Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well.  If you’re a 1st century Jew or Samaritan, you heard stories all your life about men meeting women at a well.  Moses meets Zipporah at a well… and they end up getting married.  Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac and he finds Rebecca drawing water at a well.  Jacob meets Rachel at a well… and they get married, eventually.  So when you hear a story about a man meeting a woman at a well, your expectation is that it’s going to end with a wedding.  But this one, it turns out, is not—although marriage gets discussed in the dialogue– so if you’re a 1st century Jewish Christian hearing this story told for the first time, when Jesus says, “Go get your husband,” and the woman says, “I have no husband,” you might think it’s going to go that way.

The third thing that’s unexpected if you’re a 1st century Jewish or Samaritan Christian is that this conversation Jesus has at the well at Sychar, the single longest conversation Jesus has in all the gospels, a conversation that touches on history, worship, and theology, is not only with a woman, but with a Samaritan woman. 

My friend and colleague, Pastor Kirsten Moore pointed out to me the other day that social distancing is an important element in this story.  That’s a thing we’ve heard a lot about lately.  Social distancing.  Mostly we’re hearing about it in the context of the Corona virus and how it’s important to allow adequate space between yourself and any persons near you if you’re in a public place.  But there are all kinds of social distancing.  Racism is a kind of social distancing.  Homophobia is a kind of social distancing.  Hatred of or fear of or dislike of other people for superficial reasons like skin color or sexuality or religion or country of origin is a kind of social distancing.  It comes in lots of forms.

Remember, Jews don’t like Samaritans and Samaritans don’t like Jews and the reasons are buried in their history.  There’s a Grand Canyon of social distance between them.  And here’s why.

Under King David and King Solomon, Israel’s territory reached from deep into the Sinai Peninsula in the south all the way up to the Euphrates River in the north in what is now Syria.  It was Israel’s golden age.  When Solomon died, sometime around 930 BCE and his son, Rehoboam became king, leaders of the northern tribes led by Jeroboam broke away from the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin in brief civil war.  They resented centralized government in Jerusalem, but they also resented centralized worship and sacrifice only being allowed at the temple in Jerusalem.  The end result of that civil war was a divided nation and a divided religion:  The Kingdom of Judah in the south with its worship center at the temple in Jerusalem, and the Kingdom of Israel in the north with worship centers at Shiloh, Bethel, Shechem, and elsewhere.

In 720 BCE the Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians.  

  • The Assyrians resettled other conquered peoples in Israel’s territory and carted off the Israelites to resettle other conquered lands as slaves laborers
  • Later, when Assyria had fallen, Israelite returnees often intermarried with the people who had been resettled in their lands
  • That’s why Judeans called them “the people with 5 fathers”

Then in 600 BCE the Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians.

  • In 597 – the first Judean people were first deported to Babylon in captivity
  • When Babylon fell to Cyrus the Persian and Darius the Mede and the Judeans were allowed to return to Jerusalem, Ezra – ordered Judean men who had stayed behind in Judah to “put aside” their non-Jewish wives and children
  • When Ezra and Nehemiah began to rebuild the temple, the Samaritans opposed and interfered with its reconstruction
  • Judeans had Torah, prophets, writings and were expecting a Messiah who would be prophetic but primarily a military leader.
  • Samaritans – their own version of Torah – no prophets, no writings.  Expecting a Messiah who would be a prophet like Moses.
  • Each side believed that they had preserved the “true religion”
  • Each side blamed the other for not being there when the enemy came.

So all of this is in the background when Jesus sits down beside Jacob’s well after a long morning of walking on the dusty road.  

[Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.  6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

7  A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”  

8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)  

  • It’s interesting that “Give me a drink” is imperative

9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”  

11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?  12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”  

  • “living water”=running water  but she seems to grasp the hint that he may be talking about something more
  • This text, by the way, stands in contrast with Nicodemus from last week’s lesson
    • Nicodemus comes at night and did not want to be seen– this woman meets Jesus in the middle of the day and doesn’t care who sees her.  Nicodemus, a teacher, is not quick to grasp what Jesus is talking about.  This Samaritan woman catches on pretty quickly.

13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,  14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”  15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” 

  • “to draw water” – there is a double meaning here.  She’s thirsty for meaningful conversation.

16  Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”  17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’;  18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”  

  • Too often because of the “five husbands” comment this woman has been painted in commentaries and sermons as something of a loose woman with disreputable moral character, but there is nothing in the text to actually indicate that.  There are all kinds of reasons she isn’t necessarily a “loose woman”—
    • Her husbands could have simply died.  Life expectancy for men was about 35 yrs.  Life was hard and simple infections could be deadly.
      • If her husband died, she may have been required to enter into a Leverate marriage, the Levitical requirement that if her husband died she had to marry his brother and if he died she had to marry the next brother, and so on.  The Sadducees actually posed a hypothetical situation to Jesus in Mark 12 where a woman ended up married to 7 brothers because they kept dying. 
    • Divorce was easy for men.  All a man had to do was issue a certificate and say, “I divorce you.” So it’s not hard to imagine multiple marriages base on that alone.
    • The word translated as “husband” is andra – It can mean husband but its more basic meaning is simply “man” – she could be living with a male relative and might have lived with other male relatives.

19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.  20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”  21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

  • She moves to one of the primary tension points –What is the proper place for worship?  This is a theological discussion, showing keen intellect and curiosity.
  • Jesus essentially says, the time is coming when that will be a moot point
    • The Gospel of John was written well after the destruction of the temple
      • BUT this story is remembered from before that
  • You worship what you do not know, we worship what we know
    • Jesus could be saying, “You’ve had Torah, we’ve had the prophets to fill in and interpret Torah.”
      • “for salvation is from the Judeans” – Prophets had said Messiah would come from the line of David, a Judean line from the tribe of Benjamin;  Samaritans, having an oral tradition of Messiah but only Torah and no prophetic tradition had no more concrete information.  Jesus is defending the Judean tradition even as he says that much of it is coming to a close.
  • Those who worship must worship in Spirit and Truth
    • As I stand here today in an all-but-empty church and you watch at home and we worship by way of electronic media, this is so important to remember. God doesn’t care as much about where we are as about the state of our hearts and minds.  Lord God may we always worship in Spirit and Truth—even when it is by unusual means and in unexpected places.

25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”  26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

  • We don’t get her immediate reaction to his statement.  But…
  • “Messiah will proclaim all things to us.”  Keep that in mind.

They get interrupted.

27  Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?”

28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people,  29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”  30 They left the city and were on their way to him. 

  • Do you see the connection between “He will proclaim all things to us” and  “He told me everything I have ever done!”?  For her this is the proof that he is the prophetic Messiah promised to their people.
  • Base on that, she becomes the first evangelist – she goes and tells others and they come to meet Jesus for themselves.

31  Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.”  32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.”  33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?”  34Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.  35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.  36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’  38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” 

  • There’s a whole sermon in those 7 verses.  But it boils down to this:
    • There is strength and sustenance in doing God’s will
    • There is a world waiting to hear about Christ
    • So how do we do that in this time of Covid-19?

39  Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.”  40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days.  41 And many more believed because of his word.  42 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.”

This amazing woman who met Jesus at the well is never named, but let’s call her Grace, after all, there is so much grace in this story.

It’s a story about what can happen when we dare to cross boundaries—to build a bridge across our social distancing–with grace and courtesy and curiosity, with open hearts and open minds.

In spite of the historic hatred between their two peoples, they speak to each other with courtesy and grace… and they listen to each other.

He doesn’t pigeonhole her, she doesn’t stereotype him.

They reach across the distance of accidental geography and sad history, arbitrary cultural restrictions and hide-bound traditions to have a conversation that changed the lives of people around them and, if we will listen carefully, can still change our lives today.

So don’t be shy.  Talk to that other person, those other people who are so very much not you or your kind.  You may be Christ to them.  They may be Christ to you.  You won’t know until you talk to them.

And be willing to listen.  Listen to the truth of your own life without being defensive.  Open your eyes to who it is speaking to you.  Take the living water that Christ is pouring out for you.  Worship in Spirit and Truth.  Feed on doing the work of God.  Go and tell others. 

In Spirit and Truth, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

3 thoughts on “Let's Call Her Grace

  1. Thanks Steve. Like many other Christians I know the story but know it BETTER today because of you…



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