This story begins with a well. It’s called Jacob’s well. It’s in the Samaritan city of Sychar, near the plot of land that Jacob gave his favored child, Joseph -- Joseph who was the youngest but one of twelve sons, but the firstborn of Joseph’s favored wife, Rachel. The story doesn’t tell us why this well was called Jacob’s Well -- though its listeners might have recalled how Jacob met his beloved wife-to-be at a well. Tomorrow’s lectionary brings us the story of Abraham’s steward finding a wife for Abraham’s beloved child Isaac at a well -- Isaac who would be Jacob’s father.
This story begins with a person named Jesus, tired from a journey, sitting by this well, at noontime.
This story begins with a Samaritan woman. She has come to the well at noontime to draw water.
Jesus says to the woman: “Give me a drink.” The teller of this story informs us that the disciples, those who have been companions with Jesus on this long journey, have gone into the city to buy food.
Now maybe this Jesus was a man -- and listeners’ expectations were that this would be a marriage story, like Jacob and Rachel, like Isaac and Rebekah. Maybe this Jesus was a man, and the woman felt unsafe, alone out there on the edge of town with a strange man.
Maybe this Jesus was a woman. Maybe the Samaritan woman felt safe from threat of violence because this was another woman. Maybe the Samaritan woman felt apprehensive, wondering what would bring a woman alone to this well at midday (her knowledge of why she came not keeping her from speculation about this stranger).
Maybe this Jesus was a large cat like C. S. Lewis would write about so many centuries later, and the woman was afraid, because Aslan is NOT a Tame Lion.
One might expect any of these things. But what this woman saw, the piece of Jesus’ identity that spoke to her so strongly that she spoke it aloud, was that Jesus was a Jew.
Jesus was a Jew, and she was a Samaritan. Both peoples claimed Mosaic lineage, but the two peoples had broken off long ago, and now they didn’t so much as speak to each other.
This woman says to Jesus, “YOU? ask ME? for a drink of water? Do you not notice who we are? We haven’t invented segregated drinking fountains yet, but that’s basically what’s going on here. What do you think you’re doing?”
Jesus patiently replies, “If you knew the generosity of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked me, and I would have given you living water.”
The woman bites her lip on the ridiculousness of this. She calls Jesus, “Sir,” or, “M’lady,” or some other honorific to soften the scoffing remark she is about to make -- “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and who drank from it with his children and livestock?”
Jesus says, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 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.”
This sounds intriguing. A little impossible, but intriguing nonetheless. This time the woman’s use of an honorific is less sarcastic, more petitionary. “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus smiles at her unreadably and says, “Go, call your spouse, and come back.”
A bit downcast now -- or perhaps a bit on-guard, a bit cagey -- the woman replies, “I have no spouse.”
Jesus says to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no spouse;’ for you have been married five times, and you are not married to your current partner. What you have said is true.”
Taking a deep breath and using the honorific one last time, the woman says, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.” And what do you do if you end up in conversation with a prophet? Why not ask them for a decision on the major schism in your religious life? So she says, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but your people say that the place where everyone must worship is in Jerusalem.”
Jesus says, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Parent of us all, Maker of Heaven and Earth, neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we Jews worship what we know, for God's way of salvation is made available through the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Divine Parent in spirit and truth. Indeed, it is just such worshipers whom the Divine Parent seeks. God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.”
The woman says to Jesus, “I know that the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One, is coming -- who upon arriving will proclaim all things to us.”
Jesus replies, “I who speak to you am the Messiah.”
The dramatic pause here is interrupted by the return of the disciples. They are astonished that Jesus is speaking with this woman, but no one comes out and says, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?”
Taking her cue, the woman leaves her water jar and returns to the city. She says to the people, “Come and see someone who told me everything I have ever done! Could this be the Messiah?” The people leave the city and go to Jesus.
Meanwhile the disciples are urging Jesus, “Rabbi, eat something.”
But Jesus says, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”
So the disciples ask one another, “Surely no one has brought Jesus something to eat?”
Jesus says to them, “The food that keeps me going is doing the will of the One who sent me and bringing this work to completion.
“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. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor at harvest time.”
As if to explain this saying of Jesus’, the story returns us to the people of the city. Many Samaritans from that city believe in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony, “This one told me everything I have ever done.” So when they come to Jesus, they ask Jesus to stay with them; and Jesus stays there two days. And many more believe because of Jesus’ word. They say 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.”
*For values of "tomorrow" that are true if you are using the RCL and are operating as if I'm telling this story on Sunday Lent 3A 2011.
One of these days I will have a sermon for Lent 3A 2011, but today is not that day.
My best friend’s lesbian christology is what first started me thinking of Jesus as other than always-default-male, and continues to be foundational in my continuing explorations of that.
For helping to spur and/or shape this particular retelling, thanks also to: Molly’s friend Val (who told a folktale at Molly’s Peach Fuzz Party on Saturday), Support Pastor Ian H., Chris D,, and Julia W. (and FCS-Ian for Lenten morning prayer).
Thanks to The Inclusive Bible and Eugene Peterson’s The Message for some phrasing assists (and to the NRSV for providing the base text).