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Sun, Mar 29, 2020

The Conversation

Duration:19 mins 34 secs

A Conversation

Sermon on John 4:3-26

            One hot day a stranger wanders into town, sits down at a well, and strikes up a conversation with a solitary woman who has come to get some water. The place of their meeting is called Jacob’s Well, because that is where Jacob first met Rachel and “wept aloud” when he kissed her, so powerful was his attraction to her.

          Wells play a prominent role in the courtship stories of the Bible. At a well one evening, Abraham’s servant courted Rebekah by proxy for Isaac. At a well in the Midian Moses watered the sheep of the seven daughters of the priest of Midian, and ended up marrying Zipporah, one of those daughters. If you were a young man in search of a suitable bride, showing up at a well when the young women were bringing their sheep or cattle to be watered was the ancient world’s equivalent of Internet dating.

          What is lacking in the courtship stories of Isaac, Jacob, and Moses was anything you could call real conversation. Any conversation was carried out between the suitors and the young women’s fathers, who gave their consent to a marriage and settled on a dowry.

          The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well is not a courtship but a conversation – in fact, the longest recorded conversation Jesus has with anyone in the Gospels. When you look at the facts of the situation, it is remarkable that any conversation at all took place. In the social world of both the woman and Jesus, this was a highly unsuitable conversation, one that should not have happened.

          First of all, a Jewish man did not initiate a conversation with an unknown woman – to do so was just plain improper. Second, a Jewish teacher, for that is what Jesus was, did not engage in public conversation with any woman. And finally, Jews did not invite contact with Samaritans.[1] You could say there was extreme social distancing between Jews and Samaritans, based not on love and concern for each other, but on hostility.

          The enmity between these two groups went back several centuries. It began with the conquest of Judah by Babylon in the sixth century BCE. After the nobility, the priests, and other elites went into exile, the men left in the land began marrying foreign women. Later, when the people returned from exile to rebuild the temple of Jerusalem, Ezra and Nehemiah thundered against these “mixed” marriages and demanded that the men of Israel divorce their foreign wives as a kind of “ethnic cleansing.” Some of the men refused. The tensions between these two groups festered for centuries. Not only did the Jews look down on the Samaritans, but Jews and Samaritans also had a long-standing disagreement about where you were supposed to worship. The Samaritans worshiped on Mount Gerizim, but the Jews worshiped in Jerusalem.

          The Samaritan woman would have had all this in her mind when she said to Jesus, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” In other words, “You’re not from around here, are you?” What kind of ignorant bumpkin has just wandered into the watering place, saying, “Howdy, ma’am, can I have a drink of water?” The woman may have thought he was trying to pick her up.

            It is customary for interpreters of this story to treat the woman as a notorious sinner. The reason she came out at noon, in the hottest part of the day, was because she was a social outcast, a woman with such a disordered life that she didn’t dare come out in the evening when the respectable women came to fill their water jars. But there is no indication that Jesus sees her this way. He does not judge her or tell her to change her ways. What he does is engage her in a conversation.

          It is not an easy conversation. She responds testily at first. Jesus doesn’t make matters any easier for her with his remark about “living water.” As in the encounter with Nicodemus, Jesus is talking on one level and the woman is talking on another, which just increases her confusion and exasperation. “You don’t have a bucket,” she says to him. “Where are you going to get that ‘living water’?” Somewhere along the line, though, there’s a breakthrough. She still doesn’t get his meaning about the water, but she does understand that he’s offering her something she needs. Somehow, across the divide of gender, religion and ethnicity, Jesus is reaching this woman and she is responding.

          Her excitement grows when he gives his account of her marital history. She identifies him as a prophet. Now she takes the conversational lead and begins asking him about the religious differences between Jews and Samaritans. This, it seems, will be the point at which they both recognize their irreconcilable differences, and part company. But Jesus is not going to let her go so easily. “Let’s not quibble over where true worship takes place: let’s define what it is. It’s more about the presence of the Spirit of God than about where you go to church.” The woman is not yet convinced. “Be that as it may,” she says. “When the Messiah comes, he will clear these things up for us.”

          That’s when Jesus drops his bombshell: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

          The woman then becomes the Gospel’s first missionary, running back to town to tell everyone she knows about the unusual Jewish man who just might be the Messiah. After spending some time with him themselves, the other Samaritans pronounce him the Savior of the world.

          This story hints at the possibility of reconciliation, the end of hostilities between ancient enemies. As Jesus repeatedly crosses the boundaries of what is considered proper and acceptable, the news about this strange new presence in the world spreads.

          The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman was a first strike against the way human beings divide up the world, putting boundaries between ourselves and other people so that we segment society into classes and parties and factions. The first words of the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman get recast over and over again:

          “Why are you, a Muslim, talking with me, a Christian?”

          “Why are you, a fundamentalist, talking with me, a progressive?”

          “Why are you, a Republican, talking with me, a Democrat?”

          “Why are you, an Israeli, talking with me, a Palestinian?”

How can we be having a conversation when we are so different?

          We see this tendency operating in some of the responses to the covid-19 epidemic in our country. Already we have heard the language of blame for our health crisis directed at different groups: at the Chinese, simply for being from the country where the virus originated; at millennials, for not taking proper precautions against the virus; at the press, for whipping up fear. Columnist Fred Hiatt warned in an op-ed piece in last Sunday’s Post that some public figures, instead of trying to bring people together in a time of crisis, seem to be trying to unite people in a “shared hostility,” and he pointed to the danger that we will turn this crisis “into a new kind of civil war.”

          By the grace of God, though, there are other voices, other gestures. In states and municipalities all over our country, we see people working across party lines to mobilize against the virus. We hear of communities uniting to provide assistance to some of the most vulnerable people, like the homeless or the elderly. We see neighbors getting together to provide a virtual birthday party for a child who has to “shelter in place” away from friends and extended family. We see volunteers at assisted-living facilities create ways for family members to visit with elderly relatives through glass partitions. There is that wonderful video from Italy of people singing to each other from their balconies looking out over the deserted streets of Assisi. Every day there are stories about people figuring out ways to overcome physical separation, because our God-given hunger for relationship, our drive for life and flourishing, is even stronger than our tendencies toward division.

          Someone I know once described Jesus as the “ultimate immigrant.” If I understand his meaning, he was saying that Jesus is the one who came into the world as a stranger, someone the world did not recognize. He is the ultimate border-crosser, the one who came from his rightful place in heaven to travel through the enemy territory of earth, where he was almost consistently distrusted, scorned, rejected, or driven out. Eventually he was chased out of human society altogether, allotted a place with the criminals and outcasts on Calvary Hill. Once in a while, though, he made contact and broke through – with a healing, a word, a conversation with another stranger. It was his dangerous border-crossing that got him killed, but that didn’t stop the work of reconciliation he came to do. “When I am high and lifted up from the earth,” he says elsewhere in John’s Gospel, “I will draw all people to myself.”  (12:32)

          This is how the letter to the Ephesians describes it:

“in Christ Jesus [those] who once were far off have been brought near...For he is our peace; in his flesh he has….broken down the dividing wall [of] hostility [between us]…that he might create in himself one new humanity…[reconciling all of us] to God in one body through the cross.” (2:13-16) 

There is so much human communication that never turns into a real conversation, as the parties guard their positions across the border that separates them. But Christ has come to break down the dividing wall that separates human beings from each other and from God.

          So maybe you could say that the encounter at Jacob’s Well between Jesus and the Samaritan woman was a courtship after all. Through the love of God in the person of Jesus Christ, a dividing wall was breached, communication took place, and living water was poured out. Something fresh and new bloomed into life. And that water is still poured for us, water that does not give out, but gushes up to eternal life.

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

March 29, 2020


[1] Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX  (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), pp. 565-566.

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