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John 4:5-30 

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 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.’ The woman said to him, ‘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 with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘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.’ 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.’

 Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ 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.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

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

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

 

Chapter 1

 

I walk down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I fall in.

I am lost ... I am helpless.

It isn't my fault.

It takes forever to find a way out.

 

Chapter 2

 

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don't see it.

I fall in again.

I can't believe I am in the same place.

But it isn't my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.

 

Chapter 3

 

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it is there.

I still fall in ... it's a habit.

My eyes are open.

I know where I am.

It is my fault.

I get out immediately.

 

Chapter 4

 

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.

 

Chapter 5

 

I walk down another street.

 

 

~ Portia Nelson ~

 

(There's a Hole in My Sidewalk) 

"Thirst" 

Her life was not working out the way she had hoped.  We don’t know why, exactly.  We can only guess.  But she had been married five times.  Had she been widowed five times?  Had she followed custom and married one brother after another after the previous ones slid into death?  Did she hold the village record for divorce?  Did she want to marry the man she was currently with, but he refused? Or were they planning a big wedding? Who knows?  Apparently she had walked down that same street, and fallen in the same hole, over and over again. 

John doesn’t tell us the details.  He only gives us the picture of a woman walking down a lonely road at high noon, and a few meager facts.  She is a Samaritan.  She has been unlucky at love.  As she walks slowly toward a well that should be empty at this time of the day, we can not tell if she is propelled by the force of all those accumulated losses or if she drags them along behind her, leaving an invisible trail in the dust.  Either way, she is on a trajectory of destiny.  Soon the life that was not working will be changed forever. 

The sunlight falls through the leaves and patterns of light dance around her, playing tricks on her eyes.  The man at the well sits with his eyes closed, so she can discretely watch him as she approaches.  His dress tells her that he is a foreigner, which means he is deep in hostile territory.  She remembers ancient stories she has heard about women meeting future husbands at a well.  It happened for Rachel, she met Jacob at a well.  And this is, after all, Jacob’s well.  And the story of a man in foreign territory, stopping at a well, meeting a woman who gives him water…they chat, exchange a few glances full of promise, a marriage follows… Who is to say?  It has happened before.  It could happen again. 

Her mind wanders off on a fantasy particularly appealing to a woman of her time whose life is not working out well, a fantasy suited for a woman in a culture where a woman’s survival is dependent on a man.  Will he be her prince charming to rescue her from misuse and neglect?  Will they ride off into the sunset together?  Will he be healing salve for her pain and take her away into a new life?

When the man finally opens his eyes, she realizes she has been staring at him, and she quickly looks away and busies herself with her water jar.  Will this be another drab, predictable day?  Or will this be one of those times where a chance encounter with someone at the town well or the grocery store or Laundromat or gas station changes a person forever? 

Jesus opens the conversation at the level of his need.  He is tired and weary and very thirsty.  Could she give him a drink?  He has sent his disciples off in search of food, and savors this moment alone at the well with its rare solitude.  But when the woman arrives he does not act annoyed, but rather reaches out to her as if he has been waiting for this moment and this encounter all of his life.  It is the longest recorded conversation between Jesus and another person anywhere in the gospels.  It seems that they have a lot to say to one another.

Jesus shocks the woman by asking for a drink of water from a Samaritan bucket, something that makes us recall the segregated drinking fountains of the South.  Jesus is in the area known in Israel today as the West Bank.  Then it was called Samaria.  For six centuries, there had been a rift between the Jews and the Samaritans- partly religious, partly racial, partly political.  A Jew could not have any dealings with a Samaritan.  Not only that, but Jewish men were not supposed to talk to women in public: especially with a woman alone in such a place. But Jesus is tired and social mores weary him even more.  Thirst is the only thing on his mind.

She immediately responds by reciting the rules back to him.  Perhaps she is a little annoyed by his tone, the request may have sounded more like a demand than a polite request.  (Give me a drink.) “Jews aren’t supposed to drink out of a Samaritan’s bucket, you know,” she says.  Of course he knows.  But Jesus is in the business of breaking down barriers, so he ignores the rule that stands between them.  And with that, he turns his unnerving gaze upon her, as if he sees straight through her.  Now he is talking about her need, not his.  Playfully, he suggests that he can offer her living water.  And skillfully, he takes the conversation one notch deeper with each exchange, inviting them both lower into the well of honesty and meaning making.

With each attempt to connect, she throws up another roadblock.  “You don’t have a bucket, sir.  And the well is very deep.”  Or she questions his credentials “You’re not saying that you’re more important than Jacob, are you?”  Jesus cuts through to the core:  “Go call your husband.”  For an instant, her friendly mask slips and only raw pain shows.  “How could a stranger know?  Was it that obvious?” The color rises in her face in the heat of high noon, not in the cool of early morning when all the other women of the village come for water and gossip.  Had she just been too depressed to get up out of bed at such an early hour?  Or did she just want to avoid the stares or the pity or the gossip of the other women? 

“I have no husband,” she ventures, wondering if his is a pick up line or if her reputation is known to the whole wide world.  “You’re right,” he says, and his words hang between them as she tries to recover.  Later, when the Sadducees come to him and say “Sir, there were seven brothers.  One had a wife, and he died, and as was the custom, she married his brother, who died.  And so on until she had married all seven.”  Did Jesus see her face when they asked: “In the resurrection, when they all rise again, whose wife shall she be?”

Jesus is getting too close to her pain, so she tries diversionary tactics: she brings up the topic of religion, and names the age-old argument between Jews and Samaritans.  “My Samaritan ancestors worshipped God on this mountain, but you say that Jerusalem is the place where we should worship God.”  We long to hear the tone of her voice.  Is she angry or offended that Jesus has gotten too personal?  Does her voice wobble with tears held back?  Does she want to sit down right there and weep forever?  She starts talking about the Messiah, another controversial barrier guaranteed to keep this stranger at bay.

Suddenly the light swirls all around her and her confusion falls away from her and she knows that this is no ordinary man sitting before her.  For all the men who have seen her naked, he seems to be the first man to whom she is not invisible.  He sees her, sees her life written all over her face.  He sees her, and he waits.

Jesus comes to us when our lives are not working out as planned, when we have walked down the same street and fallen in the same hole in the sidewalk over and over again.  Jesus comes to us when we are sad or depressed or sick or lonely or frightened or confused or traipsing off in a wrong-headed direction, he comes to us and offers us grace.  Grace comes when our lives feel empty or meaningless, or when we ache from loneliness, or when our self worth has been smashed to bits.  That’s when grace shows up, offering us a new way. When our brokenness, our apathy, our failures, our inability to get out of our own way, when we are driven by compulsions and despair has crushed out what little joy or courage or hope we have left, that’s when grace shows up. It is as if a light breaks into our darkness- and when we have long wondered “Can we not be changed?” Christ’s grace arrives with its “Yes.” 

And in the words of the theologian Paul Tillich it is as if we hear a voice saying:  “You are accepted.  YOU ARE ACCEPTED, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know.  Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later.  Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much.  Do not seek out anything,” Tillich says… “Do not perform anything, do not intend anything.  Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.”   In that moment, comes grace, that changes us, changes the path we choose to walk down.

And when grace shows up, so do the disciples, providing their usual comic relief.  “We can’t leave Jesus alone for five minutes,” they say in exasperation.  Once again Jesus hasn’t followed their PR recommendations.  Talking to a woman?  Alone?  A Samaritan woman?  Oy vey!”  And while the disciples fret about what is socially acceptable, they miss the profound event that is happening right before their eyes: God reaching across the lonely abyss to quench the soul thirst of a beloved human being; God saying to one thirsting for a new life…”Here, why don’t you take this path instead”- pointing to a road you have never noticed before.

Jesus comes to us when we are deeply thirsty and do not even know it.  And he breaks through every barrier we may have erected.  The woman was thirsty, in more ways than she could even name.  Her life was not working.  She was trapped in the repetitive narratives of loss and despair, thirsting to be seen and known and met and loved. And Jesus found her at a well in the middle of the day, in the middle of nowhere and gave her the water of life.  Can we imagine that he has come to find us too?  Amen.

 

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