March 23, 2014
The story we just heard about Jesus talking with a Samaritan woman at the well outside Sychar is a story full of surprises.
The first surprise is that the conversation happens at all. The barriers to it are great. Jesus is a Jew and the woman is a Samaritan. Between Samaritan and Jew there is a wall of separation no less than what in our time separates the Israeli from the Palestinian.
The Jews and Samaritans are related peoples. Both are Hebrews. The Samaritans are from the old northern kingdom of Israel, while the Jews are from the old southern kingdom of Judah. To make a long story short, the Samaritans inter-married with non-Jewish peoples and lost much of their ethnic identity, while the Jews maintained theirs. Each group ended up with their own temple, the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim, the Jews on Mount Zion. And so it is a strange choice Jesus makes to travel through Samaritan territory. That he strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan is even stranger.
There’s something additional that makes this conversation beside the well a surprise. In that place and time, men and women are not to talk to one another in public. It is not considered proper. Especially when the man is, like Jesus, a rabbi, a teacher, someone looked up to as an example of propriety. And thus the disciples, when they return, are astonished that Jesus is speaking with a woman.
Still more must be said about this surprising encounter. The nameless one is a Samaritan, and a woman. She is also someone rejected by her own people. She comes to the well to draw water at noon, and she comes alone. Noon is the hottest time of the day. Morning and evening are times to do the hard work of drawing water from the well and hauling it home. This is work that women do in company with one another. It is a chance for a chat, for some social contact. But this woman goes to the well at a time when she will be alone. She sees herself as a misfit. She avoids others in order not to be hurt yet again by their words, their attitudes, their hard looks.
It is a surprise, therefore, that this conversation ever happens. But the conversation itself contains more than one surprise.
It’s a surprise that Jesus promises living water. Living water is water that flows, that runs, that sparkles. Such water is a welcome change from water in wells or cisterns that may be flat or even stagnant.
Jesus and the woman meet beside an ancient well that’s more than 100 feet deep and seven feet wide. At first the woman presumes that Jesus is talking about some hidden stream he knows that is far better than this well. She wants the equivalent of a faucet in her kitchen, so she won’t have to haul buckets any more, and who can blame her? But what Jesus promises is a source of life in her heart, so that she can truly live. She is confused about what he offers, yet she understands it is something she needs, and needs desperately.
It’s a surprise that Jesus knows the details of this stranger’s life. These details remain unclear to us, but apparently she has had a painful and unhappy time. She’s had five husbands. Did the marriages end through death, or divorce, or desertion? Were they truly marriages, or something else? Why is her current husband not truly her husband? We don’t have answers to these questions, and perhaps we do not need to have them. Yet we recognize that this woman feels alone and exiles herself from her neighbors.
The woman is surprised that Jesus knows the truth about her. She is even more surprised that, knowing the truth, he accepts her. For her, this is an encounter with the holy. The man must be a prophet.
And so we come to another surprise. The woman asks Jesus to resolve the long-standing and divisive question of who is right: Jews or Samaritans? Where is the correct temple: Gerizim or Jerusalem? The surprise comes when Jesus raises the issue to a new level. True worship will no longer depend on location, but will be a matter of spirit and truth.
The conversation ends with one more surprise. The woman confesses her faith in the messiah who is to come, and Jesus says he is that messiah. Jesus thus reveals his identity not to his disciples, not to his own people, not to their religious leaders, but to this person who is marginal three times over: She is a Samaritan, a woman and an exile among her own kind. We do not even know her name, yet Jesus entrusts her with his deepest secret, the truth of who he is.
The conversation ends because the disciples come back from their trip to buy food, but the surprises do not end. The woman leaves her water jar there at the well. It is valuable, yet it is heavy, and she wants to be unencumbered as she runs back into the city.
There in Sychar, she tells the people to come and see Jesus. “Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done! Can he be the Messiah?”
Soon a crowd follows her out to the well. This crowd is so large that Jesus compares it to a field ready to be harvested. These people have accepted the woman’s testimony, and they are coming to Jesus.
It’s a surprise that someone like this bears witness. After all, she is a reject among her own people, a woman with no name, no social standing. Her experience with Jesus is very brief, she has no training, she has not been given a commission. It’s a surprise that people heed her. Yet they do, for there is something attractive, compelling, authentic about her witness.
Here then we have yet another surprise in a surprising story. This unlikely prospect becomes a witness to Jesus, and an effective one.
True, she may be a woman of questionable character, or at least she has had plenty of experience with the rough edges of life.
True, her understanding of Jesus is far from complete.
Yet she bears witness based on her personal experience. She speaks of what she knows.
Her focus is on Jesus, not on herself.
And not only does she point her own people to Jesus, but she shows us how we can witness to him.
If Jesus has spoken to us, accepted us, led us to see ourselves differently, then we can bear witness to others, even as she did.
We don’t need to have our life together in every way. We don’t need to know all there is to know. What we can do is tell others our experience, and leave the results to God.
Whether becoming the center of attention is what we want or what we fear, that is not the issue, that is not the purpose.
We can help people to look, not at us, but over our shoulder at Jesus, who stands close behind us.
Then soon enough they will forget about our witness, and say, along with those people from Sychar, “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.”
God surprises us in many ways, but none is more surprising than our opportunity to witness to Christ based on our own experience.
— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications, 2003).