Sermon Transcript May 1, 2022 John 4 "Woman at the Well"
Last week, we looked at John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…”
He comes not to judge but to heal to bring wholeness, completion. I talked about the Eastern
Orthodox understanding of resurrection. The harrowing of Hell… Jesus descending to the place of the dead. Sheol or Hades. I didn't say a lot about this last week, but one of the things that strikes me is that we get caught up in a cultural definition of hell and yes, there are a handful of Bible passages that talk about fire. Revelation talks about a lake of burning lava…. but rarely if ever in scripture, is there the idea of eternal torment of all souls, who somehow don't make it into heaven. That understanding comes more from Dante's inferno and the Middle Ages, Milton's Paradise Lost. Even in Greek mythology, there's not really a sense of punishment in Hades. Outside maybe a handful of figures. Sheol is the place of the dead and it's really only been a few hundred years since collectively our experience of death didn't involve seeing dust to dust, ash to ash. We're distant from death these days, embalming in caskets and
everything's very sanitary - for good reason - and yet I think sometimes our cultural assumptions block us from what Scripture says. As I said last week, it's not explicit in scripture. There are only a few hints that lead to this Eastern Orthodox belief. In the depth of God's mercy and grace extending that grace even to Adam and Eve who lie asleep in death and sin.
One of the other things I didn't talk about a lot last week but is center to my theology and really it is central to Wesley's theology - out of which comes the United Methodist Church. Indeed, the whole Methodist tradition. And it comes to us through our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters. See, their understanding of grace is one of healing. In the western tradition, our understanding of grace is predominantly legalistic We are guilty. There is a courtroom. One intercedes for us, takes our punishment. We are set free, despite our guilt. And there is validity to that view. That is a helpful metaphor. But it's not the only way of understanding grace. God's grace surrounds us. Comes before we're even aware of it. And seeks to make us whole.
God's grace is healing. It's a therapeutic model. We are sick with sin. And what will cure sickness is not punishment but healing. this understanding of God's grace, extending even to
Adam and Eve is one of therapy, of healing, of wholeness. Darkness cannot overcome light and our sin-sickness cannot overcome the love and mercy and grace and healing of God who
made all that is. We read Psalm 30 today because Psalm 30 taps into that theology.
It is a Psalm of praise for healing after an illness. A grave illness.
The Psalmist proclaims the glory of god and wrestles with his illness, with his sinfulness. He ascribes all of the gains of his life to God and so when things went wrong, it must be that God has withdrawn his hand. And he cries out to God to be made whole. His mourning is turned to dancing, weeping in the night turns to joy and laughter in the daytime.
That's healing. That's wholeness. Even for sinfulness and selfishness. “In my prosperity, I said I will not be moved.” We get a little full of ourselves sometimes. Oh yes, we a scribe glory to God but really…. we're self-made people, right?
And then something goes horribly wrong. And as we cry out, we are reminded of our dependence on God for all that we are.
The other reason I had us read Psalm 30 today is there's a historical anomaly here.
There's something more than literal going on here. I had us read an inscription that we don't normally consider part of the Psalm. It says, a Psalm at the dedication of the temple of David. By tradition, most of the Psalms were written by David - other than a few that are ascribed to someone else. Although it's always interested me after Psalm 72, I believe it is. There's a line
that says, here ends the Psalms of David and we have another 80 to come. We have clearly
different collections. They've been organized in different ways. One of the most fascinating archaeological finds is the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hamati find, where we
have collections of Psalms that appear as they are in the Bible but in different orders. Different
hymnals if you will. The same songs organized in different ways. So, David clearly was a writer of Psalms. And yet he not dedicate the temple. He announces to God his intention to build God's house, to build a temple, and God tells him no.
God doesn't relent until his son, Solomon, comes along. Solomon is allowed to build the
temple, not David. and yet here we have a Psalm for the dedication of the temple. Now, maybe this is one David wrote, intending to use it in a dedication. Maybe it's one David wrote and they used it at the dedication later. It doesn't really matter but it Is interesting to think about what
the text says and when things happen. What do we take literally? What do we take symbolically? How do we connect ourselves to tradition without being hamstrung by that when
new opportunities and insights arise.
If we study Scripture closely, tf we ponder and wrestle with things like that, I think it helps us give insight into how we are to read The Psalms, the prophets, the gospels, We don't take things necessarily literally but we do take them seriously. and we recognize that the people that wrote the scriptures could also take things symbolically. It's not that they were so silly and stupid to take things literally and now we see things more clearly. Indeed, sometimes we seem to take things literally that they clearly meant symbolically. But which is which? Well, that's the
distinction between our many denominations and our different theologies, isn't it?
I also had us read Psalm 30 because it's at the heart of the conflict in John 4. “My ancestors worshiped on this mountain as Abraham did, as Moses did… You worship at the temple. At some point in Jewish history, particularly the Southern Kingdom, the proper way and place of worship shifted. And that is one of the central debates between Samaritans and Jews. Samaria, the northern kingdom, 10 tribes, had fallen to the Assyrians. Most of the rest of the Old Testament comes out of the experience of the southern two tribes. The prophets… the wisdom writings…
The Samaritans held the books of Moses as Scripture: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. But most of the rest of the Old Testament wasn't theirs and that's where the
change to Jerusalem happens.
Bah… They worship wrong. They believed the wrong. They practice traditions that are not ours. Curse them… I wouldn’t’ be caught dead walking in that neighborhood…. Um… wait. Are we're talking about today or Samaria???
That picture of the mountain and the temple I showed is a small detail of a magnificent work of art I ran across about two weeks ago while I was reading and praying about this sermon. It's entitled the “Woman at the Well.” It's by a man named Bryn Galette. And it tells the story of John 4. In numerous scenes. And you really can't see it on the screen. But in the bulletin there's a link to the website where details are highlighted and the theology of the painter is explained
I do encourage you to visit that and think about what this artist presents and how this artist tells the story of scripture.
The woman at the well, Jesus has to go through Samaria, the scripture tells us. Now, a proper Jew would go out of his way to avoid walking through Samaria and there is a path, across the Jordan, that would lead around and yet Jesus “has to” go through Samaria…
They come to this well and Jesus is tired. It's one of the few places in John's gospel
where Jesus is depicted as really human. He’s tired. The disciples go on to buy food, he stays by the well. About noon, this woman comes. Who is she? Why is she coming at noon? She encounters Jesus. He asks her for a drink. She says, how is it that you, a Jewish man, am asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink? They continue their conversation She asked, are you greater than our ancestor Jacob? Who gave us this well?
Genesis 33 talks about Jacob, who settles in this land after he is reunited with his brother Esau. It doesn't mention a well. It mentions an altar and the founding of a city… but certainly there would have been a well, water, of course, is necessary for life especially in the desert climate.
So, by tradition, Jacob had dug this well. The community had thrived around it ever since. Jesus goes here to the land of the ancestors to Jacob and he sits at the well.
Who is this woman? Why does she come to this well at noon? Normally, you'd go to the well early in the morning or late at night trying to avoid the heat of the day. Noon suggests that something is amiss in her relationships - that for some reason, she is not able to go to the well with the other women of the community… that she is an outcast, alone.
The conversation continues and she begins to move from literal questions to beginning to see that Jesus is talking about symbol. Talking about mystery and wholeness and healing. She says to him, sir, I see you are a prophet. That is a profound statement for a Samaritan to make. As I mentioned, they hold the five books of Moses. At the end of Deuteronomy, it says, no prophet like Moses has arisen since. They are waiting for the Messiah. Now, in the Southern tradition, there are all sorts of prophets. Ezekiel and Elijah and Amos and Jeremiah but that's those are not Samaritan traditions. For her to say, I see you are a prophet. She's almost there. She just about sees who he is. She recognizes that something is changing in her world. He says, “go and bring your husband here.” “I have no husband,” she says. It's right. You have no husband.
You've had five husbands and you see in the detail of the painting these figures over her shoulder and we don't know what her story is. Has she been unfaithful? Have they? Have they died? Have they been killed in war? Did they cast her out? What has happened to these five relationships. Is she so profoundly unlucky to have had five husbands die? She lives with the sixth. Someone is taking care of her. Possibly a family member. Possibly not. Possibly a man who won't do her the honor of making her his wife. Maybe, like other Old Testament characters, he's afraid. She has a reputation, she knows. Five!
Not me. I'll take care of you but no… no marriage.
We don't know what her story is. Apparently, it has led her to being an outcast in her community but Jesus sees her. Jesus empowers her. He doesn’t judge or condemn… he seeks wholeness. They continue their conversation about worship The mountain and the temple that I started with and Jesus says, “the hour is soon. In fact, it is here when we won't worship on high places. We won't worship in Jerusalem. We will worship in spirit and truth.”
Just then, the disciples come. They're aghast!
He's breaking the rules, you know. It's very clear. He should not be talking to a woman, especially not a Samaritan woman. What is he doing? Of course, they don't say that.
Notice that she leaves her water jug and goes back to the town.
She bears witness. “Here is one who knows, who has told me everything I've ever done. We don't hear more of the Disciples experience. We just know that they're muttering about this crossed boundary. We do not worship with them. It's bad enough. We're walking through this cursed territory. Jesus responds to them with the story of harvest.
“You harvest what others sow… you reap the efforts of others. Now, you have come into the harvest but it's not ultimately about you. Look around, the fields are ripe for harvest!”
Now, maybe near Jacob's well, there are fields. Maybe it's more symbolic Maybe the harvest is the disciples and the Samaritans, Jew and Greek, male, and female slave, and free. All that are welcome in this new in-breaking kingdom of God. One of my favorite details of Bryn Galette's artwork is the crowds are the fields. The harvest is plentiful.
As we read this story of transformation… of radical inclusion We need to read it in the light of the whole of John's gospel. John 4, of course, follows John 3 and in John 3, we had Nicodemus a believer coming at night, hidden, asking questions. What does it mean to be born again? Is it literal? Is it symbolic? What is the transformation of belief in Christ? And while he makes progress, he goes away still in darkness, which is contrasted of course to the public witness of John the Baptist - even if he doesn't have all of the details of what Jesus will be like and what his goal is. John seems to think it will be a political revolution, a justice in this lifetime of political power or at least the castigating of sinners: the axe lays at the root of the tree…” But Jesus comes vulnerable. Jesus comes with humility and service. Jesus comes not to judge or to condemn, but to invite, to hold us. Indeed, to enact wholeness healing physical, mental, communal, Jesus is the living water. The woman of Samaria comes to see this! She's left her water jug. She goes back to the town. She proclaims, “come and see the prophet who has told me everything I've ever done!”
And They come! They listen to her?! The beginning of this chapter, she was an outcast. She comes back with a frankly unbelievable claim but something about her spirit, her passion, the strength of her belief intrigues them. The living water is flowing through her now!
They come to see this Jewish man at Jacob's well. They invite him to stay with them for 2 days.
At the end of the two days, they say, “it's no longer your witness that causes us to believe. We have seen heard for ourselves!” An entire community is healed and made whole and transformed because Jesus sits at a well and speaks to an outcast about wholeness and healing and living water.
The disciples come. They tell him, “Master, eat something.”
He says, “I have food you don't know of” and they take that literally… “surely no one here has
brought him something to eat?” They're oblivious to what has just happened with the woman
For God so loved the world, not just our camp, our party, our nation, our theology. God loved the world. Even the outcast women of Samaria. He comes for wholeness. He comes that we might be quenched on living water he comes as our author of Hebrews said, caught up in the spirit that we might “provoke one another to good deeds.” How often do we spend our time, our theology, our politics, provoking one another for no good at all.
I would claim that both our national and our denominational politics in this day and age are more about pissing off the other guy than they are about doing good. We’ve lost our way!
“Let us provoke one another to good deeds. (Hebrews 10:24)
Let us provoke one another to good deeds…
for he who has promised is faithful.” (Hebrews 10:23)
“For he who has promised is faithful.” That's what I believe. Thanks be to God. Amen!