Third Sunday in Lent – John 4:5-42
Interpreters of this lengthy passage are usually quick to point out the “three strikes” against the woman at the well: her gender, her ethnicity, and her dubious marital status. And despite the fact that she engages Jesus in the longest conversation he has with anyone in the gospels, friend or foe; that she can hold her own in a theological debate; that she is the first person Jesus reveals himself to in John’s gospel; that she is the first evangelist and her testimony brings many to faith; despite all of this—what the Samaritan woman is most remembered for, it seems, is that she had five husbands.
But what are the particular circumstances? Deaths? Divorces? Promiscuity? We do not know. All we know is that Jesus, as is his custom in his encounters in John’s gospel, reveals intimate knowledge of this woman. He does not urge her to repent or change her behavior; he renders no judgment, offers no rebuke. But he does make it known that she is in the presence of the extraordinary.
He begins by asking for a drink of water, and the woman quickly tells him that he is out of line in speaking to her. But Jesus, never much bothered by the social conventions of his day, lets this woman in on a secret: “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.” Like Nicodemus, this woman misunderstands what Jesus is saying to her. She thinks that when he says “living water” he means running water, flowing water, spring water, which, of course, it can mean—it’s an honest mistake. Where are you going to get running water around here? she asks, looking around at the dry and barren landscape.
But then Jesus abruptly changes the subject, telling her to go get her husband. “I have no husband,” she says, and with that one small offering of truth, Jesus tells her the rest of the truth about herself—without condemnation or reproach. He simply allows the light of truth to illumine a new path for this woman to step into.
What we have in the story of the woman at the well is a love story. And that’s fitting, because we’re told that Jesus and this woman are at Jacob’s well, where a few centuries before, it was love at first sight for Jacob and Rachel. But now another love story unfolds, one in which we learn that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus—not a checkered past, not a string of ex-husbands, not doubt or despair, not hopelessness or hard-heartedness. In the noonday sun at Jacob’s well, Jesus reveals himself and his mission and his very reason for being: to love, to show us how to love, and to restore us to communion with the God whose very nature is love.
In the light of Jesus’ love this Samaritan woman becomes a preacher, a proclaimer of the good news, an evangelist: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!”
But she’s an odd sort of evangelist. She’s not even a very convinced one. “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” she wonders aloud to the people. This Samaritan woman struggled with this Jewish Messiah, yet she believed. She struggled and she believed. Both of these things were true.
In the end, just like the Samaritan woman, we don’t have any proof. As Frederick Buechner has put it: “In the last analysis, you cannot pontificate but only point. A Christian is one who points at Christ and says, ‘I can’t prove a thing, but there’s something about his eyes and his voice. There’s something about the way he carries his head, his hands. The way he carries his cross. The way he carries me.”
Come and see.
(Originally published Thursday, February 21, 2008)