The Rev. Joseph Farnes
All Saints, Boise
Lent 3, Year A
March 12, 2023
“Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” A famous line from Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. The Israelites are parched in the desert and start a fight with Moses and God, and their hearts became bitter. Jesus is parched, and goes to a well near a Samaritan village, and a conversation with a woman leads to conversion.
First, we hear of the Israelites. They thirst. They complain. They say bitterly, “Did you do all those miracles to set us free from slavery just so you could dehydrate us to death in the desert?”
And Psalm 95 commemorates that event, and begs us to not let our hearts become hardened and bitter – we do not want to be part of a generation that does not set foot in the Promised Land. We need water, we will ask for it, we might even doubt in our hearts, but we pray not to become hardened in heart. We may doubt, we may question, but we never want to harden our hearts, and the woman at the well shows us how we can doubt and question but be opened in heart to hear the message of God.
Many sermons on this passage from John’s Gospel have focused on the woman’s history. Was she unlucky and a widow multiple times over? Had all her husbands divorced her (because, remember, divorce was the husband’s prerogative, not the wife’s)? Was she sinfully cohabitating now? Was that why she was at the well at the heat of the midday sun, when no one else would be at the well?
Jesus doesn’t seem awfully interested in that. He doesn’t shame her. He doesn’t tell her to repent. No, Jesus is telling this story and revealing to the Samaritan woman at the well a glimpse of who he is. Much like how in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells an astonished Nathaniel, “I saw you under the fig tree when Philip called you,” here we have Jesus using someone’s story as proof that he knows far more than he lets on.
But unlike Nathaniel, the Samaritan woman doesn’t give into fawning praise. No, she recognizes that this man before her is a prophet… or something more, and she throws out a line to begin a religious debate: “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” In other words, you’re a prophet, I can tell. But what is that to me? I am a Samaritan. Your people do not recognize the legitimacy of my people’s worship, you think we’re outside the covenant with God. Your people say that the worship of my people here on our holy Samaritan mountain is meaningless because it isn’t in Jerusalem. What is the point of a prophet coming to us?”
She doesn’t run away, nor is she overawed by this prophet. She holds her own.
Jesus replies that there will be a time when worship will not be defined by place but by spirit. Salvation is from the Jews, and a time will come when nations far and wide will worship God in the truth of the spirit.
The Samaritan woman hears and recognizes that Jesus is talking about the Messiah. There would be a shaking of the world, and a new era would dawn. Samaritans and Jews of that time disagreed on many things, but both had stories of a Messiah who would set things right. She proclaims that she believes the Messiah is coming into the world.
And Jesus says, “I am he – the one speaking to you.”
In John’s Gospel, this is the absolute clearest he ever gets about who he is. He won’t be this clear with his disciples until the Last Supper in John’s Gospel. He will tell the man who was born blind who he is. But with this foreigner, this bold woman of Samaria, this woman who holds a religious debate with him by the side of a well in the heat of the midday sun, with this person Jesus is the clearest he will be that he is the Messiah.
And she believes him – she heads back to town to tell her neighbors who she has met. “He can’t be the Messiah, can he? But he told me everything I’d ever done!” she says. She’s still thinking about her encounter, puzzling it over in her heart. She is no enthusiastic convert, but a cautious one. The people of her town invite Jesus to stay with them, and they believe in him. It’s no longer from her testimony that they believe – they believe because they have listened to him themselves.
In a few weeks we will hear the story of another woman in John’s Gospel bringing the news of the Messiah to others. Mary Magdalene will be that woman’s name, and she will be bringing the good news of the Resurrection.
I wish that John’s Gospel gave this Samaritan woman a name, though later Church tradition called her by the name, Photini. This remarkable woman holds a debate with Jesus in the heat of the noonday sun. She is undeterred, she is discerning.
But in her cautious doubting, she is not hard-hearted. There is a difference. Cautious doubting wants to weigh the evidence and to reflect. Hardness of heart does not chew on the experience. If the Samaritan woman were hard-hearted, she would have rejected Jesus right at the start. “Oh, now that you need water from me, a Samaritan, now you’ll talk to me!” Or maybe she would have rejected him as soon as he brought up her story, or maybe she would have rolled her eyes derisively and walked away. But she didn’t do those things. She had her doubts, but she did not become hard-hearted. She knew her faith and she was willing to stand up for herself, and she was also willing to listen, to be surprised, to change her mind.
May God keep us in the wisdom and faith of the Samaritan woman, and may God keep us from hardness of heart. And may we listen to the faithful women of the Bible – whether we meet them at the well in the noonday heart, or rushing to bring us news about an empty tomb on Easter morning. Amen.