Scripture | John 4:1-15;16-34, 39–42
It may go without saying, but I think it is important to note: that stories in the bible aren’t clumsily arranged by accident. Instead, the authors of the gospels pay close attention to which stories they tell and in which order they tell them. These authors are story tellers in the truest form and are concerned about more than just telling each short story. In the end they also aim to tell us how all of these little stories about Jesus fit together in a much bigger story. To that end, if we zoom out of any story in scripture, and look at the other stories around it, we can see how these stories play off of each other. We begin to see themes reoccurring, and images being used in new and different ways, and in particular we begin to see people lifted up to contrast against each other.
Today’s story in particular stands out as a perfect example of this. This a story that is purposefully placed right after the story of Nicodemus in the chapter before. And, when you read these stories side by side you begin to see how well they pair together. But, you also begin how John is using these two stories to lift up contrasts particular contrasts between Nicodemus and this woman at the well. Hopefully you remember some of the story from Karen’s sermon last week, but in case you were out of town like I was, I’ll catch you up.
Unlike the lead character of our story today, Nicodemus, from last week, is a man. So already in the society of scripture he had a step up. Beyond his gender though, Nicodemus is a Pharisee. He a person of high status in the Jewish society, a religious leader but also a government official. He is respected and powerful. Nicodemus is an insider. He knows the system well, and knows how to play it to his advantage. And because of all of this, his power, his high status in his community, He visits Jesus in secret, undercover of darkness.
Karen described Nicodemus this way:
“Nicodemus knows there’s something powerful about Jesus – no one could do the miraculous signs Jesus was doing without being deeply connected to God. But Nicodemus isn’t ready to drop everything and follow him. There’s too much at stake for him. After all, Nicodemus has status. He has responsibility. He’s a religious leader, and it’s dangerous getting too close to a renegade rabbi like Jesus.”
So, Nicodemus, this insider religious leader, keeps his distance, he is curious about Jesus, enough to seek his counsel and hear his teaching, but not curious enough to be outed in public, not curious enough to risk all that he has. In his mind, He’s not truly in need of salvation, so, why give up all of the perks of his current life? For Nicodemus, it is easy to just maintain, to keep things as they are, and not disturb the peace
Beat for beat,
The story of the woman at the well
is the exact opposite of Nicodemus’ story that comes before it.
The setting is opposite:
Where the Nicodemus meeting is all about secrecy,
The Samaritan woman encounters Jesus by accident, at the water well in the middle of the day!
It’s not night, It is the brightest and hottest time of the day, when everyone in town is in need of some cool refreshing water. So clearly these stories are meant to play off of each other. Nicodemus’ story in the darkness is meant to play off of this woman’s story, in the full public view of the noon day light.
…And, The main characters are the exact opposite.
The main character of this story is an unmarried samaritan woman, a stark contrast to Nicodemus who is a high status in his society. This woman is low status, so low that we don’t even get to know her name. In her society she is disregarded, overlooked, silenced and vulnerable.
She is a person on the fringes… an outsider to her own Samaritan community but especially someone who should have been an outsider, or even a heretic, to a Jewish Rabbi.
Jews considered samaritans to be religious defectors… a people and a culture that lost their way in faith and were irredeemable. It would have been a scandal for a jew to speak to a samaritan in public and even more so for that samaritan to be a low-class unmarried, unnamed woman.
And yet, we have this conversation at the well, where Jesus throws out the rule book of societal norms and etiquette and crosses a giant social barrier.
This samaritan woman comes to the well. And she is carrying with her all kinds of emotional baggage… broken relationships, grief from being left behind by people she cared about and left behind society at large. Life has left her abused and forgotten, overlooked and burdened with sadness.
She is going about her normal day, coming to the well for some water on a hot day.
But Jesus sees the pain she’s hiding, he sees her humanity, and despite her circumstances and the walls society has built between the two of them, he sees her as a child of God. And so, he decides to talk with her, He decides to acknowledge her, to listen to her, to talk to her, Jesus decides to heal her.
This isn’t a healing story like other ones in scripture. Jesus doesn’t lay his hands on her, there is no spit in dirt. He just speaks with her? So how is this woman healed? So what is it he does or says that that brings about this healing? They discuss religion, he talks to her about living water, they discuss her family history? What magic miracle is there in this simple conversation??
To put it simply. I think the thing that heals this woman and saves her is Jesus’ empathy and compassion. I think it is because, in this chance encounter at the well, Jesus looks past the caution and judgment society tells him to have for this woman and instead shows true empathy and compassion.
He listens to her, he tries to understand her, and in doing so he enables and empowers her. He heals her by caring about her. And through his small act of compassion he saves her.
We live in a critical time in our society. People who have long been pushed to the fringes are feeling more comfortable coming to the well. Their struggle was long been hidden in darkness, but now it is coming into the full light of public discourse.
We hear stories of women saying Me too, who are having the courage to share their stories for the first time. We hear people advocating for black lives, taking the streets in order to bring to light racial inequality, profiling and a need for better policing in their communities. The poor are joining together to protest a widening inequality.
More and more people are coming together, and using the power of social media to bring their stories to the public. They are realizing that they are not alone, and they are bringing their stories out of darkness into the light.
Whatever our belief about these movements of people, whatever our political leaning or stance. This story, of Jesus and this samaritan woman at the well, should speak to Christians in a big way about how we are to begin to respond.
People are coming to the well. They are looking for healing, looking for Justice, looking for living water. And as followers of Christ, our first step should be to throw out the rule book of how society tells us to respond. We should meet them with compassion, rather than judgement… We should listen to them, rather than make assumptions, we should meet them with Christlike Empathy…
We should break down any societal barriers separating us and listen to them fully as Christ would, so that we can understand their pain and learn how they’ve struggled. This is how healing begins! This is how people who have suffered begin to restore. This is how the world is saved.
As this woman and Christ speak, through his listening, through his empathy, through his coming to know her struggle, this woman is lifted out of the pain of her life. This woman, this outsider, this fringe low status person is filled with new life.
And the change could not be more incredible. He helps her to tap into this spring of living water he has been speaking about and it fills her up with new life. She bubbles over with joy, she rediscovers her voice and runs to town, and she leaves her water jugs behind! She cannot help but share this experience with others. This unnamed woman moves from being silenced and overlooked to rushing to the streets in hopes of helping others find healing. She finds her voice and uses to tell other about the peace and justice that comes with Christ’s living water.
The last paragraph of this scripture leaves us with this line: Many Samaritans in that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s word when she testified. Jesus’ small act of compassion and empathy gave this woman healing, it gave her restoration, it filled her up to the point that she could use her voice again, and she used her voice, to cross barriers and bridge the gap her society had formed around her. She used her voice to restore others!
Sisters and brothers in Christ, small acts of Christ-like compassion and empathy don’t happen in a vacuum, they end up rippling out into the world. They lift people out of darkness and into the light, they fill people with living water, and truly can save them. These small acts give people a voice. They cause people to want to share the love they’ve experienced with the world around them.
Let us not be like Nicodemus… practicing our christ-like faith in secret, let us be like Jesus… showing our compassion and empathy for the disenfranchised and the least of these in the full light of the public water well at noon. Let us bear our faith in public. Let us be like this woman, bubbling up to the brim with Christ’s living water… so overjoyed that we bring others into Christ’s well of love and restoration!
Because if anything is made clear by the growing movements of people in our society, it is that the well is getting crowded.. People are desperate for restoration, people are crying out for justice, people are deeply in need of love.
As Christians, we know where the true source of all of this comes. May we be like Christ, crossing boundaries, and showing his love until all the world is overflowing with his love.
May it be so… Amen.