John 4:5-42 (3rd Sunday in Lent) – March 12, 2023
If I’m honest with you, I’m a little fearful of writing on these next few weeks. The Samaritan woman at the well, the man born blind, the raising of Lazarus. There are so many commentaries on each of these already (especially this week’s text which has a received lot of commentary in the last decade). There have been writings on the complicated and visceral tensions between Samaritans and Jews. Writings on the sexual/romantic/betrothal tension of a man coming to a woman at Jacob’s well. There are many older derogatory commentaries that focus on the sexual promiscuity of the woman and demonize her because of her “five marriages” (of which she would have likely had little agency). There are commentaries that lift this up as the first “I am” statement in the Gospel of John (“I am he, the one who is speaking to you”) and this first revelation coming to a Samaritan. There are commentaries that rightly lift her up as the first evangelist of the faith.
With 37 verses, there is so much ground that can be covered in our preaching. All this to say, I am not going to try to be the smartest one in the room on this one. There are so many great voices who have already done so much of that work (some of whom are in the footnotes).
So, rather than try to compile all these different thoughts into one long synopsis commentary (which would probably lead to just retelling the whole Gospel), I want to think about experience. As human beings and disciples, how can we resonate with the woman’s experience? What can we learn about God from her experience?
I can’t imagine the nerves (and fear) that this woman felt at the beginning of this text. This unknown man comes up to her. She knows that this is Jacob’s well. Is he expecting that this will lead to something? A betrothal? This is a tense moment. Her responses from the beginning seem to indicate that she is guarded and defensive (and rightly so in this unknown situation with a foreign stranger). “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Maybe he didn’t realize that he had strayed into Samaria? Maybe this will frighten him off?
Something about Jesus’ answers draw her in though. Now, to be clear, she never seems comfortable. But she begins to listen more intently. The back and forth becomes a little more like banter rather than defense. Even still, she does not let her guard down completely.
This scene reminds me of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,
“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” She says to the town. A man who can know everything we’ve done. A man who promises living water. A man who walks into another territory, riddled with conflict, and just begins a conversation with an unknown woman. He is certainly not safe. But he does seem to be good.
While we rightly lift the Samaritan woman up as an incredible character with incredible faith, we need to be careful about raising her above our own experience. This woman is still human. And John is lifting her encounter with Jesus as an example to us (like Nicodemus’ longer story) and not as a hero above our capabilities.
What does it feel like to encounter Jesus, the I am, the Messiah, who is here to save the world?
If we think it’s going to be “softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,” then we might be in for a rude awakening. Just last week he told us where the story was heading: “For God so loved the world….” And immediately this week, he walks into a foreign territory with a history of conflict. He tells difficult truths of our lives. He names tension (the differences of Jews and Samaritans) and doesn’t shy away from the topic.
Jesus isn’t safe but he is good.
This week we have opportunities again to preach on countless topics. But I hope to lift up these few themes that are resonating with me:
The Woman’s Experience/Feelings
There is no way that the woman was comfortable throughout the entire experience of this text. There is no way this is just an ordinary conversation with no feeling or emotion. So, if we acknowledge that about this woman’s experience, can we acknowledge that about our own faith experiences?
To encounter Jesus and God is a holy terrifying moment. When we briefly, fleetingly recognize God in our lives, it can be exposing, overwhelming, surreal.
The year I got sober, the Rev. Olu Brown was preaching at “Preaching with Power” up in Philadelphia. He preached, “When God gets a hold of our lives, we can’t be who we used to be. As the saying goes, ‘I may not be who I ought to be. I know I’m not all that I want to be. But thank God I’m not who I used to be.’”
When I heard that line, my life was broken open. I saw my whole past. The weight of it all came crashing over me. Years of drinking. Years of depression and sadness. Years of terrible decisions. Years of hurting others. Years of regret and shame. But simultaneously I saw a future with hope. I saw a path of recovery. A difficult path. A narrow path. But a path nonetheless.
Our experiences with God will open up our world and our lives to see so much more. It is sure to be uncomfortable, maybe even painful. But the hope of it all is so much greater. “When God gets a hold of our lives, we cannot be who we used to be.”
The Safety of the Encounter and the Journey
There could also be a great chance to directly dispel the myth of the safety of discipleship. When we encounter Jesus, we are encountering the I am. The burning bush, the pillar of fire, the sound of a whisper on the wind.
When we say “yes” to discipleship, we have to know that this journey will not always be safe. Jesus will walk us into lands with people that society calls “enemy.” Jesus will walk us to into the heart of truth and address conflict head on. Jesus will walk us to the cross.
Discipleship is not safe. The journey with Jesus is not safe. But it is a good, good journey.
Wilda C. Gafney, A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: Year W, 196-197.
Jennifer Garcia Bashaw, Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-john-45-42-6
 Karoline Lewis, John, 54-55.
 Bashaw, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-john-45-42-6
 Lewis, 67.
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