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Thirsty Stranger

samaritanwellJohn 4: 3-30 and 39-42
Exodus 17: 1-7
Introduction to the reading

Although Jews and Samaritans were both descended from the ancient Israelites, shared the same heritage and practiced the same religion, but in different ways, there was a long-standing hostility –ethnic hatred really - between them.

In the reading for today, Jesus was by himself, on his way back to Galilee from Judea.  He says that he has to go through Samaria to do that, and indeed, although it is not the only way, it is the most direct route.  But more importantly, it sets up the theological necessity of this part of Jesus’ travel ministry.

Also notice the different attitude between the woman at the well, here in this story, and the people of Israel from the Exodus passage:  one curious, open and receptive, the other complaining and demanding.

First, a confession of sorts.  I preached this sermon three years ago, when the passage about Jesus and the woman of Samaria, found only in the Gospel of John, came up in the lectionary.  The world has certainly changed a lot in those three years, so we’ll see where the sermon leads us this time.

He was a stranger in these parts.  Had to be.  It was clear that he was Jewish and didn’t belong here.  Maybe he was just passing through.  Anyway, she had never seen him around before and believe you me, she kept her eyes and ears open – all the time.

She had to... she was a kind of stranger here herself, even in her own country.  She could hardly remember what it was that had alienated her from the others – what she had done wrong (maybe it was all the times she’d been married?) – but whatever, here she was, coming to the well for water in the heat of midday instead of in the cool morning with the other women.

Well... this stranger Jew was thirsty.  “Give me a drink” was what he said. She could share her water with him.  No problem really.
First theological reflection.  God is thirsty and hungry for us – for our devotion and our allegiance and for our acceptance of God’s saving grace and love.  

Not only that, but – second theological reflection - God also asks something from us, calls us into service.  For Jesus represents all in this world who are hungry and thirsty and in need.  Here we have the direct personification of Matthew 25:35: for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

Did she give him some water?  We don’t know.  But she presses common knowledge on him:  a Jewish man should not be speaking in public to any woman, let alone a Samaritan.  He has crossed a boundary.  Doesn’t he know any better?
He certainly does, but in a completely different sense.  For he is bridging that great gap between sinful humanity and God, that gap that humans are forever widening and Jesus is forever reaching across.  

Jesus reaches out to her:  “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.”... “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.”  

Now she is the stranger, for what he says makes no sense to her.  But she is a thirsty stranger:  Sir, give me this water so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here...

Third theological reflection.  God provides salvation – living water – to anyone and everyone, Jews and Samaritans alike.   God’s grace and love are not confined or limited.  As the gospel writer John has said elsewhere:  for God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son...  Here we have an example of how that declaration of God’s love for the world plays out.

The conversation continues and Jesus now seems to take them on a little detour about her husbands, whereupon she realizes that he knows all about her.  She says he must be a prophet since he knows all this.  That then lifts the discussion to a higher, theological level more worthy to be talking about with a prophet.  

So they talk about worship.  The Jews and Samaritans differ on what they consider to be the holy place designated by God for worship. But Jesus says that the hour is coming – and in fact, is here – when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth, no matter where they are.

Furthermore, when she shifts to a comment on waiting for the coming Messiah, this man dares to say: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”  That clinched it.  He used that revered ancient term that everybody, Jew or Samaritan, uses to identify God: I AM.

Fourth theological reflection.  The worship of God is not limited or confined to the places or times or practices that any humans define or construct.  Furthermore, in Jesus, the Word made flesh, God has chosen to dwell among us and his presence is a constant, so our worship can be constant and continuous.

Their conversation is interrupted by the disciples, who have returned to rejoin Jesus from wherever they had been.  She takes the opportunity to leave – and leave her water jar behind; she no longer needs it to provide the water she really needs.  She went back to the city, shed of her status as an outcast and renewed as a person of worth in God’s eyes.  She gave her testimony to anyone who would listen –which they did.  Come and see; come and meet him – which they also did.

Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony. Jesus stayed with them for two days.  They heard his word for themselves and they knew for themselves that Jesus was truly the Savior of the world.
Theological reflection five:  don’t keep God’s good news to yourself.

Let me back up here to Verse 27, which leads us into a meaning of this tale for us.  Just then his disciples came.  They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said [to her], “What do you want?” or [to Jesus], “Why are you speaking with her?”  Why didn’t one of them speak up?  Maybe they didn’t want Jesus to think they didn’t get it – didn’t get what he’s been saying about God’s love for all people – but still and all, this woman?  Really?  Well, yes, really…    

David Lyle, senior pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, Illinois, writing on this passage, has commented:

There are still people at the well in the midday heat, those written off by society, looking in from the outside.  The gospel drives us toward them with a word of hope that transcends race, gender, nationality, marital status, and anything else the world would use to separate us.  In Christ, all such division is transcended and healed.  We are sent to those who yearn to have their long thirst satisfied. (Lyle 18)

Surely there is no shortage of thirsty strangers in our world today and they are becoming more and more visible.

  • Refugees, immigrants, asylum seekers.
  • The poor, chronically ill, addicted, disabled, who cannot afford essential health care or health insurance.
  • Women who need pre-natal care and family planning advice but who cannot afford to have a personal ob-gyn physician.

There are so many issues on the table, so many lives at stake.  As Christian people, what should we say, where should we stand, what should we do?  Some of us will be more activist than others, but anyone can know in their heart and anyone can talk about what they know.  But all of us should be looking to Jesus, who we claim is a constant presence, who offers to everyone the living water of salvation (in the form of justice, reconciliation, and peace), who is hopeful and ready for us to do his will in this world.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and forever.  Amen and amen.

Lyle, David. “Living the Word.” Christian Century 1 March 2017, 18.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
March 19, 2017

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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