Wells in the Wilderness

March 8, 2015 – Rev. Jan Hryniewicz

Text:  John 4: 5 – 42

I have a confession to make….and I know you all love confessions!   When I was looking back over my files, I discovered that I preached on this text on March 14th last year, also during Lent….a sermon entitled “Are You Thirsty?”   So those of you who were here last March, are excused and can go make things at the children’s corner or take a walk!

Jesus and the Samaritan woman….a familiar text and a fascinating story.  I was tempted, I admit…..to preach that same sermon again….because “ who would know” the “devil” in me proclaimed.   Well, “they might remember the jokes” I replied to my naughty voice…. and “ I would know”, sending the naughty voice away groaning at my silly ethics!  And…. I glanced through the sermon to discover that there were no jokes!  Well only one about Lutherans who sin appropriately.

Do you remember it?

Garrison Keillor , long time host of the radio show A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION appeared at a benefit at San Francisco’s St. Mark’s Lutheran Church to help save the century-old church from the wrecking ball. After leading the congregation in hymns, Keillor pulled up a stool, brought greetings and gave the news from Lake Wobegon. “Lutherans back home, he joked, “repent in the same way they sin: discreetly, tastefully, at the proper time, and they bring a Jell-O salad for dessert.” ASPIRE, October 1995, p. 10.

Why a joke about discreet sin?  Because there was nothing very discreet about the Samaritan woman’s sin, and there was no jello salad.  Just a cup of water from a historic well.

Actually, every time I read something, either from the Bible or from one of the wonderful authors who inspire me, I see and hear something different in the text. The longer I sit with it, most of the time, a deeper knowing occurs. Often more questions emerge which invite me to explore deeper and not just accept the story at face value. So this is not a rerun!

I am going to read the story to you this morning, from the gospel of John, which is the only gospel to include this story.  This is a version I love, paraphrased by author Margaret Silf from her book Sacred Spaces.

Before we listen to the story, let me let you in on a fascinating fact I discovered.  You can go to Israel today and take a journey to Samaria to the town of Sychar. A place the passage of time seems to have forgotten. Not many people live there, about 300, and they still consider themselves Samaritans.

The primary structure in town is a kind of cellar, which houses a well, the only source of water for miles. Archeologists estimate its date upwards of 4,000 years. Weary travelers have quenched their thirst there since the time of Jacob.

In the time of Jesus, the most direct route north to Galilee was through the region of Samaria. Yet a good Jew of Jesus’ day would often be inclined to avoid this region. The problem with Samaria was the people who lived there. They were not good Jews. They were not pure Jews by heredity; they were Jews who had been ethnically mixed over generations of mixed marriages with the Arab race. The people of Samaria were not even faithfully practicing the Hebrew religion, but were mixing Judaism with vestiges of their earlier roots in pagan religions. Such religious practices made them (ritually) impure in the eyes of a Jew of Jesus’ day. When it came to religious and social matters it was better for a Jew to avoid them. In spite of this, Jesus chose to go through that wilderness of disgrace.

Now I want to suggest  4 insights or lessons  you might listen for.

I am reminded of one of my favorite PEANUTS cartoons in which Charlie Brown was at the beach carefully building a castle in the sand. Standing back to admire his work, he was soon engulfed by a downpour which leveled the castle. Standing before the smooth place where his artwork had once stood, he said: “There must be a lesson here, but I don’t know what it is.”

I hope that the lessons in this story will be clear for us today.

1..What do we learn about …or what is confirmed about Jesus and his ministry from this story?

  1. What issues are addressed that are still relevant today?
  2. What happens to the woman during and after this “wondrous encounter”?
  3. Is there a lesson that invites a transformation in us?

Listen now to the gospel narrative, illuminated by Margaret Silf: ( Page 100 in Sacred Spaces)

A beautiful, deeply intimate narrative, which reveals much about the characters.

Jacob’s well has become a sacred space for this woman….a holy place where a wondrous encounter happened that enabled her transformation. She was carrying her guilt and sorrow like a huge stone around her neck…which separated her from relationships, which limited her vision for the future.  She was ashamed and devoid of hope,  limited by her image of herself as a victim, as a hopeless sinner.

In her book, Wisdom Jesus , author Cynthia Borgeault writes:  “ When I listen closely to this fascinating story, the first thing I hear is a sort of mutual boldness. Clearly Jesus sees something in this woman from the start.  And far from being intimidated, she returns his serves beautifully. When he talks about water, she challenges him, but when he ups the ante and moves from literal water (that water down in the well that you haul with a bucket) to living water, she goes right along with him. And when he says ‘with the water I give you, you will never thirst again.’, she catches his meaning exactly; she makes the leap right along with him. It’s a fascinating exchange.  There is a heart to heart connection and a heart to heart inner seeing. He sees who she is and she sees who he is.  And in the light of that mutual recognition they keep on empowering each other and drawing each other along to greater self disclosure.”

For the first time in this gospel, Jesus reveals his true identity to anyone …. he becomes vulnerable to her, as she is to him….and there is an infusion of light and understanding in the heart of each of them.   It is a wondrous encounter for both Jesus and the Samaritan woman, as each is able to be completely honest and open to the other….to reveal secrets and lay down burdens.

The author of John’s gospel has Jesus telling a Samaritan….a woman to boot….that he is the long awaited one who has come to usher in the new age….God’s indwelling kingdom.  He is the Messiah! WOW!

That is a biggie for sure…..no matter how you interpret this story, literally or metaphorically…..( that is up to you!) Jesus has expanded the boundaries of religious tradition, of theological understanding, of interpersonal relationships and racial and gender stereo-types.   And this has opened the floodgates…. to allow the living water to flow freely from the Divine Source to the inner wells of our souls….wells that will never run dry.

Were you watching for the 4 insights?

  1. What does this story teach …or confirm about Jesus and his ministry,

Fr. Richard Rohr writes: “ The story exemplifies Jesus’ non interest in the religious culture and denominationalism of his own day. He not only talks to a strange woman alone ( to the scandal of the disciples), but points out that the truth claims of both groups, Jews and Samaritans, are of no final interest to God!   It doesn’t matter whether you are in the Temple ( where the Jews worshipped) or on the Mountain where the Samaritans worshipped, God is a spirit and can be worshipped anywhere! Jesus showed no interest in maintaining purity systems, or closed systems of any kind, because they only appeal to the ego and lead no one to God. .

When the woman tells Jesus that she knows about the prophecy of the Messiah for a glorious kingdom to come after death…… Jesus says…. “The kingdom is here and nowthe secret is to open up your life and receive it.”  This is really great stuff,  ( says Rohr) which could still reform Christian  pettiness and division,  or any notion of the gospel as a reward/punishment system that comes after death.” The kingdom is here and now!

  1. What is still relevant today?

Certainly even now over 2,000 years later, there is still racial tension, racial profiling…. acts of violence against people with different racial or ethnic backgrounds and different religious beliefs.  The hatred, fear and violence continues still.  Like Samaria, there are places and people.and situations.we avoid in our daily lives, aren’t there?

In his book, Living Faith, former President Jimmy Carter talks about the barriers that divide people and give them a false sense of identity. Having grown up in the South during the time of racial segregation, he had many African-American friends. When his parents were away, he would stay with his black neighbors, Jack and Rachel Clark. He played with black friends, went fishing with them, plowed with mules side by side, and played on the same baseball team. But when he carried water to people working the field, it was unthinkable that black workers and white workers would drink from the same dipper. (Living Faith, pp. 188-9)

Still today, there are racial, ethnic, gender, age, religious, cultural, social issues and attitudes that divide us  ….which make drinking from the same cup difficult if not impossible. How desperately we need to come to the well together and drink the living water of the Spirit that Jesus offered to this nameless woman….and offers to you and me today.

  1. 3. What happens to this woman during and after her encounter with Jesus?

The woman  ( I wish John had given us her name!)… recognizes her need for the living water….for something to take away her emptiness and give her hope for something more for her wounded life. In this narrative, she is fully engaged in the conversation….listening and learning from Jesus.   ( good lesson on active listening!)  She has an open heart & mind…she is willing to partake of the nourishment….. to believe Jesus’ message of hope and renewal.  That is a huge step…. essential to transformation. We have to show up!   This wondrous encounter enabled a life changing transformation in the life and attitude of this woman….and perhaps even in Jesus.

According to the story, the Samaritan woman was transformed and everyone who encountered her noticed the change in her. She was different!  She has been properly nourished and spiritually hydrated! When she returned to her village, people were aware of the change.  “ What is different about her?”

  1. What can we take from this message in 2015…as individuals and as a church?

It seems to me that this lovely story is also about hospitality.  … about welcoming each other…. inviting all people to gather at a communal well and partake of the living water of the Divine Spirit….together….  no barriers….no judgement….with a spirit of love and compassion.

Once there was a man on a train going across the desert in Arizona. He was the only person in the car who had not pulled down the window shades to keep out the glare of the hot sun on the parched earth. In contrast to the other passengers, he kept looking out his window, and seemed actually to enjoy the dismal scene.

After a while the curious man seated across the aisle, asked, “Sir, what do you see in that wasteland that makes you smile?”

“Oh,” he replied,” I’m in the irrigation business, and I was thinking if we could only get water to this land that the desert would become a garden.”

Perhaps this is a key insight from this story…. what Jesus is teaching His disciples, who think he has lost his mind chatting like an old friend with a woman….a Samaritan even!!  He wants them and us to see the world’s people as God sees them. Every one of them is precious in God’s sight. By the love and power of the Divine Spirit…the Living Water, we can become a new creation…. a family.

I believe this story teaches us about the importance of deep listening and indepth interaction with each other.  How quickly Jesus and this unnamed, unknown woman evolved to a place of intimacy, sharing with each other secrets they had never shared before…. laying down burdens they had been carrying.   Recalling the children’s message about our precious animal friends and the hundreds of unlikely friendships that have been formed to the delight of us all.  This was an unlikely friendship between a Jew and a Samaritan, and both lives were transformed.  Good lesson learned.


Doesn’t this story also call us to become God’s wells for one another to nourish all thirsty souls?  How can we become life giving wells to those thirsty souls we encounter every day?

Author, Macrina Weiderkehr has the final word today, as she did in March of 2014.

 “ It is never too late to become a well for our thirsty sisters and brothers in all the families of this world. Nor is it too late to receive drinks from their wells.  There are wells hidden in the hearts of all the thirsty strangers we meet along the way. ….After the woman at the well received her drink from Jesus, she became a well for others to drink from.  What makes this world so lovely is that somewhere it hides a well  … a well that hasn’t been found yet. And if you don’t find it maybe nobody will. And if you don’t become a well, maybe nobody will find you!”  Amen.