A sermon I preached at St Gabriel’s, Bishopwearmouth, Sunderland in March 2017
Using this principle Gospel passage: John 4:5-42 and also Luke 19: 1-10
“The woman at the well” from John’s Gospel is that dodgy story with the serious blurring of social boundaries, misunderstandings and depending on your interpretation, a strong hint of a dubious past. A juicy bit of gossip straight out of (Middle) East Enders. A story of loose morals and forgiveness. Isn’t it?
Personally, I’m not so sure – after all it the passage doesn’t mention sin anywhere. I wonder whether we might get side-tracked when we see this as a story about a sinful woman. So that’s not what I want to talk about today. What I am going to talk about is what happened when this woman met Jesus; what she did next.
The story starts:
So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
Women and men in this culture didn’t usually mix. They kept a safe social distance from each other. So the woman is probably a bit shocked when Jesus addresses her directly. And what he says is even weirder. He asks her for a drink.
She can’t believe it. She says something like:
“Well this is odd, a Jew asking a Samaritan for a drink!”
Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate. When the woman at the well asks Jesus what on earth he’s on about, why He, a Jew, is asking her the Samaritan for a drink, Jesus answers,
“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
“Living water” was a local expression for running water. So she thinks he’s on about a stream or river, and wonders how on earth he can provide this water when she knows fine well there’s no running water nearby. If there was, why would her ancestors have built this well? Was this man trying to be funny with her? Thinking he knows better than the locals?
But when Jesus talks of “living water”, he’s talking about himself. Living Water. Jesus Christ. The only one who can satisfy every need and be the source of all life. And over the course of their conversation, this truth dawns on her. She believes. She identifies Him. He is the Messiah.
Unlike the religious leader Nicodemus who met Jesus in the previous chapter, who just couldn’t get his head around who or what Jesus was, this Samaritan woman clearly gets it. She sees and accepts Him for who He is, just as He’s seen and accepted her. In fact it seems as if He’s always known her. And importantly she understands what he offers.
Armed with this knowledge she dashes off to play a unique role in Jesus’ ministry. She’s one of first characters in John’s gospel to seek out others to tell them about Jesus. She’s the first evangelist to the gentiles.
Her gender, her past (whatever it was) and the fact she’s not Jewish have no bearing whatsoever on her ability to see, receive and then act. In this story Jesus shares this living water, the truth and the life, with people whom Jews considered detested enemies and outsiders.
So I think this story makes it clear that since Jesus, the people of God is to consist of all of us, whoever we are. Jesus died for the sins of the world so that we can all be included in His Father’s generous love. And, no matter how late it is, or who we are, it’s never too late to receive this living water, if we acknowledge Jesus for who He is. It’s our opportunity to have a fresh start and change our lives.
So this is a sermon (I said I’d eventually get to the point) about the transforming nature of discovering who Jesus is and what we do with that knowledge. As soon as the woman at the well realised who Jesus was, she sprang into action. She literally left her water container at the well and dashed off to tell others, so they could share in Him. So here’s the question for us today: if we know what Jesus has freely and generously given us, how do we respond? What do we do next?
To assist us with that question, let’s meet Zacchaeus the tax collector. He’s the wealthy Jew from Luke’s Gospel who collected taxes for the Roman oppressors. He’s that traitor who got rich by extortion and embezzlement. By taking advantage of the elderly, and exploiting the working poor. Not a nice man. He’s the bloke who, when Jesus saw him, he called him down from the tree that he’d climbed, and said to him “invite me to stay at your house”.
Painting by Joel Whitehead
And after Jesus spent some time at this shady character’s home, Zacchaeus declared:
“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
When Zacchaeus recognised Jesus, when he accepted him at the Messiah, he felt absolutely inspired, driven, compelled even, to completely turn his life around. His discovery led him to extraordinary generosity. He gave away his possessions.
We’ll never know what Jesus said to Zacchaeus in that house, but we do know what he said to the woman at the well about being the living water that will sustain forever, that will prevent us from ever thirsting again. And we do know that with this knowledge she ran to tell anyone who would listen. Maybe he said something similar to Zacchaeus. We’ll never know.
So what can we learn from these two people who met Jesus? I’ve learned that when I said yes to Jesus Christ, my life changed. And it doesn’t matter if your story of discovery is nothing like mine or theirs. Because even if we’ve grown up knowing Jesus we can still have light bulb discovery moments and choose to make a greater commitment. This can happen at any time. Maybe we haven’t yet had that discovery moment, and we’re still faithfully waiting for the day we’ll know in our hearts that Jesus Christ is our living water. Wherever we think we are with faith, the offer is always there. God won’t go away. Every day the choice is ours to invite Jesus into our lives and to see what happens.
And when this happens, when we start to comprehend and accept that he gave everything for us, and he sustains our every need like pure, cool, life-giving water… when we properly get it that God loves us and gives us more than we could ever ask, and that God will keep on meeting us when we are still far off and will bring us home…. when we accept this level of generosity I firmly believe our hearts and our behaviours are transformed.
I just don’t think we can stay the same, once we discover Jesus for ourselves.
And when we discover (or rediscover) who Jesus really is, like the woman at the well, or like Zacchaeus, what will transformation look like? What will be noticeably different about us? What is God calling us to do? What is the Holy Spirit nudging us to share? How will we give of ourselves once we know Jesus Christ is the living water?
Will we be like sturdy reservoirs, collecting and storing this living water? Or will we do what these people did, and share this discovery with others? Will we let God’s love and light and generosity pour into and then out of us to other people? Will our faces shine with the light of this discovery? Will we go out and share this news with our neighbours like the Samaritan woman? Do we feel prompted to be like Zacchaeus by doing generous acts? By giving up some of our stuff? By generously giving away our money and possessions to those less fortunate?
How will our personal discovery that Jesus is the Messiah transform our lives? What will we do next?