Mark Ramsey warns us about our tendency
to try to keep score with texts such as these:[i]
For those who are tempted to keep score with this text,
the woman—the unnamed woman at the well
–is NOT Elizabeth Taylor (may she rest in peace)
with a string of marriages to multiple men
living it up in some swirl of indulgence.
This woman is not “living in sin” with a man not her husband.
She is NOT being called out by Jesus for her lack of faith or morality.
Look for it, and those words just aren’t there.
Maybe closer to the truth is the poem that the thirty year old
Emily Dickenson began with the words:
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us – don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
In first century Middle Eastern culture,
a woman didn’t have a choice when it came to husbands.
This woman – who didn’t even merit a name – a NOBODY –
–had either been widowed or divorced,
and thus passed from man to man to man
probably in the midst of some forced, desperate downward mobility.
* * *
For those wishing to keep score, WHO shows up alone, at noon
in the scorching mid-day heat, at the town well?
Only those who are shunned from “normal” society.
Only those who are NOT welcome in the daily give and take of a village.
…And while we are at it: what’s that despised foreigner, a Jewish man,
doing there too?
* * *
While we are keeping score,
there are SO MANY things wrong here:
women didn’t come to the well at noon;
men…didn’t come to the well at all—
–they sent women or slaves to do that;
men and women did NOT speak to each other in public;
Samaritans and Jews didn’t speak to each other PERIOD.
Samaritans and Jews struggled mightily with each other.
You might have heard the phrase of the poet and philosopher
“those who cannot remember the past
are doomed to repeat it”
Well, injury and harm often causes
remembrance of the past to repeat itself.
And Samaritans and Jews remembered their history
and so were doomed to repeat it…indefinitely.[ii]
Christian theologian Miroslav Volf
has written about this phenomenon, shaped by his own experience
in the former Yugoslavia
the poisoning effect of remembering
the offenses of the past.
“Victims will often become perpetrators precisely
on account of their memories” Volf says.
It is because they remember past victimization
that they justify as rightful self-protection
what to most observers looks like violence
born of intolerance or even hatred.”[iii]
We have seen this, not only in the former Yugoslavia
but also in Israel and Palestine
and not too long ago in Northern Ireland,
and now Syria
to just name a few.
And it was alive and well in Samaria that day in the first century
when that Samaritan woman and that Jewish man
encountered one another at the well.
* * *
If we are keeping score with this text…is Jesus lost?
It says he HAD to go through Samaria.
For a Jew, NO ONE EVER had to go through Samaria.
There are plenty of roads around Samaria.
But then again, this is Jesus.
Jesus always went out,
always crossed over the barrier,
always broke the rules in favor of welcome,
including someone who everybody said
it was WRONG to include.
I know that sounds NOBLE…but we really don’t like this about Jesus.
When I think about THOSE people who get under my skin just a bit,
I don’t like this about Jesus either.
Its one of my quarrels with God.
But just look at this Jesus, what he says and what he does.
We might worry about membership numbers
Jesus just showed up,
started engaging, started including
Jesus didn’t really take attendance
(so much for keeping score).
So many churches spend so much time trying to get people to come IN
to try to get people to do things their way
to see things as they see things, you know…
In contrast, Jesus always WENT OUT.
Went against the grain.
In that light, when their conversations turned toward worship—
–where to worship, how to worship…
…its noteworthy that Jesus presents his vision of worship…
…NOT to a gathering of pastors and Ruling Elders
…NOT to his own synagogue
…NOT to a task force appointed to evaluate new trends.
…Jesus offers his vision of worship
to a hungry, searching, OUTSIDER!
(I mean, as long as we are keeping score…)
* * *
Speaking of that,
do you remember LAST week’s reading about Nicdemus from John 3.
It wasn’t what Sally preached on, but it was the first text for the day.
…Scoring this correctly: who wins?
Nicodemus, or the unnamed woman at the well?
Nicodemus is a Pharisee—an INSIDER,
a leader of the Jewish people.
He is a man, he has a name…
…but he comes to Jesus by NIGHT.
This woman Jesus encounters at the well is a
religious, social, and political OUTSIDER.
She is a woman, she is not even named…
…but she meets Jesus at noon, in full daylight.
Whereas Nicodemus is unable to move beyond the confines
of his religious system,
the Samaritan moves outside of her religious expectations
to engage Jesus in theological debate.
Nicodemus cannot hear that Jesus is sent by God,
the woman SEES Jesus for who he is and whose he is.
While Nicodemus’ last questioning words to Jesus
expose his disbelief—
“How can these things be?”…
…the last words of the woman at the well—
—“He cannot be the Christ…can he?”—
–lead her to witness to her whole town.[iv]
proclaims the truth of Jesus to her whole world!
* * *
All this began…because Jesus is THIRSTY.
Note that: the woman is NOT the one who has initial need.
This Woman is NOT the one in the ditch
awaiting the Good Samaritan
She is NOT the prodigal, returning in need of a parent’s embrace.
She is NOT the one crying out to Jesus to have mercy.
Her engagement with Jesus’ need OPENED the door.
* * *
In Alice Walker’s Novel, The Color Purple,
Celie and Shug have a long talk about God.
Celie has been abused by life.
She tried to be what she thought was a good Christian for a long time,
but now she has given up and decided that God is dead.
She describes her gifts from God as
“a lynched daddy, a crazy mama,
a lowdown dog of a step pa
and a sister I probably won’t ever see again.”
Shug tries to help Celie believe in God again.
Celie finds this astonishing since Shug has never been a churchgoer
and has always been what Celie thinks of as a big sinner.
Shug asks Celie to describe the God that she doesn’t believe in:
“He big and old and tall and greybeareded and white.”
Shug replies: “If you wait to find God in the white folks’ church
that’s the one who is bound to show up.
When I found out God was white,
and a man, I lost interest.”
Shug is the Samaritan woman.
Prejudiced people kept telling her that God doesn’t care for her.
That she doesn’t count.
That she can’t matter to God.
That she can’t even worship right!
But like the Samaritan woman,
Shug hears a new voice.
God love everything you love and a mess of stuff you don’t…
…Praise God by liking what you like…
People think pleasing God is all God care about.
But any fool living in the world can see (God)
always trying to please us back…
…Once us feel loved by God,
us do the best us can to please God.[v]
* * *
That realization that “any fool living the world
can see God always trying to please us back”—
–That HAPPENED in the person of Jesus.
There at the well.
At High Noon.
Breaking through all caution,
–to tell this woman about the God of “Spirit and Truth.”
Spirit and Truth.
Spirit and Truth puts this text beyond any simple scorekeeping…
* * *
In the first chapter of Genesis, when God began creating the world,
we are told that the spirit of God “hovered”
over the dark waters and brought forth life.
“Hover” brings to mind a helicopter sweeping down
and hovering over a location.
A better translation of this Hebrew word might be
“brooded” over the waters.
The Spirit of God is that which brings forth something out of nothing,
that which brings life out of death.
The Spirit…is generative.
In the New Testament, the word for “spirit” is the Greek word pneuma.
Pneuma means, simply, “wind”.
It’s like Jesus is saying,
“The day is coming when those who worship
will worship in the wind and in truth.”
The wind is air in motion.
Therefore this implies the Spirit is God in motion.
God is not static, but is movement.
The Spirit of God brooded over the waters of creation
and set the world in motion.
A world set in motion by the Spirit of God
has NO WAY to keep up with all caution,
convention, or categories or insider and outsider.
* * *
John’s Gospel has a very particular view of truth.
Truth, for us, tends to be an idea,
some statement that we make-“This idea is true.”
But in John’s Gospel, Jesus makes statements like, “I am the truth.”
Now, you see, the truth about God has become a person,
has become personal.
God is no longer an abstraction,
a vague generality.
God has a face and a name—Jesus the Christ.
After Jesus has told the woman that there will be a day
when all worshippers will worship in spirit and truth,
Jesus says to her directly, “I am.”
That is, if she really wants to encounter the truth,
she only has to open her eyes and see truth in conversation with her.
Truth is sitting right next to her!
* * *
Jesus was THIRSTY.
The woman yearned for LIVING WATER…
…something she could not completely name.
The rest…was SPIRIT and TRUTH.
* * *
Her name is Kathleen.[vii]
Growing up, she dreamed,
that she was going to exotic places around the globe
as a missionary.
She wanted to proclaim the gospel,
and share the good news all around the globe.
It didn’t work out that way.
She got married, had children,
they needed extra income so she went to nursing school.
She ended up as a public health nurse in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
She was not in China.
She was not in India.
She was in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
I hadn’t heard of Asbury Park, so I had to look it up.
In the 1930s and 1940s it was a fashionable seaside resort,
with great hotels and shops,
and a boardwalk that rivaled Atlantic City.
But by the time Kathleen was there as a public health nurse,
Asbury Park looked like bombed out Berlin.
The shops had closed.
The boardwalk was decimated.
Most of the hotels were closed, or were flop houses.
There was ONE of the hotels that had in it SCORES of aged people.
Most of them were sick.
All of them were poor.
The management of the hotel: they wouldn’t let public health nurses in.
They did NOT want them to see the squalid conditions, you see
or how those people were living.
And the corrupt city government of Asbury Park backed them up.
But every time Kathleen went by that hotel and looked up.
she saw Jesus in a window saying “I am thirsty.”
So she took off her nurses uniform and put on ordinary clothes
and went down to that hotel incognito, hired on as a maid.
And day after day, that woman went from room to room,
taking blood pressures,
checking medication…speaking a word of encouragement.
Where none of the rest of us would have seen anything but despair,
she saw Jesus saying…”Would you give me a drink?”
And through dipping her clay jar every day into the well
and holding it out to his lips
THAT WORLD was filled with streams of mercy,
with living water.
* * *
Or this: A few years ago, NPR reported on a story
about Julio Diaz,
who is a social worker in New York City.[viii]
Every day, on his way home from work, Diaz followed the same routine,
ending his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx
one stop early, just so he could eat at his favorite diner.
But one night, as Diaz stepped off the Number 6 train
and onto a nearly empty platform,
his evening took an unexpected turn.
He was walking toward the stairs
when a teenage boy appeared, and pulled out a knife
and demanded his money.
So Diaz gave the boy his wallet.
As the assailant began to walk away, Diaz said,
“Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something.
If you’re going to be robbing people all night,
you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”
The young man looked at his victim like he was crazy, and he asked,
“Why are you doing this?”
Diaz replied, “Well, if you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars,
then I guess you must really need the money.
I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner…
and if you want to join me…hey, you’re more than welcome.”
“I just felt maybe he really [needed] help,” Diaz told NPR.
Remarkably, the boy agreed, and the unlikely pair
walked to the diner and sat in a booth.
Shortly the manager came by,
the dishwasher came by,
the waitress came by to greet him.
Diaz remembered, “The kid was like, ‘You know everybody here.
Do you own this place?’”
“No,” Diaz answered, “I just eat here a lot.”
The boy responded, “But you’re even nice to the dishwasher.”
“Well, haven’t you been taught that
you should be nice to everybody?” Diaz asked him.
“Yeah, but I didn’t think people actually behaved that way,”
the boy said.
And so the social worker saw an opening.
He asked the boy what he wanted out of life.
“He just had almost a sad face,” Diaz said.
He couldn’t answer—or he didn’t want to.
When the bill arrived, Diaz told the teen,
“Look, I guess you’re going to have to pay for this bill
‘cause you have my money and I can’t pay for it.
But if you give me my wallet back, I’ll gladly treat you.”
The teen “didn’t even think about it” and handed over the walled, Diaz said.
“So I gave him $20..I figured maybe it would help him…”
But Diaz asked for something in return,
and the boy gave it to him. it was his knife.
* * *
So, verse 42 of this chapter.
Did you know that it is the ONLY time in John’s Gospel
when the word “SAVIOR” is used?
“…For we have heard for ourselves
and we know that this is truly the SAVIOR of the world.”
Thirst. Such deep thirst!
Wild, blowing Spirit.
God in constant motion.
Streams of mercy.
[i] Indebted to and adapted from the sermon “For Those Keeping Score” by the Rev. Mark Ramsey preached at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church of Asheville, North Carolinia, March 27, 2011.
[ii] From a sermon by John Walton on John 4 from goodpreacher.com
[iii] Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Eerdmands, 2006) p. 6.
[iv] Karoline M. Lewis, “Exegetical Persepctive” in Feasting on the Word: Year A Third Sunday in Lent.
[v] Alice Walker, The Color Purple (Pocket Books, 1982), 199-204, as cited by Brett Younger in “Living Water,” goodpreacher.com
[vi] William Willimon, “Spirit and Truth,” Pulpit Resource, First Quarter, 2011, Logos
[vii] From a sermon by Tom Long at the 2008 Festival of Homiletics.