Text: John 4:5-29
Theme Verse: “Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship.” (John 4:23)
The woman named only by the place she is from encounters Jesus in a way that ultimately changes her entire community. It might be said that things weren’t really going the way the woman planned at this point in her life. How often is that true of all of us? Maybe our lives are not about things going as we planned, but about how we adapt, change and grow when they don’t. An everyday encounter opens the gift to be adaptable to a new way, a new hope.
reader : Debbie Robson
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
Being a pastor isn’t always the easiest thing to be. I’m sure the same is true for whatever you do with your time – whether that be employment, retirement, or something else entirely. I’m a PK, a pastor’s kid, myself and so I can’t say I didn’t know what I was getting into when I said, “Yes!” to serve God in full-time ministry. I remember, at times, when I was a kid being sensitive to the whole thing. People always want to know what you “do” or what your parents “do” and I’ll admit that sometimes I wished my dad wasn’t a minister. Once that word was out, the vibe often changed. I’ve had a lot of my own experiences in this regard but I was excited to see that some official research has been done on the matter and the results are in. Researchers were seeking to find answers to a very specific question. They’ve conveniently graphed it for our viewing pleasure.
For those who can’t see it well: The graph title reads, “What people do when they find out I’m a Pastor during a normal conversation.” You may not be able to make out the responses all that well so allow me to read them to you. The three smaller pie shapes are equally represented with these responses: “Oh, wow! I go to Church X. You know it?” That’s represented in green. Represented in red is this response: “Silently get awkward.” The blue pie-shaped piece is what we most typically hope for: “Continue normally.” And then you see that largest, orange Pac-man shaped portion. The number one response to what people do when they find out I’m a pastor during a normal conversation? “They stop cussing.” I’m amazed at how well some can adapt on the fly. They’ll say, “Why Mother Mary, why didn’t you say so earlier?” And then they go on to respond like one of the other responses suggest or tell you about a time they got ordained online so they could do a friend’s wedding. That’s sort of like telling your doctor you learned how to perform an appendectomy by watching a YouTube video – it’s not exactly the same but you get the idea.
Adaptability – it’s a key skill to navigating life. You may be able to change your behavior on the fly given a certain social situation like I’ve just described. Good sales people listen to their clients needs and then adapt their presentation to hit home where it matters most personally to the potential buyer. Some adaptation takes a little longer. It may involve the shift of more than yourself but that of an entire organization or community. Being adaptable may be all the more important when you’re talking about changing the masses. We don’t tend to plan for it. We make to-do lists and get our Google Calendars in order. We make five-year and ten-year plans but then life happens; things that we can’t anticipate or prepare for with any certainty. They may be things that punch us in the gut and scoff at our carefully crafted five-year plans. Even so, when we look back at our lives those unexpected moments that called for our adaptation to a new way are the markers of what made our lives matter most – and typically are moments of influence beyond our own personal circumstances.
The woman in our scripture focus this morning, named only by the place she is from, encounters Jesus in a way that ultimately changes her entire community. It might be fair to say that things weren’t really going the way the woman planned at this point in her life. Her five-year plan had been hijacked long ago. How often is that true of all of us? Maybe our lives are not about things going as we planned, but about how we adapt, change and grow when they don’t. An everyday encounter with Jesus opens the gift to be adaptable to a new way, a new hope.
Now – let’s think about Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well. What are the chances they would meet? Slim to none. While we started in verse five for sake of the story reading like a story, we miss something significant by not including verse four. When Jesus leaves Judea on his way back to Galilee, John records that he “had to go through Samaria.” There is no geographical reason for this directive. There was no road that necessitated a path through Samaria. This turns this simple travel narrative from a geographic footnote to a theological statement. John demonstrates that Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman and her village was a part of God’s desired movement of inclusion. Have you ever had that tug to go a certain way? You couldn’t fully explain why but you just had to go. “I just had to be there,” you’d say. And something life changing or deeply meaningful occurred because you went. For some greater purpose that couldn’t be known on the front end of things, Jesus had to go through Samaria. And there… he meets this woman and a water cooler conversation turned into the adaptation of the way of life for an entire community of people.
There’s a lot we could get into concerning this powerful story in John’s gospel. The meeting at Jacob’s well – a significant landmark of faith. We could dive into the culturally taboo conversation that takes place. Men and women weren’t supposed to address each other like this in public – particularly a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman. That just didn’t happen. In attempt to avoid another ‘judgey’ conversation with someone, she basically says to Jesus from the onset, “I’m a bad woman from a bad town. Leave me alone.” Even when the disciples came back to find the two of them talking, they didn’t say anything but John notes: “Shock was all over their faces.” It is funny to me how tame we make Jesus in our own minds when virtually the entirety of his ministry was completely shocking to people of that time – especially the religious folks. How would Jesus shock us religious folks today? A provocative question we’ll set aside for another time. We could talk about this woman’s morals as so many like to do unfairly, what with all of her marital difficulties and such. She was, as one poet put it, “Somebody the good women could tell their daughters, ‘Don’t be like that.’” All of this just feeds into the amazement of this encounter – two people who couldn’t be more different engaging each other to a point of life adaptation. We put all of the responsibility of adapting on the woman and she certainly had adapting to do but Jesus didn’t walk away from this encounter unchanged either. This certainly continued to grow his sense of any and everyone being welcomed into the Good News story he was living and any and everyone being capable of transforming the lives of others whether they spent years in seminary or printed off their own ordination certificate online.
For sake of our time today, however, as we continue to ponder in Lent what it means to be all groan up, let’s capture the snapshot moment of when this woman leaves the well and before she gets back to her village. We know she is struck by her conversation because she leaves her water bucket – the very reason she went to the well in the first place did not now matter so much. Something much bigger was brewing. What would she do? And I’m sure she was playing it all over again in her head. “Who’s going to believe me?” and “Nobody trusts me anyway.” On and on the head-game scenarios play on. We talk ourselves out of a lot of things on the way to Point B from Point A. Think of times you’ve been convicted of something – or maybe even inspired by something – and you think, “This is it. Things are gonna change. I’m taking on a new focus, a new hope and I’m going to tell people about it.” Maybe this has happened at worship some time in your life. But from the time you left inspired to the time you got cut off in traffic on the way home, you’ve resigned to leave the hopeful adaptation at church and resume the angst of wondering why you can’t ever get out of the rut your life is in. And, I should add, I stand here in self-judgment of the many times that such is the case in my own journey.
In his novel, The Fall, Albert Camus tells of a man who spends his life sitting in a bar at the center of Amsterdam, commenting on life as he observes it around him. His comments reveal much about his own nature, but also speak beyond himself: The man says, “I never cross a bridge at night …. Suppose, after all, that someone should jump in the water. You do one of two things: either you do likewise to fish him out, and in cold weather, you run a great risk! Or you forsake him there. Suppressed dives sometimes leave one strangely aching.” “Camus’ character has a problem: He is afraid. And just what is he afraid of? Does he fear crossing bridges? Diving into cold water? Not really. His comments reveal that his real fear is of getting involved, even by chance, in any situation where he might have to make a choice, where he might have to become personally involved in the risk.” Instead? He has another round at the bar and numbs his fear of change, purpose, or even faith itself.
Dr. Mary Hulst is the college chaplain at Calvin College. As part of the school’s January Lecture Series, she opened one the sessions by describing two habits every student at Calvin is expected to have. The first is grit. Grit is that extra umph inside of you that you call upon to see something of importance through or come back after something fails, stronger and ready to try again. The second is faith. Dr. Hulst says, “If you believe the Gospel matters, it’s got to go beyond your personal salvation.” Grit and faith. Grit and faith. Do you have grit and faith? This nameless woman at the well – unnamed perhaps as one who was likely identified by some unbecoming label more than her own name – has grit and a new found faith. And somehow, that grit and faith surpass all of the self-talk she surely engages in on her way from the well back to her village. She believed she could come back again – to make something of meaning come to be and she also believed she couldn’t, with any integrity, keep this to herself. She had to take the risk of sharing. She found a new dignity and gravity in her conversation with Jesus as so many people did. We don’t casually walk away from encounters like that. And what does she do? She takes a risk on adaptation. She says to the people in her village – “Come meet a man who knows everything about me and still wants me to be a part of something amazing.” In her life review someday down the road… when her life was coming to a close, she surely looked back at this moment as the day everything changed.
I wonder if the reality is that Jesus didn’t just say “No” to her. I’m not specifying his statements now but the sentiment. Just saying “No!” is so negative and gives no real way forward. It’s just negative energy. If you are going to make “No” a reality in someone’s life – whether that’s a “No” to drugs or promiscuity or injustice or bigotry or elitism or whatever “No,” you’re after, there must be a positive “Yes” energy to move forward well. You can’t just go into a struggling, impoverished community and tell them to say “No” to some way of life without giving them a real “Yes” to embody… and then sticking with them long enough to embody it alongside of them. If the church is to have any level of influence in our world, we must offer a “Yes” to counter the countless “No’s” the world experiences all the time. Jesus is all about the big “Yes!” And his new disciple in this woman was banking on it. And I’ll tell you this – when someone finally catches that passion, sees that big “Yes” of God and adapts their lives accordingly, the ripple effect is huge. With our planet growing smaller and smaller all of the time, Frederick Buechner’s comparison of humanity to a gigantic spider web is most fitting. He writes: “If you touch [the web] anywhere, you set the whole thing trembling …. As we move around this world and as we act with kindness, perhaps, or with indifference, or with hostility, toward the people we meet, we too are setting the great spider web a-tremble. The life that I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place and time my touch will be felt. Our lives are linked. No man [no woman] is an island.”
Jesus was clearly not interested in keeping up barriers. We’re so good at creating more of them for some reason – fear of difference I suppose – fear of risking comfort – fear of risking our big “Yes.” When we live the interconnected life Jesus offers, it naturally will break down all artificial barriers of class, race, nation, gender, age – whatever separates us from one another. Jesus had to go through Samaria to teach us that there is no place God will not go. Where are we willing to go? As individuals? As a church? As a community? What can you adapt even today that let’s someone else into the story of God’s love? What attitude adaptation can you make – a concerted effort not just today but each day – so that those who know you best will ask, “What’s going on with you?” And you can tell them, “I said, ‘Yes!’” It will be hard but I can promise you this: If it’s not hard, it won’t make your highlight reel some day when you’re doing your own life review. It’s more than simply not cussing once you learn you’re talking to a pastor. It will be something that causes you to leave your water bucket at the well. It’s telling a story with your life that is clear that you’re living the big “Yes” God has offered you in Christ. You can do it. You are doing it.
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 Exegetical support for this passage comes from William Barclay’s commentary on The Gospel of John. The Westminster Press. 1975.
 –Allene M. Parker, “Bridges to Life,” in Bread Afresh, Wine Anew: Sermons by Disciples Women, ed. Joan Campbell and David Polk (St. Louis, Mo.: Chalice Press, 1991, 137.
 Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark [New York: Seabury Press, 1969], 45-46.