Sermon - 23rd March 2014
The woman at the well
Scripture - John 4:5-42
Revd Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video]
In Lent the lectionary takes us through chunks of St John's Gospel and today's reading follows on from last week's where we met Nicodemus. We pondered about him and whether or not he as a secret disciple. Today we hear most of chapter 4 and we meet this unnamed woman who is a total contrast to Nicodemus.
Woman and Nicodemus
We know Nicodemus's name: the Gospel writer didn't think she was important enough to name. Nicodemus was a respectable Pharisee; this woman clearly was no stranger to scandal and shame. Nicodemus was a Pharisee – a movement at the heart of the Jewish establishment; this woman was a Samaritan – a religious and racial outsider. Nicodemus sees Jesus in the dead of night, this woman encounters him in the harsh noon day sun. Nicodemus is highly education and learned in the law, - Jesus calls him a teacher of Israel - women weren't educated formally at all. The Gospel writer clearly intends us to compare and contrast the two characters and they couldn't be more different.
Given this it's fascinating to me that the Gospel writer doesn't name this woman. Maybe he didn't know the name – after all he, like the other Gospel writers, was working from various sources and stories and maybe her name hadn't come down in the stories. Or maybe he didn't think it was necessary to name a woman. It is striking, however, that she gets almost an entire chapter devoted to her but isn't named whereas Nicodemus has a sprinkling of verses but is. Is what we'd now call sexism going on here? Or is the Gospel writer countering the sexism that he inherited in his sources who didn't name her by including her and giving her such a prominent role? We don't know, but I like to think it's the latter.
What do we know about her?
So what do we know about this woman given the fact that we don't know her name. (Ask)
First, we know she was a Samaritan. The few verses before this passage make clear that Jesus felt things were getting a bit too hot to handle in Judea – the pharisees were concerned that the crowds were flocking to him so Jesus decided he had to return to Galilee. In order to get there he had to travel through Samaria and today's passage starts by telling us he went to the Samaritan city of Sychar.
We know that Jews and Samaritans worshipped the same God but the Samaritans rejected the idea that sacrifice could only be offered to God in the Temple in Jerusalem. Some people think that the Samaritans were racially different from the Jews – these folk hold that the Samaritans were resettled into this area by the Assyrians following their conquest of the northern Jewish kingdom. The Samaritans themselves, however, see themselves as descendants of of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. The breach between them and the rest of the Jews comes, from their perspective, under David and Solomon when the Jewish religion became focused on the Temple in Jerusalem. Whatever the reasons for the split were racial or religious, by the time of Jesus the tensions between the two groups were strong and, whilst the Romans didn't really concern themselves with different Jewish groups, historians of the period record outbreaks of violence between Jews and Samaritans. This is why Jesus' famous parable of the Good Samaritan was so powerful to its original hearers.
Second we know that she lived with some gossip and scandal. How do we know this – well there is the obvious thing about the number of husbands she'd had but there is also a clue in when she and Jesus met. Generally people would avoid going out in the midday sun. This wouldn't have been the best time to go to the well to draw water as you'd get hot and tired working – and carrying water is hard work – when it is so hot. Dawn and dusk would have been better times but then all the women of the village would have been at the well. Maybe, and it's just a maybe, she went then to avoid the gossip of her friends.
We have no idea why she'd had so many husbands. We can be sure she was judged for it but we can also be pretty certain that she'd have had little say in the matter. Until contemplatively recently most women had little say over their marriages. Fathers, or other male relatives, would make the decisions for them. We see vestiges of this still in the marriage service where, still, women talk about being “given away” by their fathers. Additionally in Biblical times women were reliant on men to survive. This is why Jesus' hard words on divorce were uttered – they protected women from destitution or prostitution if divorced. We're tempted to look at this unnamed woman and think she'd lived a bit of a wild life when, in reality, she had little control over her marriages.
So, we see she was a Samaritan, a woman, a religious outsider and rather powerless in a male world. In short she was a nobody. Why should anyone pay her any attention; the original sources John used didn't even bother to name her. Yet this nameless woman, this nobody, gets an entire chapter of John's Gospel and rather a lot of Jesus' time.
The encounter is quite playful. At first the woman teases Jesus a bit. After all he had no business talking to a Samaritan, nor, it must be said, to a woman when he was alone. What would people think? Jesus and the woman talk deep theology and the end of the encounter is that she feels he has read her, that he is a prophet and she goes and tells her friends and brings them to hear Jesus. They hear, and beg Jesus to stay and so he delays his journey to Galilee for two days and stays and teaches these people. They listen and believe because of this nobody, this outsider, this woman of no account.
What Can We Learn?
From this we can learn much. We can see that God is at work on the margins, with the outsiders, the nobodies, the people of no account. We can see that God is at the edge and working His purpose out there. We have no idea whether Nicodemus – who represents the centre of things as a Pharisee – ever really came to faith in Christ but this woman the religious, cultural and racial outsider heard and responded and, more, she told her friends.
Jesus is interested in those on the edge. This passage is good news for those who have been treated as nobodies, those who have been rejected, alienated and stigmatised. Jesus does not turn away from this woman – which he would have been entitled to by his faith – but instead welcomes her just as he welcomes us. His engagement with her changes her, and her community. This woman, and her community matter to Jesus just as we and our communities matter to him too.
This passage is also challenging as it reminds us that those we see as nobodies matter to God. Those whom we would like to avoid may just be at the centre of things even as we push them to the edge. This passage reminds us not to draw the boundaries of our faith communities too narrowly, to include rather than exclude.
The passage is also about encouraging those who are just starting to explore a journey of faith. Jesus doesn't contradict her theology but challenges her to go deeper. She is a newcomer to faith in Jesus and she takes small steps in her conversation with Jesus; Jesus is very patient with her. He explains things to her when he is quite sharp with Nicodemus. Jesus doesn't tease this woman where he does rather tease Nicodemus who should have known better. He nudges this woman along but is hard on Nicodemus. Maybe we need to be firmer with those who should know better about the faith but much more gentle with those who are reaching out, who are starting to explore but who don't know much yet.
This outsider's encounter with Jesus changed her life and the life of her community. She became an evangelist, and a successful one at that! How do we – we who were once seen as outsiders, as people of no account – how do we respond to Jesus? How do we let our encounter with Jesus change us and change our church? The answer to that is key to our live together as a church.