Scripture: John 4:1-41. The complete scripture may be found at the end of the sermon.
This is a transcription of the video message Adam Fronczek offered on Sunday, March 21, 2021.
For most of us who are hearing this sermon, the task of going to the well to draw water is not familiar. I’ve done it once. It was on a trip to Uganda with a some of our Knox members when we funded a new school there. At the building site, there was a well, and one day our group helped to draw and carry water.
In communities where people get their water this way, it is no small task. Water is often carried in large plastic containers that look like gas cans. You have to fill them full enough to make the trip to the well worth it; but not so full that you won’t be able to carry it home. And some folks walk for miles to get to a well. Wells can be uncertain and limited. People in communities who share a well have to be cognizant of not taking more than their share. Sometimes wells run dry and folks have to wait for water trucks to arrive on an unpredictable schedule. And in the midst of all of these challenges, water is necessary to sustain life, so you have to keep going to the well over and over and over again. Whatever frustrations you may face about the drudgery of some repeated household task—unloading the dishwasher or making the bed. I imagine you must have to multiply the difficulty of that task by about a hundred, and remember that the task is not just about cleaning up, it’s about survival, and then you have the task of going to the well and carrying water.
All of this is pretty easy for me to forget each morning when I wake up, walk into the bathroom rubbing my eyes and turn on the shower, which I then allow to run while I do something else, waiting for it to arrive at an ideal temperature, and all the while right down the drain goes plenty of clean, fresh potable water—water that countless people the world round, in ancient times and still today, must go and get…at the well.
So, now we are somewhat acquainted with the task of this woman who arrives at the well in John 4. She is there to do an essential task, an uncertain task, a task of daily drudgery and yet necessary for survival. Take one step closer to the story and we notice that she is taking on this difficult labor at what time? At noon. High noon, sun up in the sky, she’s beginning her task at the very worst and hardest time to be there, and why in the world would she do that…except that no one else will be there. This woman hopes not to see anyone else at the well.
But today, there is someone there. It’s a man, a stranger. Ask any woman how it feels to be someplace you hoped to be all alone and come upon a strange man and you know this is a vulnerable situation. And this is the ancient world; no cell phone, no pepper spray in the event that things go sideways. And what’s more, she is a Samaritan, and he is a Jew, and these people do not associate with one another.
So, it is quite unexpected when this Jew asks the Samaritan woman if she might share her water with him. These peoples don’t associate, much less do they share food and drink—so this is an invitation into conversation that would have been quite unexpected.
At this point I’m going to digress for a moment and share some things you might keep in mind about this story. This story, which appears in John chapter 4, comes immediately on the heels of the story of Nicodemus in chapter 3 (we read that one just a few weeks ago). For John, these two characters are dramatic reversals of one another. Nicodemus is a man, and as a Pharisaic Jew is a powerful insider in the culture. Compare that to the Samaritan woman who is a vulnerable outsider. Nicodemus, comes to see Jesus in secret, under the cover of darkness, with his doubts and skepticism. But you’ll see that the Samaritan woman, who has every reason to be suspicious, reacts to Jesus with curiosity and openness, and talks with Jesus in broad daylight. Their different reactions to an encounter with Jesus follow along likewise. Nicodemus will disappear back into the darkness, unsure of what to think about Jesus, while the Samaritan woman will run to tell everyone she can find.
Let’s take a look at how her story evolves.
So, the woman has come to the well. She is there for a task she doesn’t want to do at a time when she doesn’t want to have to do it, and now a strange man who arrived with no bucket has asked her for a drink. But quickly, this is going to become a much different encounter than what she may have expected.
When she expresses her surprise at Jesus for asking a drink of a Samaritan, Jesus replies that he’s actually the one who has something to give her. Not just a cup of water, but a drink that will allow her to never be thirsty again.
Imagine the magnitude of what is being offered here. We all seem to have things in our life that we hope will quench our thirst, but that just leave us thirsty again. What is it for you?
For some of us it might be the acquisition of things. Do you keep buying things, fixing up parts of your house or your yard, upgrading your car, only to notice when your finished that there’s yet something else that you still need?
For others of us it’s addiction, literally filling a glass or a plate with food or drink that never satisfies and just leaves you wanting more again.
For some of us its ambition or perfection. Striving after that next promotion, longing to complete that next project or to reach that next milestone; surely when you get there, you’ll be able to take a break…but you keep being let down because with each achievement, each completed task, something else creeps in that still has to be done and until you reach it you’ll never rest, you’ll never be good enough.
Thirsting, striving, yearning—sometimes it can be healthy. But the thirsts I’m describing are the kind of thirsts that can really steal life away from us. Can you imagine how compelling it would be to meet someone who could take away that kind of thirst, that nagging sense that things aren’t right, that incompleteness, that hole in your soul. He wants to take that feeling away. He wants to give living water.
The Woman at the Well is intrigued. But who is this stranger making the promise? What does he know about her, about her life and her struggles? How could he possibly be able to do this for her?
And that’s when the exchange about her husband begins. This woman presumably has something of a reputation in town—she’s coming to the well alone at noon for a reason. But this stranger knows about her at a level of detail that she couldn’t have imagined. Here’s the thing, though. This story is not about Jesus’ clairvoyant knowledge of her private affairs; this is not a miracle story. The thing that matters is not that he knows things about her; what matters is that he doesn’t judge her for it. He knows everything about her…and he extends his love, care, and acceptance just the same. He gives her grace. He wants her to let go of her shame.
Can you imagine if someone made this offer to you? Most of us carry around some secret that we aren’t too proud of, some misdeed of the past or problem of the present that we don’t want anyone to know about. What if someone named your secret right to your face—and then said that it was OK—that they accept you and won’t ever hold it against you. You don’t have to be burdened by the shame of that secret. Wouldn’t that just set you free!
And that’s what Jesus does for her. This woman who came to the well in the heat of the day just to avoid seeing the other townspeople; what’s she does she do after she meets Jesus? She races into town, and to anyone she can find she cries, ‘I just met this stranger…He told me everything I’ve ever done…and said that I’m still lovable. I’m free. Can I share this gift with you?’ She’s overjoyed. All of her shame, any preoccupation she had with herself just kind of falls away because she’s received grace: a gift that can only get better by sharing it. And the way the story ends is that her joy is so infectious that the people she tells…they believe too.
It seems to me that three key questions emerge from this story, questions we ought to sit with ourselves if we want to have our own encounter with Jesus.
The first question is: Can you receive gifts such as these for yourself? This story isn’t told in the Bible just so that we can be jealous that it happened to someone else. It’s told because we’re supposed to put ourselves in the place of the Woman at the Well. Imagine that…exhausted, downhearted in drudgery, or ashamed, you arrive at the well in the heat of the day and find that salvation is waiting there. Acceptance, grace, and love. This is what God has for you. Can you receive those gifts?
The second question is: Can you pass these gifts on to someone else? Maybe the gifts of this story are ones you need to receive…and maybe they’re not. But someone else needs them. Can you be the one who runs into town—whatever “town” might mean for you—and share with someone who might need to hear it that shame and guilt doesn’t need to rule their lives? Can you do this for someone else? Can you share the good news of grace?
Some of us may feel like these are big tasks and we’re not quite ready, so the third question is one that is much simpler: Can you open yourself to God’s Spirit by giving someone a drink?
That’s what happens in this story. The woman in this story arrives at the well tired, overwhelmed, trapped in the drudgery of the daily trip to the well, ashamed because of how the townspeople have made her feel. She’s not looking for her life to change that day. But her whole life does change…because she takes a chance on dropping her bucket into the well and offering a drink to a stranger. What small act of kindness might have the potential to change your life? I wonder.
- Can you receive gifts such as these for yourself?
- Can you pass these gifts on to someone else?
- Can you offer someone else a drink?
These are the ways we encounter Jesus.
 I credit my friend and mentor Rev. Paul Roberts of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary for his insights about modern day wells in relationship to this Bible story.