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The One Speaking to You

Sermon - 3/27/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 4:5-29

On this 3rd Sunday of Lent, the gospel lectionary reading is from the gospel of John, it's the story of the woman at the well, found in chapter 4. It's a very interesting story when you lay it over the story you heard earlier, (Exodus 17:1-7), as we think about the symbolism of water, and life-giving water.

But this is the story of the woman at the well, and at the beginning of the chapter Jesus is with his disciples in Judea (that's in the south, in Jerusalem), and he wants to make his way back up to Galilee (which is in the north, so it begins by taking note that he had to go through the area of Samaria. Then, picking up at verse five:

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ 11The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ 13Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ 15The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

16 Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ 17The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ 19The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ 21Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ 25The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ 26Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ 28Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ 


This is, I think, a fascinating story that has so many layers of meaning to it, and metaphors for spiritual truths, we could spend hours -- even days -- exploring them and we would not cover them all. So I'm not even going to try to cover every idea in the story, and you may get other insights than I'm going to share with you, and that's okay because that's the nature of these kinds of stories that are just filled with all kinds of meanings.

And once again, I picked this passage back in January, setting themes for the year, and I had no idea how it would relate to current events, if at all. I mean, wouldn't it be nice if we could find some modern-day example of this woman with five husbands, and the one she's living with now is not a husband. I mean, if only there were some popular icon, a movie star, say, who would make headlines -- as if anyone could draw our attention away from all the other current events (bombing in Libya, unrest in the Arab world, crisis in Japan, the latest tirade from Charlie Sheen). I mean, you know, who could ever get our attention amidst all of that?

Well, bless Elizabeth Taylor's soul. Granted, this Samaritan woman is no Elizabeth Taylor. Maybe the comparison doesn't work. I mean, Samaritans were deeply despised by Jews of that day. Think of the tensions today between Israelis and Palestinians -- it's the same thing, its been going on for thousands of years. And Elizabeth Taylor is hardly one who is despised (of course, I'm not counting previous husbands).

But on another level, the comparison works very well. Here she was married eight times to 7 different men (who's counting), and that made her the joke of so much late-night T.V.  You know, the six men in Hollywood that didn't marry her wished they did. But she was hardly shunned for it, or in any way shamed by it.

So, read the text. Does Jesus in any way shame this woman? The only shame is upon those later interpreters who have identified her as a sinner or an adulterer, but the text does not do that, Jesus does not do that. Jesus not only does not condemn her, he treats her with respect. He honors her by engaging in this conversation. I cannot begin to explain to you just how radical this is. John Paul II, the previous Pope, said about the text "This is an unprecedented event. If one remembers the usual way women were treated by those who are teachers in Israel during that day, whereas in Jesus of Nazareth's way of acting, such an event becomes normal".

The conversation Jesus has with the woman at the well is stunning for at least three reasons.

First, Jewish men did not to engage women in conversation, in public, in that society. Most of the interactions Jesus has with women is in a home. Remember the story of Mary and Martha, that's in a home. The anointing of Jesus' head with oil by the woman, that's in a home. And if there is an interaction in public, the encounter tends to be very brief, the exhange very brisk. Here, Jesus engages in this long, sustained conversation. It's one of the longest anywhere in the gospels. Out there in mid-day, in a public place.

Second, Jews did not associate with Samaritans, as the text infers. In fact, the bucket of the Samaritan woman would be considered ritually unclean, and to drink from that bucket would make you (as a devout religious Jew) unclean, and you would have to go through a period of ritual cleaning if you did that.

Third, Jesus isn't chatting about the weather here folks. You know, 'what a nice beautiful day'. This is a theological conversation of the highest order, and you see, you don't do that with a woman. Remember that movie "Yentl", with Barbra Streisand a number of years ago. It tells the story of a woman who wants to study the Torah. She can't do that as a woman, so she has to pretend she's a man (I think it's 19th century in Eastern Europe where that occurs). It simply was unthinkable in that culture to have that kind of conversation. It's precisely the point of the story of Mary and Martha, isn't it? Martha wants Mary to come back to the kitchen, you know, that's the woman's place, that's where we get these ideas. And that's why this story is so radical.

Even more astounding is when you compare this story to the previous story in Chapter 3 of Nicodemus. Nicodemus, a religious leader, versus this Samaritan woman. Nicodemus comes in the middle of the night, he doesn't want to be seen. This woman comes in the middle of the day. Nicodemus tells no one, but this woman goes and she tells everyone about this interaction. And that may be the biggest shock of all: this woman, married five times, living now with another man, is the first evangelist in John's Gospel to carry the good news of Jesus beyond the confines of one's own family of race and religion. She is the one, the first person to carry out the great commission of Matthew 28: 'Go, therefore, to all the world. Make disciples of all nations'. She's the one that does that here, long before the risen Christ gives that great commission. So the story is not just stunning by ancient standards, it's stunning by any standard.

And this is where, I think, the comparison to Elizabeth Taylor works best. When you stop and think about all of those tributes you have heard, and read and seen, and recall what people are saying about her. How people are saying about her, not so much about her 50 movies, her two Oscars, or seven husbands, her enormous diamonds, her famous beauty, I mean, yeah, they mention all of that. But the one thing that has stood out for me as I have read and I've heard all of these tributes to her has been her willingness to put her career and reputation on the line for the victims of HIV/AIDS, in a time when it was still a symbol of shame and immorality as that quote "gay disease".

And she testified before Congress, she spoke out. And more than any other person, I think, probably she helped turn public opinion from one of shame to one of compassion. She became the evangelist for God's love to an outcast community. And for that she will be remembered and admired with respect. She is that woman at the well.

Now, a second aspect of this story I find equally as stunning theologically, though it gets lost in the translation. Jesus reveals what he knows about this woman, and she deftly deflects the conversation so it's not about her, but instead it becomes this reflection about the worship of God, and the place of that worship. This is a very teachable moment, and one would think that someone like Jesus wouldn't let her get off so easy. Only Jesus uses it to teach not about personal accountability and morality, but as an opportunity to break through one of the biggest human problems since Hagar and Ishmael were forced to flee from Abraham and Sarah and created that religious division that is still going to this day. The division caused by religious nationalism.

Samaritans worship on one mountain, Jews worshiped on another. And they each thought they had the one true way of worship. And Jesus responds, worship of God is not particular to any one nation, any one place, any one Temple, any one flag. And that is, by the way, why I am always uncomfortable with the ways in which we wrap up God in the American flag, as if we have a special relationship with God, or that we have a certain divine right or special access to God that others in other countries do not.

It's also why I'm pleased that we continue to host the interfaith service. Not that in doing so we endorse every idea that is expressed in those services (I have found in the times that I have attended there's often been something said that I disagree with, and often very strongly disagree), but all who come to that service seek to do precisely what Jesus says -- to worship God in spirit and in truth. And most importantly, they do so with respect for each other's differing beliefs, even when and especially when those beliefs are not their own and sometimes even contrary to their own. Until we can learn to do that as a global community, we will be forever locked in religious strife which brings death instead of life, encourages hatred instead of love, and leads to war instead of peace. And that's why I have said many times, I'll say again today, that there may be nothing that we do here that does more for peace in the world than to host that service. To heal those religious divisions that are so strong in the rest of the world.

To say 'God is spirit' is to acknowledge that God is not particular to any one nation, race, creed, or ideology. It is the universalism of God as spirit that serves as the theological basis for the unity of humanity as all God's people. Symbolized here by the Samaritan woman and Jewish man engaged in a theological conversation.

The Samaritan woman says, in verse 25, and by the way I invite you to follow along here in your Bibles with me. It does help if you're using the New Revised Standard Version, or I invite you to compare it to your own if you have something different. Verse 25, she says "I know the Messiah is coming, when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us".

And then verse 26, and here's the one I want you to read very carefully: Jesus says to her "I am he, the one who is speaking to you".

Now, if you're looking at that, what do you note that I have often said is important to note? The footnote! This is, by the way, another indication to find out if you have a good study Bible. If it doesn't have a footnote here, it's probably not a good study Bible. It may be good for other reasons.

But the footnote in verse 25, when you see where it says "I am he", there's a little tiny letter. You have to have good eyes, put your glasses on, do you see the little letter there? I think it's the letter "c" in your text. What does the footnote say? "I am". That's Greek. That's the way of the editors to let you know that they cheated in the translation. The "he" is not in the Greek (I think a subject-predicate or something). The Greek simply says "I am the one speaking to you". And because it just sounds a little funny, and we might not understand what is said, the translators stick the "he" in that isn't present in the Greek.

Now, what is John trying to say to us here? He's doing two things. He's connecting us with all of those other "I am" statements in the Gospel of John (and only in the Gospel of John): I am the bread of life, I am the way, the truth, the light, I am the door, etc -- you know all of those statements, 8 or 9 statements of John, that are not found anywhere else. So he's connecting them to all those statements.

The second thing he's doing, of course, is connecting to that self-revelation of God in the story of the burning bush. You remember that story, when Moses says "Who shall I say sent me?". And a voice replies: "Say 'I am' sent you". I am, the one who is, I am. This is the great 'I am' that Jesus is sort of claiming here.

Now, I have to be totally honest with you, and say that (and this is not just me, most scholars would say this) if Jesus had spoken that way, if he went around saying 'I am the one', 'I am', he would have been stoned to death long before he ever got to Jerusalem. That's blasphemy. So it's highly, highly unlikely Jesus ever actually said this. But I have to tell you, I still believe it to be absolutely true. This is John's witness to who Jesus is -- the great 'I am', God in the flesh, Immanuel, and even if I, or anyone else, says that these are words put on the lips of Jesus by John rather than words said by Jesus to this woman (which by the way, there were no witnesses), it's still true.

And do note, at this point in the story, the Disciples returned. Precisely at this point in the story. Do you think that's a little bit funny? You know, here's Jesus and these 12 guys, and it takes all 12 of them to go into town and get food? Couldn't they have sent 3 or 4? Why is it that all 12 have to go, and why is it that all 12 come back, right here, right now?

It's John's little way of telling us this is the end of the conversation. Jesus has revealed to her who he is, nothing more needs to be said. Now the telling needs to begin. And so she goes back to town to tell everybody who she has met.

Now, of course I have one more comment I have to make about this. And that is to understand the end of the story, we need to remember the beginning. Jesus is tired and thirsty. He comes to this well, sits down, waits, along comes a woman with a bucket -- ah, great, here's a chance to get something to drink. He's thirsty. Hot.

Read the text carefully -- tell me, when does he ever get something to drink? It never happens! It makes me thirsty just reading it -- give the guy something to drink, he's thirsty!

You can go to Nablus, in the West Bank, and you can see there a Greek Orthodox Church built over Jacob's well:

There's a monastery there, it's an important religious site for Christians especially, not as important for Jews. Still there to this day. But this story really isn't about the well, is it? It's about the well within us.

You see, John can put those words on the lips of Jesus in spirit and truth because that is his experience of Jesus. The 'I am' who has spoken to him also speaks to us. This is not just some theoretical idea, it's his actual experience.

Thus, just as this story is not about that well, the life-giving water will not be brought up by that bucket. The real truth of this story is not about what Jesus said to this woman 2,000 years ago, it's about what Jesus says to us today.

It's about that voice, whether thundering from the heavens or that still, small voice that comes from within. The 'I am', the one speaking to us.

The voice that calls us to choose the good.

The voice that works on our conscience, to do the right thing.

The voice that speaks to our nation, to live out that dream, that all people -- black and white -- can live in peace together.

The voice that we heard at our Annual Meeting calling us to become an open and affirming congregation.

The voice that led Mahatma Gandhi to teach the world about the ways of non-violence.

The voice that calls us to a higher good, a greater love, a wider justice than ever known before.

Take time, listen to that voice, deep within you, where truly, there is a well of living water available to all of us.


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