One Speaking to You
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
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
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
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?’
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
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
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
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
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
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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