John 4: 5-30, 39-42
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’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.) 9 The 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.)[b] 10 Jesus 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.’ 11 The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ 13 Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but 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.’ 15 The 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.’ 17 The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ 19 The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you[c] say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ 21 Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But 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. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ 25 The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ 26 Jesus said to her, ‘I am he,[d] 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?’ 28 Then 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,[e] can he?’ 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.
39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’
Before I begin my sermon I need to update you on how we are adapting to the Coronavirus issue. On Tuesday we received a letter from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, and then from the Bishop of Manchester, advising all churches to move to sharing only the consecrated bread at holy communion, rather than the bread and wine as is the usual practice.
Having discussed the advice with Alan, the wardens Hilary and Lynda, and Jane we agreed we should follow this advice. I hope it will only be for a few weeks.
We do this to make this place as safe as possible for all who come here, but also to play our part in caring for all those we meet as we go about our daily lives, by limiting where we can the spread of the virus. We are also praying for all those suffering because of the disease, and all those working long hours to care for and protect them and us.
Kaveh is now going to repeat my words in Farsi.
Let us now turn to today’s gospel reading, this encounter between an un-named Samaritan woman and Jesus. I want to reflect on what Jesus says, but before I do, a few remarks about her.
First of all, why was she on her fifth husband? The consensus amongst the commentaries is that she was a fallen woman, that it was because of her sin. But what sin exactly?
Was it her inability to be faithful to just one man, to control her sexual desires? Or was it that she was such an unrelenting nag that no husband could tolerate her? Forgive me if I offend, but I want to highlight the ridiculousness of this line of argument.
So here is how divorce worked in first century Palestine. It was in practice a step only taken by the husband and his family, and usually for one of two reasons. Firstly infertility, which was always blamed on the wife. And secondly economic hardship. At times of famine, if a family could no longer feed everyone, one option was to send the new wife back to her family. For wives were an economic burden because of the cultural taboo on women working outside the home.
This is what I suggest may have happened here. And after being divorced once, it is much more likely to happen again, for a second marriage will be harder for the family to arrange, and much more precarious, a third even more so. By the time she is married a fifth time, the family who agree to take her are not able or willing to pay for a wedding ceremony and, indifferent to social disapproval, do so on condition that she contributes by earning what pennies she can, carrying water for better-off neighbours, in the middle of the day.
So we might read Jesus’ remark about her five husbands not as reproach, but as observation, in a spirit of empathy for one dragged down by oppressive cultural forces.
Secondly, there is a change in her status as the story progresses. Jesus invites her to go and get her husband, but she returns instead with a crowd of people from her town. Notice that two things are absent in this second scene: The water jar, which she left behind at the well, and the husband. These two marks of her oppression have been left behind.
And so, following her lead, many more in the town of Sychar come to believe, and Jesus stays there for two days.
Finally, it’s worth reflecting for a moment on how this story came to be included in John’s gospel? The writer of John believed it to be authentic and also relevant to his unfolding of Jesus’s message with its image of living water. But it must have come from somewhere? I wonder if this account first circulated as an origin story for the Christian community in the city of Sychar, with the Samaritan woman celebrated as the founder and first leader of that community?
Like so many women in scripture, her name is not recorded. But in the Eastern Orthodox church, this oversight has been corrected: There she is known as Saint Photini, a name it is said she took at her baptism and which means, “the enlightened one.” In surviving Greek sermons from the 4th century onwards she is venerated as an apostle and an evangelist.
Turning then to her conversation with Jesus. As he does with Nicodemus just before this encounter, Jesus engages his listener with a metaphor, an image from everyday life, transposed in a way which suggests, but does not explain, a spiritual truth. With Nicodemus it was the image of being born, but now born “from above”.
With the Samaritan it is the idea of drinking water – they were by a well – only Jesus talks of “living water, becoming a spring of eternal life.” As with Nicodemus, this is a gentle invitation into a discussion. She is drawn in and what follows is a playful exploration, taking the metaphor and exploring its implications, looking back into history and then forward into the coming of the Messiah and the new universal church.
How different Jesus is from the religious leaders of the day, arguing over points of law! Jesus uses simple, resonant imagery, somehow to express the wordless truth about God’s presence in the world and in our hearts. He speaks it seems from deep experience, out of his connection with his heavenly Father – he speaks as one who has authority, who knows, he brings the kingdom into the here and now.
Springs of living, spiritual water, continuously welling up in each of us, leading on to eternity. In this present time of trouble, let us thank our heavenly Father that he blesses us with such a gift.