This week, we move from Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus at night to Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well at high noon. But, before we leave Nicodemus behind, I’d like to say a couple more things about him that I did not say last week. While Nicodemus came to speak with Jesus and to try to find out who, exactly, Jesus was, it is not clear by the end of the encounter whether Nicodemus learned anything or came to believe in Jesus. The encounter ends very unsatisfactorily; we hear what Jesus taught Nicodemus, but we don’t hear any response from Nicodemus or what he did next. At the end of chapter 7, Nicodemus reappears briefly as the authorities are arguing over whether Jesus should be believed in or not, and he says, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” So we know that Nicodemus, while maybe not quite believing in Jesus or understanding what he learned from Jesus that night, was at the least a just man who wanted to give Jesus more of a hearing in order to understand him better. Then, the last time we see Nicodemus, it is after Jesus is crucified, when he and Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus’ body and bury it. Nicodemus brings a hundred pounds of spices to anoint Jesus’ body, so we can gather that, whatever else Nicodemus believed about Jesus, he did not believe that Jesus was going to rise from the dead.
Today, we hear the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well, and the contrast between this encounter and the encounter with Nicodemus could not be more pronounced. Whereas Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, the Samaritan woman meets Jesus at the well in broad daylight. Whereas the encounter with Nicodemus does not have a clear outcome, the meeting with the Samaritan woman has a clear and joyful result. So, let’s take a look at this story in some more detail.
Let’s first take a look at the setting of this story: a well. Why is this important? For those of you who went to Sunday school growing up, what stories do you remember that involved a meeting at a well? Here are some examples: Abraham sends his servant back to the old country to find a wife for Isaac, and the servant meets Rebekah at the well. Rebekah gives water to him and his camels, and the servant proposes marriage to her on behalf of Isaac, and she accepts. Later in the story of Genesis, Rebekah’s son Jacob returns to the old country, fleeing for his life from his brother, Esau, and stops at a well, where he meets Rachel and falls in love with her. Generations later Moses, fleeing for his life from Egypt, winds up at a well in Midian, where he defends Zipporah and her sisters from bandits threatening them, and later in the story, marries Zipporah. In Jewish culture at this time, when a man meets a woman at a well, it’s the beginning of a love story. And a love story is likely what John’s congregation was expecting to hear when Jesus comes to a well and meets a Samaritan woman there.
But, this is not an ordinary love story. Like the story of Abraham’s servant and Rebekah, Jesus begins the conversation by asking the woman for a drink of water. Instead of giving him a drink, she stands there, looks him up and down, and says, “You are a Jewish man and I am a Samaritan woman. And you’re asking me for a drink?” In a side note, John tells us that “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” There is a long history of why the Jews and the Samaritans did not get along. If you can remember back when we were talking about the prophets before Christmas, I mentioned in one sermon that the Assyrian Empire had come in and conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. They scattered the ten tribes of Israel who had been living in the north and brought in other displaced peoples to settle there. And so, the Jewish people in the south, the ones who had returned from exile in Babylon in 639 BC, encountered these Samaritans when they returned. The Samaritans believed that they were the true people of Israel and worshiped the right way, while the returning exiles believed that they were the ones who were the heirs to the land and to God’s promises; who believed that they worshiped the correct way at the restored Temple in Jerusalem, and who looked down their noses at the Samaritans. For Jesus to speak with a Samaritan woman had less to do with male and female and more to do with Jewish and Samaritan. And when John says that Jews and Samaritans do not share things in common, one of the things that he means by that is that Jews and Samaritans do not intermarry. So, if this is a love story, it’s not going to go how John’s congregation is thinking it’s going to go.
Jesus then has a long theological discussion with this unnamed Samaritan woman. This is remarkable, but maybe not for the reasons that you might think. There was no reason that Jesus couldn’t be talking with women, which some interpreters say. We have other stories where Jesus speaks with women and no one remarks on it; Mary and Martha, for example. This conversation is remarkable because the Samaritan woman gets what Jesus is about probably before the Jewish men in the story do. This Samaritan woman knows her theology and she knows how she and her people worship. She holds her own in this theological discussion. And the moment that she gets who Jesus is, she runs and tells everyone in her village.
And, one more note about this. Many interpreters of this passage like to say that this woman was “immoral,” or at least “loose,” because she had five husbands and she’s living with someone now to whom she is not married. Things were different in 1st century Palestine than they are now. Women then had no control over who they married; their families were the ones who arranged the matches and married them off. Furthermore, men could divorce women but women could not divorce men. We don’t know what this woman’s story was. Perhaps her husbands died or perhaps they divorced her. We also don’t know why the man she was living with did not marry her, but she likely had little, if any, control over that either. And if she were loose or immoral, the people in her village would not have listened to her. But that’s not the case: they listened to this woman, then they came to hear Jesus for themselves, and they believed. This is evidently a woman with some status in her community, as well as being educated enough to have that theological discussion with Jesus.
So, I think this is a love story, as John intended his congregation to think it was, but it’s a very different kind of love story. This love story does not end with a wedding. It starts with Jesus crossing boundaries—a Jewish man crossing into a Samaritan village—to find his beloved, the descendants of the so-called lost tribes of Israel, and remind them of what they still had in common with the Jewish people who were descended from the exiles who returned from Babylon. They met at Jacob’s well—a reminder that both groups of people had their ancestor, Jacob, in common. They both had hopes for the Messiah. And Jesus comes to tell the Samaritan people that he is come and it is time for all of God’s people to worship God in spirit and in truth. This is a love story of Jesus searching out all parts of his beloved people from corners of the earth where most people would not dream of going.
And today, we are still part of that love story. Jesus has not only crossed the boundaries from Jewish to Samaritan, but also from Jewish to Gentile, which we are. He has searched us out and told us how much he loves us. He gives us that living water, too, so that all who thirst for that love will have their thirst quenched when they find rest and love in him. It doesn’t matter who you are or what’s happened to you in life, Jesus loves you no matter what and wants you to be a part of his beloved community. And not only does he want us, he wants us to bring others into this community so that they, too, might have their thirst for him quenched.
Isn’t that exciting? To be loved no matter what? To know that you are part of a beloved community whom God loves so much that he sent Jesus to die for us and to rise again, thus giving us the promise of the resurrection and eternal life? So why aren’t we behaving like the Samaritan woman, who ran back to her community and said, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” What are we afraid of? Jesus tells his disciples just a little bit later that the fields are ripe for harvesting. We have fields all around us in Oberlin and Steelton that are ripe for the harvest. We should be so excited that Jesus loves us that it’s all we can do to contain ourselves. We should be out there telling people about Jesus and about the community of people that Jesus has called together, from all walks of life, to be his beloved.
This week, look for opportunities in your daily conversations to talk about Jesus. Talk about your faith to others. Tell people why you come to church each week. Tell people about what Jesus has done for you. Tell people to come and see someone who knows you completely and intimately; someone who knows all of the good you’ve done and all of the bad you’ve done, and yet who still loves you. When you’re in love with someone, you want the whole world to know it, right? That’s the kind of attitude we should have when we tell others about Jesus—we are in love and we want everyone to know. That’s what the Samaritan woman did after meeting Jesus at the well on that long ago day. It is a love story, and that story continues on with us. Amen.