But he had to go back through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 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 Samaritan.) 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 the living water.”
If you want to know about Jesus, this is the story to read. We can read about his remarkable birth in a manger in Bethlehem, we can read about him feeding the multitudes by the sea, we can even read about him turning water into wine, but this little episode by the well is quintessential Jesus.
At the time, Jews avoided Samaritans. If they had to travel from the northern area of Galilee to the southern area of Jerusalem, most Jews would go hours or days out of their way to avoid passing through the region of Samaria that separated the two. Like Apartheid in South Africa or segregation in the United States, the people were separated in all things. This kind of negative and polarized relationship between the groups of people had gone on for centuries to the point where, even though they had many things in common, they believed the divide was irreparable.
And yet Jesus shows up in this Samaritan city, and under the heat of the sun at noon, he goes to the well to rest. While resting, a Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said, “Give me a drink.”
In this simple moment, a lot is going on. To begin, the unnamed woman coming to the well at the hottest part of the day is strange. Most women would have gone to the well early in the morning when it was still cool outside. The well was the area for local gossip and fellowship; it was a site for the community. And she came to the well all alone. We learn later in the scripture that she had gone from one man to another, and was now living with a man who was not her husband. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture why she was separated from the other Samaritan woman, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture how lonely she must have felt, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture what the people in the village would have called her: “sinner.”
The woman could not believe that this Jewish man was speaking to her, a Samaritan woman. And Jesus responds by saying, “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 the living water.
Jesus loves sinners. Here in this little story by the well we confront Jesus’ love for the marginalized, and his belief in the inherent worth of all people. When we imagine the depth of her thirst for acceptance, and the relief of the living water offered to her without cost, it compels us to ask: Do we see all people as children of God? Or do we see them as society sees them – sinners, outcasts, and poor?
There is a church in Virginia that is located right across the street from a major university. For years they have explored numerous ways to get “the young people to come to church” but they have continued to decline. They thought that by offering lectures on the importance of abstinence, or the effects of excessive drinking, or how to be political and faithful, droves of the coming generations would fill the pews on Sunday mornings.
Next to the church is a row of college housing that becomes loud and filled with debauchery on the weekends. Even though the church parking lot has numerous signs saying: “Church Parking Only” certain members were known for driving by on Saturday evenings with the explicit purpose of calling the tow company to have the party goers’ cars removed.
On one particular Friday evening, while one of the committees was meeting in the social hall, a loud and sinful party was happening right across the parking lot. The members, though tasked with discussing something like the new color for the parlor, focused their time and effort on how to fix the problem next door. They finally decided to march across the parking lot and demand that the college students stop their partying and remove their cars from the parking lot.
As they knocked and knocked on the doors the sound of their knuckles disappeared into the thundering boom of the bass and they decided they had had enough and they called the police.
With satisfied smiles across their faces, the committee stood proudly in the parking lot while tow trucks removed the vehicles, and while the police escorted those who were too young to be legally drinking in handcuffs to their cruisers.
And they still wonder why no young people attend church.
Notice: in the episode with Jesus by the well he does not say to the woman, “I know you’re a sinner, and you need to be punished for your sins.” He does not call the religious authorities for her transgressions against the law. And he does not stand by with a smug look on his face when he confronts her sinful past. Instead he says, “I can offer you living water.”
There is another church in Virginia that is located right across the street from another major university. Like the first church they struggled to get the college age population to attend their church, they struggled with the sinful behavior that was happening so close, and they wondered how they could be Jesus for these young people. One night, after a steady stream of weeks when empty beers cans were found every Sunday morning on the lawn, the pastor and a group of leaders gathered in the church to pray for the community and prayerfully discern how to move forward. They contemplated calling the police, they weighed the outcome of going over to the house and knocking on the door, but an older woman suggested that they go to the Greek life council and ask how they could help.
When the president of one of the fraternities heard their question, he laughed in response and said jokingly, “If you want to help us… we could use some food and a place to hang out in the middle of the night after a party.” Without missing a beat the same older woman from the church said, “Okay. What time?”
The following weekend, a group of faithful volunteers arrived at the church at midnight and fired up their grills. They cooked hot dogs and hamburgers, set up bean bags in the social hall, and placed signs on the lawn welcoming any college student in, regardless of inebriation, for free food. The first night only a handful of students bravely entered with puzzled looks on their faces in regard to a church that was not condemning them for their behavior, but was just trying to offer food and fellowship. But over the following weeks, more and more people arrived in the social hall every weekend thankful for the love they were experiencing.
And the strangest thing started to happen. On Sundays, when church members arrived for worship, the lawn was free of empty beers can, and though some members came in with bags under their eyes, they were thrilled to discover that many of the students who had sat on the bean bags with hamburgers in their hands the night before were sitting in the pews next to them on Sunday morning.
Who are the Samaritans to us? Our church is not located next to a large university where partying behavior can be experienced through empty beer cans on our front lawn, but there are plenty of people that we want to avoid or ignore. Many of us find that the longer we’re Christian, the more likely it is that all our friends are Christians too. Following Jesus however, means building relationships with people outside the church. We, like Jesus, are called to encounter the Samaritans and show them the love of Christ, whether they ever come to church or not.
Samaritans, therefore, are the people we ignore or avoid. That neighbor who insists on letting his dog use our lawn as a toilet; that coworker who incessantly complains about everything wrong with the business without doing anything about it; that in-law who tells us how to raise our family; that homeless man who sits on the corner of the street asking for money; that college student who plays the music in his car way too loud; that woman who has gone from man to man without finding love.
Where can we find them? We don’t have a well on the front lawn of our church, and frankly it is nearly impossible to discover our Samaritans at church. They, like the college students with churches right across the street, will not come to us; we have to go to them. We can find them in the communal spaces of life: our workplaces, our neighbors, our families. Remember that Jesus did not wait in Galilee for the Samaritans to come to him; he left the comfort and convention of the day and went to meet them where they were.
How can we give them living water? We don’t have to bring a bottle of water to everyone that exists outside of the church to share with them the love of Jesus, but’s that’s not necessarily a bad place to start. That one church found that by offering food and fellowship to their local community of college students they were offering the living water that is the love of Jesus. When we host our community cook-outs on our front lawn we are offering living water to the community through bouncy houses and free food. But finding the Samaritans in our lives, and offering them living water should be a regular occurrence and not just a once a year activity.
We give Samaritans living water by loving them no matter what. Instead of wagging our fingers in judgment against their sins or strange ways, we open our ears and listen to their struggles. Instead of looking down on others and trying to fix their problems, we share with them the crazy truth that we are broken just like them. Instead of ignoring people and leaving them to their own devices, we find them where they are and offer them the living water.
This great and powerful story is a reminder, now and always, that people who are nobodies to us are usually somebodies in the eyes of Jesus. The people we ignore are often the ones Jesus would seek out. The people we would deem sinners are the ones Jesus would spend time with.
We often think of God and Church in these big and sweeping images. We read about God’s overpowering magnificence and we experience God’s presence in majestic churches like this one. So we ask: Can a little thing like a cup of cool water, like a cheeseburger in the middle of the night, like an invitation to worship, offered in love, be the beginning of a salvation journey? The answer is yes; and we will never know what the living water can transform until we meet the Samaritan where they are and offer it in the first place. Amen.