The much-loved story of the Samaritan woman at the well is the second of four encounters with Jesus in John this Lent.
Each reveals something about who he is, some gift he brings to us on this year’s Lenten journey. Where last week the gift emerged out of the Father’s love given in the Son, this week it gushes forth as Jesus’ gift of the Spirit, poured into the hearts of believers.
This encounter begins with social boundary-crossing, typical of Jesus in all of the gospels, when he asks the Samaritan woman for a drink. She is surprised that he is interacting with a Samaritan, and the narrator explains why her surprise is justified. Then the disciples will later be particularly concerned that he is talking with a woman.
The encounter between the two can be read in three movements. The first movement is all about water: Jesus’ thirst, then the ensuing conversation with the woman, a bit wary of him and his boundary-crossing, and then the living water gushing up to eternal life that he will offer her and for which she will ask.
The second movement is the conversation about the woman’s private life, which is the moment on which the encounter seems to turn. The third movement is the conversation about worship in Spirit and truth, which leads to her wondering about the Messiah and his revealing to her that it is he.
The reference to living water is a play on words in Greek, in that the phrase refers to water that is flowing rather than still “fresh rather than stagnant” while also actually meaning “living,” linking it to the gift of eternal life gushing up in the believer who receives Jesus’ gift. Like Nicodemus’ misunderstanding in 3:1-12 when he is unable to look beyond the earthly (physical birth) to the spiritual (birth from above) and the disciples’ misunderstanding of Jesus’ references to food in 4:32-34, the woman here first understands Jesus to be referring to water from the well and asks how he will give her this without a bucket, furthering the irony by comparing him to their great ancestor Jacob, who gave them the well.
But unlike Nicodemus, who doesn’t seem to move beyond his confusion, the woman does move. She asks for this water, realizing that it is not ordinary water but not yet understanding in what way, and she will go still further with and for Jesus as the narrative develops.
The language of the well scene “water, water jar, and drawing” — is reminiscent of the miracle at Cana when Jesus first revealed his glory to his disciples, with the latter two terms used only in these two passages in all the New Testament. The word used initially for well (in 4:6; a different word is used in verse 12) and then for the spring gushing up to eternal life appears several times in Revelation. The Lamb will guide them to “springs of the water of life” (7:17), and the Alpha and Omega, echoing the words of the Johannine Jesus, says, “To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.” (21:6)
But the most important and evocative connection with the chapter is found in John 7:37-39 when on the last great day of the Feast of Tabernacles Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” And the narrator then identifies this as a reference to the Spirit. The believer is both the recipient of living water and, then, its conduit; and the explanation of 7:39 helps to interpret the meaning of the living water as the gift of the Spirit here in 4:14.
As soon as the woman asks for the living water, the conversation turns to her life, and Jesus will now tell her everything she has ever done, as she later puts it. Then, having been seen by Jesus, she sees him differently, and the conversation takes another turn. She immediately understands him to be a prophet and asks him a serious question about worship to which he gives a serious answer. This is the only sustained conversation about worship in John; the verb occurs 9 times in these five verses, and the noun for worshippers occurs only this once in all of the New Testament.
The Spirit is introduced here explicitly. To worship God as God wants is to worship in Spirit, presumably with the Spirit that Jesus offers gushing up from the heart, and in truth, which we will later understand to be embodied in Jesus himself (8:31-32; 14:6). Worship, this seems to suggest, is about relationship, dwelling in the vine Jesus. The Samaritan woman, who has entered into relationship with him here, perhaps understands this. She suggests in her roundabout way that he is the coming Messiah, and for the first and only time in John, Jesus says that he is.
Although Jesus knows everything about this woman’s life, as indeed he knows what is in everyone (2:25), there is no mention of sin or sinfulness in this text and no word of judgment or even encouragement to change her life. Any preoccupation with that is more a measure of the readers’ interests than those of the evangelist. What is life-changing for the woman is, according to her, that she has been entirely known by him, and this being known has enabled her to know him. The story is about her being able to begin to see who he is, being given the gift of that truth that leads to real worship and becoming a conduit for the living water. It is about her only insofar as it is about who he reveals himself to be to her and, through their encounter, to her neighbors and then to us.
The disciples themselves know better than to say a word to Jesus about this woman. Instead Jesus guides them into a conversation about mission, with elements reminiscent of the harvest parables in the Synoptics but also picking up on aspects of Jesus’ conversation with the woman, in particular with the reference to eternal life, and pointing toward what will happen next. The woman’s testimony has brought a harvest to Jesus.
A trial motif runs throughout John from the introduction of John the Baptist in 1:7 as a witness. Giving testimony is something Jesus’ friends are called to do (15:27). The woman testifies (4:39) to her city. As a witness, she is intriguing. She certainly cannot be said to overstate the case. She says only what she knows and then leaves the question with them in such a way that they are compelled to come and see him for themselves.
This text suggests in a number of ways that it is not about what we know but who we know. It is about having an encounter, experiencing the light of Jesus’ truth and love shining on our past and our future, and then having the courage and the wherewithal to drop anything that isn’t that and go share what we know (not what someone else knows, just what we know) as witnesses to his abundant grace gushing up to eternal life in us.
I never fully appreciated the Hebrews grumbling in Exodus until two years ago when given the opportunity to journey through the Sinai wilderness on a Middle East travel seminar.
We entered the region after having hiked a day in the full heat of the Petra sun, and I had become extremely dehydrated–so dehydrated that I could not make it to the top of Mount Sinai on the next day’s hike without becoming ill.
As we trekked by bus through the Sinai Peninsula, I gained much more sympathy for the travelling Hebrews. In my early years, I would often hear preachers caricature the wandering Hebrews (sometimes with a hint of anti-Semitism) as a petulant group of stubborn children who never knew true obedience or faith. When I look at this text in Exodus 17:1-7 after having travelled by bus and with plenty of water through the Sinai desert, I realize that these newly freed slaves actually had reason to complain.
In the previous chapter, they faced the hardship of a lack of food and protested to Moses. Just as the LORD had heard the cry of the people suffering the oppression of slavery (Exodus 3:7), God now heard their cry of starvation and provided them with nourishment in the form of manna and quail.
While their lack of food had been sated in chapter 16, this passage confronts them with a new and dire challenge: they had no drinkable water. In verse 1, the narrator states this simple fact as a preface to the people’s quarrel with Moses. Perhaps taking a cue from the previous experience, Moses interprets their quarrel with him as a direct charge against God (verse 2). He makes a similar move in Exodus 16:8: “What are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the LORD.”
Notice, however, that in neither episode does the LORD nor the narrator actually say their complaint is with God. The Hebrews direct their cry to Moses: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3) This is a very legitimate question. Would it not have been better to live in slavery in Egypt than to face death in the desert?
Yes, the people had witnessed God’s display of power through the plagues; yes, they experienced God’s protection as they fled from a pursuing Egyptian army; and yes, they had recently received God’s provision of manna and quail. But in the face of death by dehydration, can we readers be so devoid of compassion that we condemn these people who had lived lives of suffering in slavery and powerlessness for their lack of faith?
Moses displays his own short-term memory as well as his narcissism, interpreting their outcry as a threat on his own life. Had not God also protected him? But faced with the possibility of mutiny, Moses utters his own complaint to God.
While Moses’ response centers on the conflict, God’s reaction delivers compassion. In this text, God never condemns the grumbling Hebrews. God simply instructs Moses to gather the elders, take them to a rock at Horeb, and strike it with the staff Moses had used to perform so many other miracles in Egypt. Moreover, God grants Moses the reassurance of the Divine Presence: “I will be standing there in front of you” (verse 6). In response to the people’s petitions, God becomes present and provides.
The passage concludes with Moses naming the place Massah and Meribah. The term Massah reflects the Hebrew word “to test” while Meribah derives from the word translated as “quarrel.”Both terms appear in verses 2 and 7, forming a literary framework around the passage. On the surface, this linguistic framework seems to confirm a reading that caricatures the Hebrews as selfishly stubborn, quarrelsome testers of God. But the existential question–“Is the LORD present among us or not?”–reminds the reader that these emancipated slaves faced a very real threat. God’s actions of presence and provision supply the answer needed by a fearful community.
Perhaps when we pay attention to the character of Moses and God’s response to the situation, the text has more to say to leaders of communities of faith than it does to the members of those communities. It may be tempting to disregard the cries of our parishioners as the whining of people who lack faith. It may be easy for us to pit ourselves as leaders against those whom we lead or who we feel are resistant to our leadership. Perhaps in the Lenten season as we reflect on the human condition, we must ask how we can demonstrate God’s compassionate presence and provision to those who cry out from under the burden of real, and sometimes extreme, hardships.
Psalm 95 appears in a grouping of psalms that focus on the reign of God (Psalms 93, 95-99).
These psalms are sometimes categorized as “enthronement psalms” because of their focus on God’s eternal kingship. One popular theory about their origins is that they were recited in the Jerusalem temple during a New Year festival that revolved around the celebration of God’s enthronement. If the theory is right, Psalm 95 was part of a grand celebration of God’s universal sovereignty with the implicit claim that God was superior to all other deities. This theory, however compelling it may be, is not as certain as the role of Psalm 95 in the book of Psalms.
This psalm and the larger group of enthronement psalms appear in a section of the book of Psalms (Book IV, Psalms 90-106) that seems to be organized to deal with the theological crisis of the Babylonian exile in 587 B.C.E. The theological crisis is expressed in many of the psalms that precede this section (Book III, Psalms 73-89). Such psalms painfully related doubts about Israel’s core beliefs (the central role of Jerusalem and the Davidic king in God’s plan, for example). But Psalm 95 along with the other enthronement psalms reminded those who doubted that God was still in control, that God was still “a great King above all gods” (verse 3).
Psalm 95 contains two calls to praise and worship God that provide structure to the work (verses 1, 6). Verses 1 and 6 both begin with imperatives that connote movement, perhaps movement of the human spirit to a posture of praise. These imperatives are followed by verbs that invite praise and singing. Verse 1 begins specifically with the imperative “Come!” Then a string of jussives (third-person verbs with invitational character) in the rest of verse 1 and in verse 2 invite praise and worship: “let us sing;” “let us make a joyful noise;” “let us come into his presence;” “let us make a joyful noise.”
Verse 2 suggests worship is to be offered specifically with thanksgiving and songs of praise. “Thanksgiving” may refer to a type of song (like Psalm 30, for example). If this is what the word means here, the psalmist is calling for music that represents two major genres. The word thanksgiving, however, may also refer more narrowly to a certain type of offering (Leviticus 7:11-18). If this is the intention of verse 2, the psalmist invites both sacrifice and song to be offered to God. Whatever the meaning of “thanksgiving,” verse 2 clearly calls for worship that is comprehensive and inclusive of all expressions of reverence.
Verses 3-5 give reasons for the praise called for in verses 1-2. The most basic reason for praising God is that God is “a great King above all gods” (verse 3). As noted already, this theme is central to Psalm 95 as well as to the other enthronement psalms in Book IV of the Psalter. The statement here assumes a polytheistic background. Among all the gods, the Lord has no rival. Verses 4-5 give the primary evidence that God is “a great King above all gods.” Namely, God is the creator, the one who ordered and sustains the world. The elements under God’s control are listed so as to make a comprehensive statement: the depths of the earth, the heights of the mountains, the sea, and the dry land all are in God’s hands. In fact, verse 4 begins and verse 5 ends with reference to “his hands” to make this statement emphatic.
The second major portion of the psalm begins also with an imperative “O come” (though with a different word than in verse 1). The invitation that follows, however, concerns not the elements of worship but the right posture for praise: “let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!” Just as verse 3 gives reasons to sing praise, verse 7 states why one should bow and kneel: “we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand” (verse 7a-b). The idea that God is a shepherd complements the earlier declaration that God is king. Ancient Near Eastern people often described their monarchs as their shepherds. Pharaoh was sometimes depicted with a shepherd staff in his hand.
Verse 7c really concludes verse 7 with an exclamation that expresses the proper response to God the shepherd: “O that today you would listen to his voice.” But this conclusion to verse 7 also leads directly into verses 8-11 which recall Israel’s disobedience during the period of wilderness wandering (see references to Meribah and Massah in Exodus 17:1-7). These verses present a broad sketch of Israel’s faithlessness during this time. The Israelites were mainly guilty of not responding in faith to God’s miraculous deliverance. “My work” in verse 9 probably refers to the exodus. The Israelites, the verse says, continued to ask for proof of God’s might even after God rescued them from Egypt. As McCann says, the main message of verses 8-11 is “Do not repeat that mistake.”1
The central theological message of Psalm 95 is that “the Lord is a great King” (verse 3). To recognize God’s kingship is to recognize that God created us and sustains us. For that reason God is worthy of our praise. The psalm also suggests that our praise is more than words lifted heavenward. It is an expression of faith and it should be lived out in faithfulness and trust. This is precisely what the Israelites in the wilderness did not do. To learn from their mistakes and to connect praise and obedience is our calling.
1 J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (ed. Leander E. Keck et. al.; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), vol. 4, p. 1062.
I wonder if we are drawn, in part, to Paul’s letters because of their immediacy and transparency.
We see in them communities that struggled, as we do, with how to live together and live out the gospel. We see people who squabbled over who could and could not eat certain foods; who could and could not speak in church; and whether or not one should get married (not, according to Paul); disagreements that continue to this day. The letters also reveal a man who rejoices in all God has done for him and everyone else — Jew and Gentile. But, at the same time, he writes openly of his failure to live up to God’s expectations, also as we do.
Theology and Christology Paul is writing to a disparate collection of churches that he had not visited rather than churches he founded. He wrote with the goal that “the God of steadfastness and encouragement [may] grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5-6). Paul wanted them to recognize, as he did, that there is one God and one Lord.
An important part of our Lenten journey is getting to know this God and the Lord with whom we are making the journey to Jerusalem. The gospel lesson this third Sunday in Lent presents us with the startling exchange between Jesus and a notorious woman in Samaria. At the heart of that lesson is her query, “He [Jesus] cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (John 4:29). Paul seeks to answer her question with a resounding “yes”. Paul wants us to know this man Jesus. Yes, Jesus was and is Messiah, the Christos, the anointed one. Therefore, a homiletical direction one might take is to examine the theological and Christological dimensions of this brief passage.
Paul writes that we have a God who loves us. God loves us so much that, even when we were (and are) weak; even while we were (and are) sinners; even when we were (and are) enemies of God, and each other, God sent God’s son. We have a faithful God who was and is willing to go to any length to reconcile us.
Paul paints a picture of God that is in harmony with the portrait of God given to us by Jesus. This is the God who will search high and low for us when we are lost and have wondered off. Ours is the God who runs out to meet us, the prodigal daughters and sons. And this is a God who forgives us seventy times seventy times seven times. Or, to use a more contemporary phrase, God forgives us a gazillion bazillion times.
Paul also paints a portrait of Jesus, the anointed one. Jesus was sent by God. This Messiah, anointed one, did not demand riches and power. This Christ did not conquer the city on a horse of war. Rather, this Christos rode to his battle on a donkey, a beast of burden. For us he dared to die; to offer his blood so that we would be saved. And through his death we have been reconciled to God. Through his death we are no longer weak, our sins have been forgiven, and we are no longer enemies of God.
A crucial dimension of this passage, therefore, is Paul’s understanding of Christ’s death; his theology of the Atonement. Over and over again Paul reminds us that we are not able to work hard to justify ourselves or bring about our reconciliation with God. That happens only through God’s love and grace. It is a free gift of God. Without the death of Jesus, Paul writes, we all would stand before God guilty and condemned. Only Jesus was able to save us from “the wrath of God” which is our due.
Christ’s Suffering, Our Suffering This passage also has a strong anthropological dimension. In the midst of discussing Christ’s suffering for us, Paul writes of the Christian life. As he offers us a challenging portrait of what the “peace with God” looks like, is Paul telling us something about his life in Christ?
Paul was a man who thought he had that peace of God; thought he was reconciled to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He had studied and lived the Law, the Torah. He had been an important religious leader. But then he picked up his cross to follow Jesus. He saw that the way of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation can also be a way of suffering.
Paul clearly wrote out of his experiences. In return for being a follower of Jesus he was beaten and imprisoned. And we know that eventually he would ride into Rome, not in triumph, but to his death. It is a chilling experience to stand in Saint John Lateran looking up at the baldacchino over the high altar. At the top are two reliquaries thought to contain the heads of Peter and Paul. For both of these men, to answer the call of Christ was to bring suffering and death.
But in spite of all that he experienced, Paul saw that through his suffering he grew closer to Jesus, closer to God. Employing the rhetorical figure of climax, Paul wants to lead us through suffering, to endurance, to character, and eventually to hope. To follow Jesus will bring us new life and reconciliation to God, but it does not mean that bad things will never happen to us.
For Paul, suffering and endurance are crucial aspects of the faithful life. However, to walk this homiletical path can prove difficult. As preachers it is important to recognize that Paul does not say that God sends this suffering. Likewise, he is not saying that all suffering produces character and must therefore be endured without protest. All too often, in the past, this passage has served to justify pain at the hands of abusers and demand silent acceptance. To quote Paul, “by no means!” No, Paul is encouraging all of us to pick up our cross and follow the way of Christ “because God’s love has been poured into our hour hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5) That is the hope of our lives.