I know, Working Preachers. This story is overwhelming. So much going on. So many places to land. Of course, this is the challenge with any text, but somehow with a story of this size and a character with this complexity, it seems like more. And, after I insist that you add the four verses omitted by the lectionary (John 4:1-4), you have 42 verses from which to choose for a sermon focus.
This column should never tell you what to preach. If it ever does, you have to tell me. I offer suggestions, sometimes impassioned directions, toward points of proclamation, but in the end, I trust that you know what your people need to hear.
And so, you may very well decide to preach that God gives living water, gushing up to eternal life, a basic need, what sustains life. Maybe you know that most people in your congregation still see this woman as loose, sexually immoral, and “thank God” Jesus forgives her. So, you have to preach her truth — widowed, divorced likely because she was barren, left to fetch water on her own because no one would want her bad luck to rub off on them and Jesus says, “I will love you.” Neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem is a sermon all on its own because the point is God is standing right in front of you. The woman left her water jar behind. What did she leave behind? Her abandonment, rejection, marginalization.
Or maybe you want to emphasize Jesus’ invitation to his disciples to do what she did — invite all, come and see, because the fields are ripe for harvesting. Perhaps you should preach Jesus as Savior, the only time Jesus is called Savior in John and before Jesus has died. So just what does it mean to be saved in John? There are a few sermon options!
Yet, frequently overlooked is that this interaction is a conversation. Jesus suggests that conversation matters for theology. That conversation is essential for faith. Lest we assume such claims, observe how religious dialogue happens today — “I’m right. You’re wrong. So there.” We are living in a time when conversation needs to be cultivated and valued. Practiced and pursued. Longed for and lived. Without real conversation, we lack intimacy and understanding; connection and empathy. Without real conversation, we risk detachment and distance.
No wonder Jesus engages in and insists on conversation when it comes to believing, since believing in John’s Gospel is synonymous with relationship. It matters that Jesus’ revelation of who he is to her and her realization of who he can be for her happens in conversation. Their conversation is emblematic of what true relationship looks like — mutuality, reciprocity, and regard.
The church can be the place that shows society what theological conversation can sound like. The church can be the place that demonstrates how dialogue about faith and the Bible might result in religious respect and tolerance. With this mandate, what does faithful conversation, theological conversation look like? The dialogue between the Samaritan woman at the well and Jesus provides an outline that not only offers features so as to model conversive speech but also points to the very nature of God.
First, note that the conversation begins with mutual vulnerability. Jesus is thirsty and she needs the water that only Jesus can provide. That is where truthful conversations must start — from a place of reciprocal vulnerability, from a space that recognizes that each party risks being known and being seen. I suspect that very few conversations begin with the expectation of vulnerability, yet theological conversations have to start there because this is a fundamental characteristic of God.
Second, questions are critical to conversation. Not questions that have already decided on the right answers. Not questions that are asked only to feign manners. No, questions that communicate curiosity, an interest in the other, a longing for information and understanding. The woman at the well is full of questions, thoughtful questions, questions that matter and lead Jesus to reveal to her who he really is. Jesus affirms questions, even invites them. God wants us to ask questions because it is questions that strengthen relationship.
Third, conversations for the sake of intentional and genuine interest in the other take time. They take time because there will likely be moments of misunderstanding. The Samaritan woman is first confused by Jesus’ offer, but unlike Nicodemus, she does not let that halt the conversation. This means that reading this text on Sunday cannot happen as a monologue. Orchestrate a dialogue, a reader’s theatre perhaps, so that your congregation can experience its length. It seems that God is willing to hang in there. To keep on listening. To keep on exposing God’s heart so that it can be seen for the abundant love it holds.
Fourth, when it comes to having a conversation with Jesus or about Jesus, expect to be surprised. Expect God to reveal something about God’s self that you have never seen before. The unnamed woman at the well is the first one to whom Jesus reveals his true identity — I AM, the first absolute I AM in the Gospel of John — not to the Jewish leaders or to the disciples, but to her, a religious, social, political outsider. This is whom God is for because God loves the world.
The final characteristic of theological conversation is to anticipate being changed in the process. The woman at the well goes from shamed to witness. From dismissed to disciple. From alone to being a sheep of Jesus’ own fold. Let’s start talking.