When we meet up with Jesus in today’s gospel lesson, he’s been walking all morning. So, by the time he finally sits down near Jacob’s well, he’s really tired and thirsty. (I think we all know what that feels like! Amen?!…) To be in need of rest and refreshment after a long journey is to be vulnerable, and to be vulnerable is to be human. In his very human moment of personal need, Jesus reaches out to the first person he sees: a Samaritan woman who’s come to the well to draw water. He asks her to get him a drink; after all, she has a bucket, and he doesn’t!… As we see by her response, the woman is initially perplexed that a Jewish man would ask her for a drink, since Jews considered Samaritans to be ethnically and religiously inferior and didn’t usually have anything to do with them. Yet notice that Jesus doesn’t react to her question by telling her to “just shut up and get him a drink!” He doesn’t dismiss her because of her gender, ethnicity, and religion, as most Jewish men of his day would’ve done…. You see, my friends, in that moment, Jesus’ own vulnerability allows him to set aside the multi-layered prejudice of his tradition and see in a whole new way: Jesus is able to see beyond the barriers of ethnicity, religion, and gender, so that when he looks at the Samaritan woman, he sees a fellow human being who is also tired and thirsty, although not in the same way he is. Jesus sees that she’s tired of feeling like she has no value, and she’s thirsty for the Spirit of God to be poured out in her heart. That’s why he tells her that all she has to do is ask, and he’ll give her “living water,” the gift of God that leads to abundant life…. Like Nicodemus in last week’s gospel story, the woman at first takes Jesus literally, asking how he can give her water when he has no bucket! Yet in contrast to Nicodemus, whose religious tradition hems him in, and in contrast to Jesus’ own disciples, who are often afraid to ask Jesus what on earth he’s talking about, this smart, badass survivor isn’t afraid to keep asking questions and to keep sharing her own thoughts! Because of her bold curiosity, she and Jesus end up having a deep theological conversation about God and what it means to be a person of faith. And, as if that weren’t impressive enough, on the heels of their exchange, she becomes one of the first evangelists. In fact, she’s the very first person to go and tell everyone in her town that Jesus is the Messiah of God…. The gospel writer John tells us that because of her powerful witness many come to hear Jesus for themselves, and after listening to his teaching for two days, they proclaim that Jesus is not just the Messiah of the Jews, he is the Savior of the world!…
Now, there’s a lot in this text, and obviously we can’t cover all the details in one sermon! But there’s one pretty big misconception about the woman at the well that I’d like to clear up…. I’m sad to say that over the centuries the church has often given this poor woman a bad rap. Countless preachers have harped on the fact that she’s had five husbands and is now living with a man who isn’t her husband…. But that’s NOT the point of the story! The Samaritan woman isn’t a so-called “loose woman.” On the contrary, she was most likely a victim of circumstance: It could well be that she was barren—unable to have children—which back then was a legitimate reason for a husband to divorce her. Or it could be that her first husband had died, and she was given in levirate marriage to his next brother, who later died, and she was then given to the next brother, and so on. Some biblical scholars also suggest that the five brothers are meant to symbolize the five ethnic groups that the Assyrians resettled in Samaritan territory, beginning in 721 BCE. Over the years, those groups intermarried with the Samaritans, which was part of the reason the Jews looked down on Samaritans as “less than pure!…” Yet whatever the circumstances surrounding the woman’s marital status, here’s what’s important for you and me to know: Jesus doesn’t judge her!… On the contrary, here as in so many other places in the gospels, Jesus intentionally crosses cultural boundaries and breaks religious rules in order to extend the Good News of God’s welcome to someone his own people consider an outcast.
My friends, Scripture tells us Jesus was perfect in obedience to God, and yet time after time the gospels also tell us that Jesus was a rule breaker. Jesus defied the religious and ethnic taboos of his day that excluded and oppressed women, children, lepers, sinners, and others who were considered unclean and/or inferior. Jesus dared to reach out to those on the other side of the dividing wall, because he saw them as fellow human beings worthy of God’s love. In contrast to those who used their power to put others down and shut them out, Jesus used his God-given power to lift up the lowly and welcome in the lost…. To say it another way, Jesus went out of his way to reach out to outcasts and offer them “living water”—that is, the healing and hope that come from God alone…. So, I wonder: What does all this mean for you and me who are Jesus’ followers today? Who are “the women at the well” in our time and place? Who are the ones who’ve been cast out because of our culture’s prejudices about ethnicity, religion, gender, and marital status—among other things? Latinos? Muslims? LGBTQ folks? People who’ve gotten divorced? [Now it’s your turn. Help me fill in the blanks, sisters and brothers. Who are “the women at the well” that you see in your everyday life? And how might God be calling you as a follower of Christ to reach out, in order to welcome them in and lift them up?…] My friends, as children of God on whom the Holy Spirit has been poured out in our baptism, you and I are called to continue our Lord’s mission of loving and blessing the whole world, one person at a time. Like Jesus, we must be willing to put our lives on the line and make ourselves vulnerable for the sake of the gospel, because to be vulnerable is to be truly courageous and fully human; as our Lord Jesus himself says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends….” So, as you and I prepare to come to the Lord’s Table, where we receive the sweet comfort and solemn challenge of God’s still-unfolding love for the whole world, let’s pray for compassion and courage to be the Body of Christ for others in our daily lives:
Source of our life and of all life,
as we strive to follow Jesus in faith,
pour your Spirit out on us once again:
Fill our hearts until they overflow
with compassion and courage.
Teach us to see
beyond the walls we build.
Help us to reach
across the boundaries we impose.
Inspire us to share
throughout the world
your gift of living water
with all who thirst
to know and to be known
as your beloved children;
through Jesus Christ our Lord;
 Osvaldo Vena, “Commentary on John 4:5-42,” www.workingpreacher.org, 19 March 2017.
 Cf. Hebrews 4:15.
 John 15:13.