Third Sunday in Lent
John 4:5-26 (27-30, 39-42)
Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; 2 through whom we also have our access by faith into this grace in which we stand. We rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
Why did Jesus wait alone at the well? John tells us that He was tired from the journey, but I can’t imagine that He was any more tired than the rest of the disciples. Couldn’t they have sent one or two disciples to get food while they others waited outside the city? Even if they needed more hands, why did they leave Jesus alone? At the beginning of the chapter, John tells us that Jesus knew the Pharisees were beginning to question His ministry. They’d heard that His disciples were more popular than John the Baptist, so Jesus left Jerusalem for a time.
Jesus and the disciples were going from Jerusalem to Galilee. The typical route for traveling Jews was the long way around so as to avoid encounters with the Samaritans. Most travelers would cross the Jordan and walk on the east bank so as to not be made unclean by those who were half-breeds: partly Jewish and partly Gentile. They took the short cut, which led right through Sychar, the site of Jacob’s Well. John gives us these details for a purpose. Jesus’ tiredness and thirst reminds us of His humanity. The Well reminds us of His heritage. The encounter is just the first of many that will identify Jesus as divine.
We see in this story a divine appointment. Jesus was there at the well and alone so that He could have this encounter with the woman. Jesus had no reason to be there. She was alone. With no witnesses, he could do anything to her. She could be raped or killed. She could disappear, and no one would know the difference or worse: no one would even care. Her presence at the well at such an odd hour meant she was fodder for persecution. She was bold enough to approach the well when there was just one man, but a gathering of twelve or more would have been frightening.
She didn’t know this was a divine appointment. She was chosen, out of all the women, to be the one to take the Good News of God’s Kingdom to her people. Odd choice, considering she was an outcast. We learn during her conversation that she’s been the wife of five husbands and she’s currently living with a man who is not her husband. Whatever the reason, she waits until the heat of the day to go to the well. By the sixth hour, or noontime, the well’s water would be stale and muddy. The other women attend to that daily chore early in the morning when the silk has settled overnight and the water is cool.
The trip to the well was more than a chore for the women, though. It was a time to socialize, to gather gossip, perhaps trade recipes. It was a time for the women to bond, to complain about their husbands, to share their hopes. Not only did the woman at the well have to deal with dirty water, she missed the companionship of the other women. Did she go later in the day because she was unwelcome? Or was she embarrassed by her circumstances and chose to avoid the women. Either way, I doubt she was interested in meeting a man at the well, especially a man like Jesus.
Jesus was there waiting for her and the encounter changed her life. This is a long story, nearly a whole chapter of John’s Gospel, but as we read it we discover this is a conversation that lasts only a few moments. Yet, in that time Jesus not only transformed her, He planted the seeds for many others to believe. Her faith, built on just a few questions and answers, was shared with many in her village and then spread among the people of Samaria. When the disciples dispersed into the world to continue Jesus’ ministry, they found that Samaria already believed because faith in Jesus was established during this brief encounter.
Her faith did not come easily. She was hesitant at the beginning. He reached her by asking her for the one thing she could give, water from the well. She was probably not given many opportunities to help her neighbors. There is such joy and fulfillment in doing something for others, and because of her history or her present, she has been left out. In this encounter, though, she seemed uncertain about whether or not she wanted a relationship. She responded with a question. “Who are you that you would speak to me?”
Listen to the tone of the woman’s answers to Jesus. She is very distant, uninterested, and perhaps even afraid. She is surprised that He would have anything to do with her. When He offers her a drink, she is offended and becomes defensive, wondering how He could offer her anything better than her forefather, Jacob. She becomes interested when she hears that the water will make her life better. She won’t suffer thirst and is willing to believe that He can provide it. She humbly admits her failing when He asks her to bring her husband, and she is amazed when He can provide details that she does not give. Her fear of a strange man turns into respect for a prophet in just a few sentences. Then He spoke the promise of God into her life and revealed Himself as the One for whom they had been waiting. In this encounter, Jesus moved her from fear to hope to faith. Whatever her failings, she experienced the presence of God.
The Israelites were on a difficult journey. They had cried out for the salvation of the LORD in Egypt, hoping that He would deliver them from the life of slavery. Once they were on that journey, however, they began to think that the life they had in Egypt was better than the uncertainty of where they would get their next drink. They were thirsty, and their thirst was all they could think about. Imagine what it must have been like having a million people camping in the desert with no source for water.
We might think that this story happened sometime during the forty years of wandering, but this was before they even arrived at the foot of Mt. Sinai, only weeks after they left Egypt. They were still being tested; they were still learning to trust in God. But at this point they have seen some pretty miraculous things. They saw the miracles in Egypt. They saw the column of fire at night and cloud during the day which led them on their way. They saw the Red Sea part so they could safely pass and then eat Pharaoh’s army. They saw the bitter water of Marah and Elim miraculously become sweet. They saw the manna and quails fall from heaven, to feed them with satisfying food. I never realized how many of these miracles happened in such a short period of time. How could they become so discontented so quickly? I thought that was a modern problem! Even after God had provided safety, escape, clean water, bread and meat, they were still afraid that they would die.
Water is one of the most basic needs of the human body. It is no wonder that they were thirsty. There was no water in the desert, and they had been traveling long enough that their resources were quickly diminishing. If our kids can’t stand a two hour car ride to Grandma’s house, how can we think that the Israelites would be patient during a forty day journey on foot? They grumbled. I understand. I get pretty testy under difficult circumstances. The unknown is scary. It is uncomfortable. It is worse than the worst places that we know. The people went to Moses and asked, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?” We believe in the worst possible outcome when we are uncomfortable. They were so thirsty, they were certain they must die.
God answered their cries by commanding Moses go ahead of the people with his staff. tells Moses to go ahead of the people with his staff. “Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock in Horeb. You shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink.” This was not stale, murky water; it was clean fresh flowing water, good to drink. It was also a foreshadowing of the Living Water that Christ would give to the woman at the well. In that place, which Moses called Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and tested God, God stood on a rock, but in later days, Jesus would be the Rock from which the water flowed.
In this story we are reminded that God is always near even when it seem as though He is far away. He knew what the people needed. They needed water, but they also needed to learn how to trust in Him. They were being led from one life to a very different life. The wilderness journey was not only meant to get them from one place to another, but to also help them transform into the people God was calling them to be. He was teaching them about faith, about hope and about relying on the One who would provide for their every need. They quarreled and tested, but God still provided. This is good for us to know: even when we quarrel and test the LORD, He is still close by to meet our needs.
The psalmist recalls the experience of the Israelites in the first lesson, reminding us not to harden our hearts. Instead, we are invited to sing to God and praise His name. He is able to make springs of water flow out of rocks, to give living water without a bucket. He is with us, ready to offer us the entire Kingdom and all of creation to meet all our needs. He has even given His Son for our sake. “For Yahweh is a great God, a great King above all gods.”
Jesus came to the well for a divine appointment that changed a life and a city. He called out to her and relieved her fears, answered her questions and offered her something better than she had. God has done the same for us. The difference between God and man was too great for human beings to overcome on our own. We have sinned against Him in our own testing and demands. We have not trusted in His Word or waited for His promises. We never deserved the grace He came to give; we deserve only death. Yet, as Paul writes, we are reconciled to God through Christ Jesus. “For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we will be saved by his life. Not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.”
Though God made the heavens and the earth, though He created the vast oceans, the land and all that lives here, though He controls it all with His hands - He also knows my name. At my baptism He gave me that name, child of God, daughter of the Most High. The God of all creation has given me a share of His eternal kingdom through Jesus Christ. We are reminded that even though we are little more than a speck on the face of this earth, no matter what our circumstances, God is near and that He is ready to meet our needs. He is faithful even when we are not; there we find peace. He has made a divine appointment for each and every one of us so that we might hear His Word and believe, even though we do not deserve His grace.
The woman at the well quarreled and tested Jesus, but in the end she received a gift; she had faith in the Messiah, the One who would give her Living Water that would quench her thirst for lasting relationship with God. That Living Water didn’t stay pent up in the deep of her soul, though; she ran to the village to share the Good News. She learned in the very brief encounter that God did not reject her because of her past or her present, and that He would still provide for her needs despite her quarreling and testing. She went forth in joy to share the Gospel with others.
The people of Israel tested God, but in reality it was the people who were being tested. Would they be faithful? Would they trust God? Would they learn how to live as His people in the place where they were being led? We think that suffering is a sign of God’s abandonment; they certainly did in the days of the desert wandering. Health, wealth, success are the signs of a perfect life, at least we tend to think so. The reality is so different. Faith and faithfulness does not guarantee a lack of suffering. Faith and faithfulness helps us to get through everything we have to face in this life.
Paul writes, “Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; through whom we also have our access by faith into this grace in which we stand. We rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” The Hebrews did not have peace with God because they were not living by faith. They tested God and quarreled with Moses rather than living in the hope of God’s promises. The Samaritan woman did not understand the hope she could have in Jesus, but when she heard His message she found peace in trusting His words. She was not justified by her works, but by her faith in Jesus.
We often think that peace will only come when life is perfect. We believe that when we are safe, healthy and comfortable, then we will have peace. We see the blessed life as one filled with good things, just as they did in Paul’s day. All too many pastors preach that if you appear successful, then God’s hand must surely be on you. They see suffering as a sign that something is wrong between man and God.
Peace does not come when everything is perfect. We begin with peace, knowing that God has justified us through grace which we have through Jesus Christ. Peace does not mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us. As a matter of fact, the suffering we face in Christ will actually strengthen us. As we persevere through our suffering, the world sees our character and our character gives them hope. People are amazed by those who still believe in the midst of great suffering. They see hope in the life of the faithful and they see God in that hope. Though some might question the integrity of a Christian in suffering, it is the very peace they experience in the midst of hard times that stands as a sign of their faith to the world. Perhaps that’s why the people believed the woman in our Gospel lesson. She was not trustworthy, and yet her faith made them follow. They went to see what caused her to have hope.
There seemed to be some knowledge of the Messiah in their community, although the woman did not fully understand what the Messiah would mean to the world. They were all waiting for someone to teach them and help them make sense of the things of God. Jesus did that for the woman by saying, “I am he, the one who speaks to you.” He was giving her hope, and hope does not disappoint.
The woman was the first to hear this incredible revelation proclaimed. She left so quickly she forgot her water jar, and she went into the city unconcerned about what others might think. “I met a man who knew everything about me. Could He be the one we are waiting for?” Many in that town believed her story and went out to meet Jesus. He stayed with them for two days and taught them about the Kingdom of God. In the end they said to the woman, “Now we believe, not because of your speaking; for we have heard for ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.”
We have joined the Israelites in their desert wanderings during our forty days of Lent. We thirst, but good, sweet water is not always at hand. We can respond in two ways. First, we can harden our hearts; we can let the experience of suffering and pain make us angry, bitter and resentful. We can blame others, like the Israelites did. We can even blame God. We can complain and provoke Him, demand justice and expect that He will do our will.
Or we can respond as the woman at the well. She began confused, angry or afraid, but with a willing heart she experienced God’s grace and found peace. Suffering can have a positive effect on our lives, because it helps us turn to God and seek His help. God promised that He would be near. He didn’t say our life would be perfect, but He promised He would be near. He is always much closer than we expect. He is listening, waiting, preparing to meet our troubles with His grace. Our hearts can be hardened by a lack of trust, but if we trust in God’s faithfulness, we’ll experience peace even in those times of trouble. We can go forth in joy to share the Gospel with others so that God’s grace will transform them into the people God is calling them to be.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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