John 4:5-42, Lent 3A
There is a story about a professor who one day entered his classroom and announced to the class that there would be a surprise quiz. The students put their things away, and sat at their desks, anxiously waiting for the test to begin.
The professor walked through the classroom, placing a paper face down on each student’s desk. When he was finished, he told the class they could turn their paper over and begin. So, they did.
The students turned their papers over, but then they sat there, stupefied. There was nothing on the paper except a dot. A big, black dot sat squarely in the center of the paper, and that was all; there were no words, no questions.
Seeing the students’ expressions of confusion, the professor told them, “I want you to write down what you see.” Still confused, the students nonetheless got to work.
At the end of class, the professor began going through the papers, one by one, reading the answers aloud. Without exception, the students had written about the dot. They wrote about how big it was, how black it was, how round it was, how it was positioned in the middle of the paper.
The professor looked up after he had read the last response.
“I’m not going to grade you on this,” he began, “I just wanted to give you something to think about. You all wrote about the same thing – the dot. No one wrote anything about the white part of the paper.
Everyone focused on the black dot – and the same thing happens in our lives. We have the white paper to observe and enjoy, but we always focus on the dark spots. Our life is a gift given to us by God, with love and care, and we always have reasons to celebrate – nature renewing itself each day, our friends around us, the job that provides our livelihood, the miracles we see each day…”
However we insist on focusing only on the darks spots – and he listed some of those and then concluded by urging them to look around, to look more deeply, to see the white paper, the life we have, the good in other people, the gift of life we have received from God.
This story reminds me of how we often view the Gospel story we heard this morning.
The Gospel of John is known for its deep layers of theology, imagery and symbolism, and today in this very long text John that tells the story of Jesus, a Samaritan woman, water, and Word.
It’s a story we’ve heard before, and I’ll bet that in most of those hearings, the story about Jesus and what Jesus is doing might have been all but lost because of the focus on the black dot. We get lost in the part of the story where Jesus tells the woman that he knows who she is. He knows she has had five husbands and is now living with a man who is not her husband. Immediately we see the black dot.
Yet it is very likely that we have misinterpreted the woman’s situation all these years. For while we are all too often ready to point out her sin, to describe the black dot we see, a close look at this text reveals that Jesus never calls her a sinner or tells her to repent or calls her out on her way of life. Jesus simply sees her. He sees her as a person, marvelously made by God. He sees her as a person with all her gifts and challenges. He lets her know he sees her. Her. A Samaritan. A woman who is oppressed, invisible to others. But Jesus see her, and knows her, and opens the kingdom door for her. And she walks right through the door.
His disciples simply cannot believe what they’ve seen. Jesus is talking a woman, and not just any woman, a Samaritan (not that unusual since they are in Sychar, in Samaria!) He has allowed himself to be served water by her! (Jesus has broken several Jewish purity laws here).
Furthermore, the fact that she is at the well in the heat of midday suggests that she is some sort of outcast. After all, the women in the community would normally come to the well when it is cooler and when they can take that opportunity to connect with one another, talk, perhaps gossip together. But here she is, alone.
It would be interesting to read this story with the one we read last week. It would be interesting to observe Nicodemus and this woman side by side. Nicodemus came to see Jesus in the night. This woman at the well encounters Jesus in light of the noonday sun.
Nicodemus was a man of good reputation and standing; a Pharisee – a leader in the Temple. This woman has no status, is an outsider both in her context and in the realm of Judaism.
Jesus talking to such a man would not have been a big deal. It might even have been encouraged. (Maybe it would raise his status and credibility). Jesus talking to this woman shocked his own disciples.
During that nighttime visit, Nicodemus had a lot of questions, and Jesus answers him, but when he goes away, we really aren’t sure what believed about Jesus. Though he pops up a couple more times in the gospel, and seems sympathetic to Jesus, we never really get a handle on what Nicodemus thinks or believes about Jesus.
On the other hand, this woman first says to Jesus, “I know you are a prophet.” And after speaking with Jesus just a little while longer, she is amazed and rushes off to tell everyone she knows about this amazing man and what he can do! She sees in Jesus the promised Messiah.
Who would you rather talk to? Who would you rather be like? Nicodemus, or this woman who never receives a name, who rejoices simply because Jesus has seen her, and has told her about the living water – the water that he offers, that will lead to eternal life! Amazing grace!
Amazing water! Jesus offers this woman the water that she has been thirsting for without ever knowing it. And then she believes! And she shares her experience with everyone she knows.
Contrast this Samaritan woman’s reaction to Nicodemus’ – he who argues with Jesus over the literal interpretation of what it means to be born again, who comes to Jesus in secret and leaves in secret.
This woman rejoices because Jesus has seen her and told her about living water…amazing water. My friends, Jesus gives us the same water in our baptism. Through the gift at the font or in the river, or in a baptistry, we each have received the gift of eternal life for the living of today and for the work of tomorrow.
The woman in today’s story is vulnerable. She is thirsty for life. We know that her life has been a struggle. Women of that time were totally dependent on the men in their lives. If they were widowed or divorced – and we remember that men were allowed to write a certificate of divorce with very little reason, their best chance of survival for themselves and for any children they had was to be married again.
Yet Jesus simply sees her as one in need. Jesus sees more than the black dot. Jesus sees her as a person, and so he spoke with her. He offered her something of incomparable worth. She exists for him, has value and worth, and significance – Jesus treats her with respect. He shows her compassion she barely know how to accept. And her grateful response is to share her story about her encounter with Jesus with other people she knows and who know her! Come! See! She tells them.
Numbers have significance in the Gospel of John, and so here is this story by the numbers:
· Jesus speak seven times to the woman.
o Seven is a number signifying completion in ancient Judaism.
o The seventh time he speaks to her, Jesus declares his divinity, thus assuring her that he can truly accomplish what he offers her – living water, eternal life, compassion and identity – “I am he,” Jesus states, referring to the Messiah. “The one who is speaking to you.”
· The woman speaks six times to Jesus. Six is still incomplete.
· The seventh time she speaks is to her people.
· What makes her story complete is that she shares it; she tells others of the marvelous experience and promise she received from Jesus.
What does this story have to do with us today?
Jesus presents a full picture and experience for life for us, offers us living water, transforms our lives by his seeing us and knowing us, loving us, and granting us grace. Knowing this, believing in Jesus, coming together to worship him and praise him and form community in his name, as important and wonderful as that is, doesn’t complete God’s intention for us; our discipleship is incomplete if that is as far as our story with Jesus goes.
Like the woman at the well, what brings our story full circle, and moves it toward its fullness is our sharing it. Our faith moves toward completeness only when we carry it out of this place and in our excitement and joy tell others about Jesus, and the wonderful gift of faith he has given us.
“Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He has told me everything I have ever done.” They came to Jesus because of the woman. They heard Jesus’ words because of her testimony. They believed in Jesus because following her testimony and her invitation, they came and heard for themselves the word of God, and they came to believe that Jesus is truly the Savior of the world.
It is not a stretch to go from the story of the woman at the well to the baptismal font. We all share in the living water through our baptism. As you come forward today, remember your baptism and know that God sees you in all your vulnerability and all your beauty, black dot and white or colored paper together, and loves you: Loves you so much that God gave Jesus for you. For me. For all of us, to go out into the world fed and restored so that we can tell the story, might join in the harvest, might gather fruit for eternal life, inviting others to come to know Jesus too.
May it be so.