Third Sunday in Lent

TEXT: John 4:7-29, 39-42

Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (John 4:28-29)

“Nobody knows me, pastor. Nobody really knows me.”

He had come into my office to talk, and I could see that he was in torment. Then he poured out his heart and soul, recounting dark and painful episodes from his past.

A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, he had turned for solace to drugs and alcohol. For over two decades, he had struggled with addiction, turning to petty crime to support his habit. Twice, he had served time in prison.

Now, he had been in recovery for several years, holding down a full-time job and finding a place in our worshipping community. In fact, he was fitting in so well, and was so highly regarded, that he had been asked to assume a volunteer position. He had readily and enthusiastically agreed … but then, he learned that a criminal records check would be required of him.

And so, he was going to be “outed” … unless he backed out of his commitment. Deeply ashamed of his personal history, he had confided in no one … until now. He had closely guarded his dark secret, and prayed that no one would ever find out. Because, of course, he was certain that—if his past was exposed—his new friends would reject him. After all, none of them really knew him.

People like him are not rare. In fact, I think they make up most of the world. In today’s gospel reading, we hear the story of “The Woman at the Well.” It is the story of most of us. Our dark side is darker than anyone can imagine. We figure no one would understand if we told them. Nobody really “gets” us.

This condition respects no boundaries. It cuts across social class, gender, and economic status. Prominent in the community or obscure and unheard of, each one of us has a dark side.

Certainly, that was true of the woman whom Jesus met at a place called “Jacob’s Well,” located deep in the territory of Samaria. His encounter with her was so significant that when John sat down to write his gospel—to record the events which he felt demonstrated the essence of Jesus’ life—he included her story.

When the woman came to the well, Jesus was sitting beside it, weary from his morning’s travel. He had nothing with which to draw water, and so he asked her for a drink. This surprised her. She asked Jesus how he—a Jew—could ask water from her, a Samaritan. After all, Jews and Samaritans normally avoided one another.

More than that, she was a woman!

John tells us that, later—when Jesus’ disciples returned from the city—they were “astonished that he was speaking with a woman.”

Now, let’s back up a bit. This woman is one of the most broken people in the New Testament—and we discover a hint of that in our gospel passage. When John sets the scene for this story, he tells us that it is about noon. Now, customarily, women came to draw water in the early morning. But this woman comes to the well at noon, in the heat of the day—long after the other women of the village had come and gone.

This suggests that—at the very least—she is afraid, or ashamed, or both. In all likelihood she is the target of scorn and derision. For some reason, people look down on her.

So, here she is trying to avoid being seen—and instead, there is someone else at the well. And not just any someone, but a man. Not just a man, but a Jewish man. In that time and place, men and women were not supposed to be seen in public together. Moreover, Jews and Samaritans usually had nothing to do with one another. So she is startled to see him there. She is even more startled when he speaks to her.

Jesus should not have interacted with this woman at all. They shared nothing in common. And yet …

He turns the conversation from the mundane to the spiritual. “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10).

This surely must have confused her, because—in the common parlance of their place and time—“living water” simply meant flowing water. As in a river or stream, not the well water she thought they were discussing.

She said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” (John 4:11-12)

But Jesus told her that his living water was different. He said the living water he would give would come “gushing up to eternal life” (v. 14). The water she was used to drinking satisfied only for a time, but Jesus spoke of water that would for all eternity satisfy her thirst.

“Sir, give me this water,” she said, “so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water” (v. 15).

In the conversation that follows, Jesus throws open the curtains on the dark side of her life. Moving boldly into the most secret places of her heart, he tells her that she has had five husbands and was now living with a man who was not her husband. And so her scandal is revealed. This is what has made her an outcast.

Somehow, Jesus knows all about her. But he does not regard her with disdain, as the others do.

When at last she leaves him, she runs into the city and tells anyone who will listen, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” (v. 29) 

He knew! He understood! He got her!

He saw her brokenness—what others would call her “sin”—and he loved her anyway. He accepted her. He offered her hope. He gave her living water.

Here’s the simple point that I believe John wanted to make when he recorded this story: we are like this woman. We all live with brokenness. John knew something about that. Jesus had appeared in his path one day … and his life was never the same again.

Here, the gospel writer is holding up a mirror for us—for all of us who stumble along through life, wrestling with demons and burdened with guilt and unable to escape from our past.

Most of the time, we keep a lid on this information, so we don’t have to deal with it. But then … Jesus breaks into our lives. Uninvited, he peers into our souls—and he tells us everything we ever did!

Then we realize … He knows us. He “gets” us. And still, he loves us.

If we open our hearts to this sort of encounter with the living Christ, that is when he gives us his living water. The wells from which we have been drinking lose their attractiveness, as we understand that their water only satisfies for a moment. We have been chasing the whirlwind, as the writer of Ecclesiastes said.

We have been looking for salvation in a bottle or a needle or an affair or a career or the esteem of our community—or any of a thousand other things—and none of them have satisfied us.

Far from it. They have left us empty, yearning for something more … but not knowing where to find it.

Jesus, though … he sees us and he knows us—and he offers us his living water. If we choose to bathe in it, it will cleanse us completely. If we choose to drink it, it will satisfy our deepest thirst. And however often we draw from it, there is always more, because its supply is infinite.

When Jesus looks into our souls, sees our dark side, uncovers our secrets, knows our guilt, discerns our motivations, and loves us anyway … this is the living water!

It renews us and remakes us. It re-creates us. When Jesus sees that we are dying inside, and he gives us water that flows from an eternal spring, when he tells us everything we have ever done … this is living water for our dried-out souls.

One more thing about this woman: after Jesus’ vision has pierced her soul, she tells the people of her town: “Come, and see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?”

“He told me everything about myself. Can he be the Messiah?”

She is asking the question around which this whole story revolves. If he can know us so completely, if he can give us living water … then … can he be the Messiah?

Jesus leaves no doubt. “I am he,” he says, “the one who is speaking to you” (v. 26).

Family therapists tell us that—despite the promises made by dating websites—strong relationships are not built on common interests or perspectives on life. No. They are built on self-revelation.

Enduring relationships grow when two people are able to trust one another with the deepest parts of themselves—with who they really are.

That is precisely what happened at Jacob’s Well. Jesus opened his heart to the woman whom he found there, and a broken Samaritan outcast was able to begin a new—and eternal—relationship.

When Jesus breaks into our lives, he opens the way for us to begin such a relationship ourselves. This relationship is the living water.

Notice that he was not offering free advice to this woman; he was offering himself.

In the end, this is not simply a story about Jesus “getting” this person he met at Jacob’s Well—in the sense of understanding her. It is a story about Jesus “getting” her as his friend—as his sister.

He wants to get all of us that way—as his friends. As his sisters. As his brothers.

Will he?

Will he get our trust?

Will he get our discipleship?

Will he get us to be his followers, to drink of his living water?

Jesus himself cannot not answer those questions. Only you can.

So, on this third Sunday in the midst of Lent, I want to ask you this: How will you answer?

Will you allow Jesus to get you? That’s what this story … your story, and my story … is really all about.

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