Sunday sermon 23 August – Midday encounter: Jesus and the woman at the well

Reading: John 4:5-42


We were at Rosedale Village on Wednesday for a communion service. Unfortunately they had expected us the week before. Undaunted, one of the ladies who usually comes along went off to round up the troops. And suddenly there was a bigger crowd than usual with a whole lot of new faces. You never know what can happen.

And we had a look at the first part of John 4. About this Samaritan woman.

We know the story of the Good Samaritan – I think. This is a double sided coin – not just a Samaritan talking to Jesus but a woman too, and one with an interesting reputation. I was saying to the Rosedale congregation that our modern Auckland is also very multi-cultured – and Jesus has an interest in the wide range and diversity of people who live here – wanting to draw them into a new family.

His disciples of course were a bit stuck in their prejudices. They had grown up as people of God – Jewish men mainly – who took for granted that God had included them in His plan. There were times that their prejudices were quite obvious – such as wanting to ask God to send fire from heaven on a Samaritan Village where they were not welcomed. (Luke 9:54  When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”)

Jesus was happy to have them out of the way on this occasion. They has gone to town to buy food – good idea to keep some people busy so they don’t mess up the actual mission here.

The irony is enormous. You read this Gospel and you realise that in the previous chapter one of those chosen Jewish leaders – Nicodemus – is the man who comes to Jesus at night. If you missed last week’s discussion about him – read it on the page – just look for 16 August three posts ago as the sequence is all muddled.

The contrast is huge. This is in the middle of the day – “encounter at high noon” so to speak. The 6th hour is midday. And it’s not the sensible time to walk to a well to get water. She does though – probably to avoid people – and Jesus starts this conversation. Try to read it as a conversation. We pick it up at verse 6:


Joh 4:6  Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour.  Joh 4:7  When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” Joh 4:8  (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) Joh 4:9  The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)


Jesus: Joh 4:10  Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

 Woman: Joh 4:11  “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?  Joh 4:12  Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?”

(Jesus – thinking: Yes!)

 Jesus: Joh 4:13  Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,

Joh 4:14  but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Woman: Joh 4:15  The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus:    Joh 4:16  He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

Woman: Joh 4:17  “I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus: Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband.

Joh 4:18  The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

Lady: Joh 4:19  “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet.  Joh 4:20  Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

Jesus: (loudly and emphatically) Joh 4:21  Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. Joh 4:22  You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Joh 4:23  Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. Joh 4:24  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” 

Probable dramatic pause… 

Woman: Joh 4:25  The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

Jesus: (loudly and emphatically) Joh 4:26  Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.”

Our shoppers (disciples) return from the Samaritan shop and the narrative takes almost a comic tone:

Joh 4:27  Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”   (silent looks/staring?)

She is of course somewhere else – off she goes without her bucket: Joh 4:28  Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, Joh 4:29  “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” Joh 4:30  They came out of the town and made their way toward him.

 Here’s the thing. I was listening on Wednesday to the talk at the Alpha course – and wondering whether people who first hear this story about faith and prayer (for example – as they were the topics this week) – whether they actually have any idea what it’s all about.

Did you – when you first heard it all? (Remember how Timothy heard about the gospel from his grandmother – Paul needed a Damascus Road conversion).

I mean some of you sound so certain about everything – even I feel a bit guilty about my doubts.

It takes time for you to figure it out. It’s a journey! Keep working on it!

Nicodemus was smart and shut out the possibility of a new birth. The dialogue which involves Nicodemus is about 8 verses long. He’s got a name, a pedigree, a faith already – but his eyes seem wide shut.

This woman’s dialogue – she is not named, she is socially shamed, she is out of sync with society at high noon – she’s been through a string of failed relationships – but the conversation is about 24 verses of narrative.

And it doesn’t end with certainty – it ends with a question that has possibilities:

Joh 4:28  Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, Joh 4:29  “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?

When Jesus is finished the dialogue with his shoppers about the food that really matters (they are really quite stupid a times aren’t they – eh? What’s he say? What’s he talking about? – verse 31 to 34 is another Fawlty Towers scene – look at verse 33 where they are saying side–stage: could someone have brought him food? Dominos Pizza delivered hey?)

Joh 4:31  Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.” Joh 4:32  But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” Joh 4:33  Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?” Joh 4:34  “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.

The real even happens at the end – she opens the door for two days of ministry to these heretics the Samaritans – half castes who had their own mountain and religious stuff that made the Jews as mad as hell/ mad as hatters!

Joh 4:39  Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” Joh 4:40  So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. Joh 4:41  And because of his words many more became believers. Joh 4:42  They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.”

I love it!

The thing is – it’s the living water that is the key to all of this. Tom Wright in his commentary tells this story:

A friend of mine described the reaction when he went home, as a young teenager, and announced to his mother that he’d become a Christian. Alarmed, she thought he’d joined some kind of cult. ‘They’ve brainwashed you!’ she said. He was ready with the right answer. ‘If you’d seen what was in my brain,’ he replied, ‘you’d realize it needed washing!’ Of course, he hadn’t been brainwashed. In fact, again and again– and this was certainly the case with my friend– when people bring their lives, their outer lives and inner lives, into the light of Jesus the Messiah, things begin to come clear. If anything, it’s our surrounding culture that brainwashes us, persuading us in a thousand subtle ways that the present world is the only one there is. This is seldom argued. Rather, a mood is created in which it seems so much easier to go with the flow.

That’s what happens in brainwashing. What the gospel does is to administer a sharp jolt, to shine a bright light, to kick-start the brain, and the moral sensibility, into working properly for the first time. Often, when this begins to happen, the reaction is just like it was with the woman of Samaria. Intrigued by Jesus’ offer of ‘living water’, she asks to have some– not realizing that if you want to take Jesus up on his offer of running, pure water, bubbling up inside you, you will have to get rid of the stale, mouldy, stagnant water you’ve been living off all this time. In her case it was her married life– or rather, her unmarried life.

Jesus saw straight to the heart of what was going on. (Remember how he did the same to Nathanael (1.47– 49), with a similar result?) The woman has had a life composed of one emotional upheaval after another, with enough husbands coming and going to keep all the gossips in the village chattering for weeks. We assume that her various marriages ended in divorce, whether legal or informal, and not with the death of the men in question. We don’t know whether she was equally sinned against as sinning. We don’t know what emotional traumas in her background may have made it harder for her to form lasting emotional bonds, though it seems as though the traumas she was at least partly responsible for will have made it harder and harder for her each time.

It’s a great observation. And of course when Jesus hones in on our moral issues, like the woman, we start theological debates of some sort. I’ve had this at many funerals for example – at the “tea” (usually with something stronger) when people have come to tell me about when they used to go to church – and for some reason they stopped. Wright gives some classical examples about peoples’ avoidance as he continues to talk about this woman at the well:

But she knew her life was in a mess, and she knew that Jesus knew. Her reaction to this is a classic example of what every pastor and evangelist knows only too well. Put your finger on the sore spot, and people will at once start talking about something else. And the best subject for distracting attention from morality is, of course, religion. I can hear the voices, again and again. ‘Well, we used to go to the church in town, but then my aunt said we should go with her, and then I didn’t like the minister’s wife, and now we’ve stopped going altogether.’ ‘Of course, my mother was Catholic and my father was Protestant, so I grew up not really knowing who I was.’ ‘Well, I was brought up a Methodist, but then my sister and I used to go to the Baptist youth club, and then when we moved away I never really knew anyone.’

And here, two thousand years ago, the same tone of voice. ‘I was brought up to think that this mountain, here in Samaria, was God’s holy mountain. But you Jews think yours is the right one.’ Implication: we can’t both be right, maybe nobody knows, maybe nothing is that certain, and maybe (the hidden punchline of the argument) the morality we were taught is equally uncertain.

This is a powerful passage. It’s a powerful Gospel account. Remember the quote from Tom Wright last week about John’s Gospel:

 Countless people down the centuries have found that, through reading this gospel, the figure of Jesus becomes real for them, full of warmth and light and promise. It is, in fact, one of the great books in the literature of the world; and part of its greatness is the way it reveals its secrets not just to high-flown learning, but to those who come to it with humility and hope. (So here it is: John for everyone!) Wright, Tom (2002-10-18). John for Everyone Part 1: Chapters 1-10 Pt. 1 (New Testament for Everyone) . SPCK. Kindle Edition.


About robinpalmer

I am a Presbyterian Pastor living and working in Browns Bay on the North Shore of Auckland in New Zealand. We moved here at the end of March 2011 after spending five years in Wellington the capital city. I am passionate about what I do - about communicating and writing. Preaching and teaching remains a joy.. More recently I have been doing some part time voluntary prison chaplaincy.

Posted on August 23, 2015, in Sunday Morning Sermons and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Reblogged this on Robin Palmer's space and commented:

    Today’s message!

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