From John 4:1-30, 39-42
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees were saying, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John”…. he left Judea and started back to Galilee. 4 But he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar…. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “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.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a Samaritan woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30 The people left the city and were on their way to him.
39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of Jesus’ words. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
Just now, while we are trying to comply with the social distancing rules brought on by the corona virus, we get this story about Jesus and the Samaritan woman collapsing the social distance between them and meeting one another with their mutual thirsts. Given my personality type, I have almost had to put on a straight-jacket in order not to be throwing my arms around folks who come to the church or who I meet up on the street. Social distancing is difficult, even for those of us who are relatively introverted. We are social animals. We are created for the fullest possible connections with others. We can talk on the phone, or send texts and tweets and e-mails, but there is nothing like being face to face with another person. And it seems to me that the health crisis that is forcing us to keep our distance from others has the effect of making us more aware of the distances that exist between ourselves and others, between ourselves and strangers, between ourselves and our loved ones.
The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman is at heart a story about overcoming and collapsing the distances that grow up between us as individuals and as groups of people. This is fundamentally what Jesus is about from beginning to end. Collapsing the distances. The strange, unbelievable, compelling claim of the Christian tradition is that Jesus is the human incarnation, the human enfleshment of God, the living, breathing, eating, walking, talking, arguing, touching, flesh and blood being and love of God. In Jesus, God crosses the distance that exists between the Creator and the creation, and overcomes the distances between the people whom God creates.
Jesus does this again and again much to the upset of Jewish religious leaders. Jesus keeps crossing the social distances that exist between human beings whether those distances are created by economics, religion, moralities, gender, health or unhealth, ethnicity or race. Jesus is always moving toward the other, getting up close and personal with all kinds of human beings. There are plenty of people who want to put him in a straight jacket and strap a muzzle over his mouth.
Today it is this Samaritan woman that Jesus encounters. There is between them a distance created by their differing genders and religious world views. Jewish men aren’t supposed to do face to face with Samaritan women. For Jews in the 1st century, she is an enemy, an outsider to be avoided. She is also an outsider to her own people, the Samaritans. Everyone is all up in her business, judging her because she has had five husbands and is now with a man to whom she is not married. That is why she is coming to the well by herself in the scorching midday heat. “Respectable” women would have come early in the day to draw their water and hang out together swapping stories and news. She is not welcomed in their company.
The Christian tradition has often made this woman out to be a brazenly, morally lax person—the Elizabeth Taylor of the New Testament. Her story is told in Bible study books entitled “Bad Girls of the Bible.” Maybe she was bad. But maybe not. Maybe all of her husbands have died, or divorced her. In that culture, only husbands had to the right to divorce their wives, with or without cause. It is possible that she has suffered a great deal, and she has been blamed and shamed by her community for the misfortunes that have befallen her. Maybe people think she is being punished by God. But today, in this woman’s encounter with Jesus, this stranger—who as far as she knows doesn’t know anything about her—in this meeting she isn’t bound by her shame, or trying to fly under the radar. She is strong and smart, and just as apt to cross distances as Jesus is.
Of course, it turns out that Jesus does know her whole, true story. She is a Samaritan woman with a past that led to her being shunned, but it doesn’t matter to Jesus. She matters to Jesus. Her life matters to him. Her isolation matters to him. But Jesus doesn’t distance himself from her or from anyone, thinking that they are unworthy, or a contagion, or cursed, or somehow dangerous. Jesus is very much engaged by her. Delighted by her wits and her wondering. Very glad that she showed up just when she did.
Because Jesus has arrived at Jacob’s well really tired and really thirsty after his long trek through desert places. And he has no way to get water from that well by himself. Then this woman joins him there in the heat of the day—she is the other, the stranger, some would say, she is the enemy. She carries the vessel that can draw water up from that deep well. She is the one who can quench Jesus’ thirst. And Jesus is the one, the living water of grace and truth who can quench her thirst for acceptance, healing, wholeness, and new life.*
Jesus and the Samaritan woman are brought together in their very human need, with their very particular thirsts, and it is their mutual willingness to transcend all the social distances, to break through the boundaries, customs, fears, and exclusions that opens the flood gates and unleashes the flowing waters of the Spirit of God. The Spirit brings new life, and quenches our thirst for deep the connection with our Creator and with others from whom we are separated and socially distanced.
The Samaritan woman leaves her water jar behind and runs off to tell the people who have pushed her away that she has drunk from the healing streams of Holy Spirit. She gushes with the good news. The Spirit of God is now, already, drawing all peoples together. And the day will come when all the distances are collapsed and all of our thirsts will be quenched, and all of our relationships will be healed and restored. This is the promise of God that is fulfilled in Jesus and is unfolding here and now.
During this time of enforced social distancing, we can rest in the grace and truth of the Spirit’s life-giving presence in us and with us. And even though we cannot hug each other, we can pick up the phone, send a text, write an e-mail to cross the distance and meet one another in our mutual need for food or drink or toilet paper, and in our mutual need for connection and acceptance and love. In these very simple ways we participate in and share the gushing good news and the new, abundant, unending life of Holy Spirit.
*These insights are adapted from Patricia Farris, “Unlikely Messenger: John 4:5-42,” The Christian Century, February 13, 2002.