First read: John 4:1-30
There was a phone call. The young girl’s voice on the other end of the line said, “This is Mary, is John home?” John was in second grade. It was the first call she had taken for him from a girl; curious, she stayed on the line — silently. “John, you have a phone call!” He picked up the phone upstairs, ‘Hello?’”
Mary had been in his class, but had recently moved to another town. His was one of the few names she remembered. She had asked her parents to look up the number. Their conversation was awkward and halting, but then she made the comment that went to the heart of the matter. She said, “‘Nobody knows me anymore.’”
John didn’t know what to say. He quickly brushed her off and hung up the phone. She was calling to hear a familiar voice – someone she knew and whom she believed knew her. He was just seven years old. His mother was devastated. She knew what that little girl needed, but couldn’t say a word. (1)
No one knows me anymore. We have all been there; sometimes we’ve spent whole periods of our life there. A new school, a new job, a new city. We may be at a party and the only person we know is the host. Then there are the more painful crises in life: a trauma, a death, or a shameful secret we feel we must keep. Even those closest to us don’t know who we are. Today we are all contending with fear. It is okay to admit you are afraid. We are afraid. That admission, in the open, can draw us together.
As much as we long to be known, for a knowing that makes us whole, we spend a good part of the energy of our lives hiding, hiding the most personal part of ourselves from others. For good reason: it can be an unforgiving world, a world constantly trying to make us into someone else. You can usually find the current vision of who that is by watching television commercials, scrolling though instagram, or carefully observing high school cafeterias. Where I grew up that was pretty well defined: athletic, popular, pretty as the movies define pretty, or friends of any of the above. We gather as human beings often to the exclusion of “others.”
It is about noon, and a Samaritan woman has arrived to draw water. The fact that she is here alone tells us something. She is an outsider. The event of drawing the day’s water in the cool of the morning is a social activity for women in the ancient world. She comes at time when she is sure to be alone. For me, the bucket she brings has become a symbol of some quiet burden she carries — guilt, rejection, grief, shame — whatever it is that makes her feel different or excluded.
When I was first coming to myself as a gay man, I drove every Monday an hour to a Starbucks in West Hollywood, mid-morning, when most people were at work and I was assured to meet no one who knew me. The first two times I just circled the block and drove the hour home. That was enough. The third week I finally had the courage to enter a coffee shop — patronized by a gay male majority — to sit and read. Eventually I would feel more at home there than at home. My bucket, the burden I carried, was fear of being truly known. What is it for you? [Fear of the unknown might do well enough for today.]
Jesus is here, sitting by the well, thirsty and without a bucket. The disciples have gone for food. Jesus does the unthinkable for a male teacher in the ancient world: he speaks to her directly in a public place. He asks for a drink. I think she is a strong woman … and bitter. She speaks frankly. Centuries of hatred between Samaritans and Jews stand between them. “How is it that you, a Jew, asks a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” It is a question with an edge.
“If you knew 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.” It is an unusual answer; seemingly not an answer to the question asked. “If you knew me, you would have asked and I would have given you living water.” This will be a conversation about knowing.
In ancient Greek “Living water” is fresh running water, a step up from the kind she expects to draw from this well. It is a strange offer from someone without bucket. She tells him so. Jesus’ response is even more intriguing. “Those who drink 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.”
Friends, what is it that you thirst for? Deep in your soul. What burden do you carry that you would like to be rid of, or at least share with someone so that you do not feel alone. It is hard to tell exactly what she hears in these strange words, but it is something she needs. “Sir, give me this water,” she pleads, “so that I will never be thirsty … or to keep having to come here.”
A step closer. Jesus says, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” She has had five and currently lives with another. We don’t know the circumstances. We may now understand why she is here alone. She is avoiding the judgment of her peers. That is how centuries of male interpreters have judged her. Patriarchal men of influence that stood in pulpits as I do. In fact she could be trapped. According to custom when a brother died, the next eldest was to marry his spouse. Perhaps she has existed in a life strung with tragedy and the last man has finally refused her. Perhaps this is her shame. We do not know. Before you judge her too, there is no condemnation from Jesus, only the refusal to turn from her.
“I have no husband.” Jesus lays open the story of her life. He knows her. Her whole self, her authentic self, not the mask she wears to pacify the world around her. Friends this is the gift: the living water of God’s life giving acceptance. It is an awkward moment for her; she changes the subject. “I know that the Messiah is coming,” she says. “I am,” Jesus replies, “the one who is speaking to you.” “I am” That is what God answered, when a stuttering shepherd encountered a burning bush. Tell them: “I am.”
The gift of God knows us just as we are, knows you just as you are and doesn’t turn away. For the first time in her life, this woman is touched by Grace. She is born again, born from above. As are each of us, each time we encounter such a moment in our lives. Whether it be by religion, or through the simple kindness of a friend; whether we have called that grace by the name Jesus or not. If you have not known this gift before, let today be that day. Here, now, quench your thirst. In this church find home.
Paul Tillich, one of the great theologians of the last century, wrote this. "Grace strikes us when … we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear …. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks our darkness, and it is as though a voice were crying: “You are accepted.”(2)
After such an experience we may not be better than before and you may not believe more than before, but everything is changed. Nicodemus, the faithful, stayed in the darkness, fearing to be known. The Samaritan woman accepts God’s gift: she lays her bucket aside and walks into the glorious light of a new life. Hear me. Jesus is here, patiently waiting for you. Won’t you accept him today. You are beloved!
I have felt the searing light of day myself. I have carried a burden and in the face of Jesus quenched my thirst from the well of waters of life. Oh, it is well with my soul! Dare to be known just as you are. No matter who you are, no matter what you have done, no matter how far short you fall from that person the world would like you to be, drink from this well and you will be changed. You may not look any different, you will still mistakes, but you will be free. And to God alone will be the glory, now and forever. Amen.
(1) Thomas K. Watson, adapted from the author’s personal anecdote in “As We Are Known,” The Clergy Journal, February 2005.
(2) Paul Tillich, “You are Accepted,” in A Chorus of Witnesses (ed. Thomas G. Long and Cornelius Plantinga; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 99-100. Paraphrased for context.