On the Third Sunday in Lent, our Gospel reading is the story traditionally known as "The Woman at the Well." Jesus' encounter with the woman of Samaria is the longest conversation that Jesus has with anyone. It stands in stark contrast to Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus and is full of surprises. In requesting water from this woman of Samaria, Jesus, a Jew, transcends the traditional prohibition that Jews and Samarians are to have no social interaction. Jesus the man acknowledges this woman's full humanity. And Jesus the presence of God sees beyond this woman's faults and completely transforms her life.
We find Jesus sitting precisely at Jacob's well, weary from his journey into Samaria, at the sixth hour, the middle of the day. This location in Samaria at Jacob's well introduces the themes of a gift (the well) and refreshment (water). But this gift and refreshment transcend what one receives when stopping at a well along one’s journey in order to quench physical thirst.
A Samaritan woman appears on the scene and Jesus asks her for a drink. Jesus should not speak to this woman, first, because she is a woman and, second, because she is a Samaritan. But Jesus begins the conversation with, "Give me a drink." The disciples have already left, gone into the village to buy food. Their return will signal how startling this conversation is. The woman will flee. The disciples will be shocked. The woman's response to Jesus’ request also signals how unusual this encounter is. Her words are meant as an insult: "How is it that you, a Jew, lower yourself and ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?" But Jesus is willing to share with the Samaritan. Jesus is willing to share water. Three times the woman is labeled a Samaritan, stressing how remarkable this sharing is. The opening verses make clear that the world of the Samaritans is no place for this Jew. But there Jesus is.
"How is it that you, a Jew, lower yourself and ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?" Jesus does not answer the woman's question. Instead, Jesus explains why he is there. Jesus announces that, if the woman knew two truths, the gift of God and "who it is that is speaking to you," she would need only to ask the one speaking and "living water" would be given to her. These two elements—the gift of God and the identity of the one speaking—are the reason for the entire conversation between Jesus and this woman. Verses 10‑15 concentrate on living water, the gift of God. Verses 16‑30 are concerned with who it is that is speaking.
Jesus promises a gift that has its origins in God. But what is this gift? "Living water" can be either flowing water from a spring, as opposed to the still water of a pond. Or “living water” can be something beyond physical water, the life‑giving revelation of the heavenly, which Jesus alone can give. Jesus offers the gift of water from the spring of the saving love of God, water that gushes up to eternal life. But, like Nicodemus, the woman chooses only the concrete, physical meaning. Given the depth of the well and the fact that Jesus has no bucket, she legitimately asks, more respectfully this time, "Sir, where do you get that living water?" Although the woman misses the point, Jesus has gone from "Jew" to "sir." She sees something in him.
And so she asks a bigger question: "Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob?" No matter what kind of water he has, the woman thinks, this Jew most surely cannot match the well given by Jacob! The woman cannot see beyond either a physical understanding of "living water" or her own tradition. She cannot imagine that Jesus might be greater than the patriarch Jacob. Responding, Jesus contrasts Jacob's well, which satisfies thirst for a while, with his "living water," which satisfies thirst forever. Note that Jesus now addresses a universal audience—"Everyone who drinks of the water"—and identifies himself as the one who gives the gift. Jesus also speaks of the future, the water that he will give, water that will become a spring gushing up to eternal life. Jesus is promising something bigger than this woman's physical thirst, this place, this water, this well, and this time.
But the woman can't get beyond here and now. She takes Jesus' promise of a future gift of living water and makes it fit her own, immediate situation. In so doing, she transforms Jesus' words from the promise of a future gift of living water gushing up to eternal life into her own self‑centered agenda of satisfying physical thirst.
If this were Nicodemus, the conversation would end here. But Jesus changes the direction of a faltering conversation with another command: "Go...call...come." The woman's marital status becomes the focus. Jesus’ purpose is not to judge this woman but to reveal her greater thirst. The woman's reply that she has no husband is to be understood as an accurate reflection of her situation. She does not regard herself as married to the man with whom she is living. Jesus compliments her for telling the truth and then tells her the details of her marital history. She has lived an irregular married life and is currently in a sinful situation. The point, however, is not the woman's sinfulness. The point is the power of Jesus to know the secret details of her intimate life. Jesus knows our deepest thirst.
Jesus' knowledge of these intimate facts is a turning point. While "living water" may be beyond this woman's grasp, someone who can tell this woman about the secret details of her life commands her attention. She responds, "I perceive that you are a prophet." This is a limited confession—a prophet and not the prophet, perceive and not believe. The woman displays no deep spiritual insight in her conviction that this man must have prophetic qualities. Still, she does progress from understanding Jesus as "a Jew" to "sir" to "a prophet."
And if Jesus is a Jewish prophet, belonging to a tradition famous for defending its cult of Yahweh in Jerusalem, this Samaritan woman cannot help but challenge him concerning the age‑old question about Mount Gerizim and Jerusalem. Where is it okay to worship? Jesus' answer is bigger than her question. It’s beyond Mount Gerizim and Jerusalem and her frame of reference. Jesus says, "Woman, believe me!" Get beyond Mount Gerizim and Jerusalem. Then Jesus promises a time when the debate between Samaritans and Jews will be rendered irrelevant.
Jesus promises a time when worship won't have to do with a new place, but with a new relationship. In Johannine language, Jesus speaks of "the Father." Rather than going to a place to find God, in this new relationship, God seeks out those who worship in spirit and truth. The word used for worship‑-proskymein‑-implies bending or prostrating oneself in the direction of the one worshiped. True worship is orienting oneself toward God in such a way that God becomes the imperative of one's entire life. Jesus reveals that God seeks out those who worship God with their whole lives. By "seeking," we mean that God acts in a way that causes this genuine reorientation of human life. For God is spirit, an all‑pervading personal presence in the believer, and God is truth, not a place or an understanding or a tradition.
In response to all this, the woman moves a step farther. No longer "Jew," "sir," or "prophet," she suggests that Jesus might be Messiah and Christ who will show us all things. After all, Jesus “showed her all things” when it came to her private life. Jesus answers, "I AM is the one speaking to you" The phrase I AM—eigo eimi—carries a lot of biblical weight. It's the name God gave to Moses. It was particularly important to the prophets. It has always been used to refer to the living presence of God who makes Godself known among the people. More than the one who knows the woman, Jesus is the one who makes known the living God.
In this encounter, we see in Jesus the God who, knowing the intimate secrets of both the irregularities of our lives and our sinful situations, nevertheless seeks us out, promising us the living water that gushes up to eternal life and pushing us to see beyond here and now and our familiar frame of reference. That's baptism.
In this encounter, Jesus makes known a God who seeks this relationship from all people, regardless of race, gender, or religion. And let's add disability and sexual orientation as well. To this God, no one is unclean. In baptism, God overcomes these barriers.
In this encounter, Jesus makes known a God who shatters convention by daring to sit in quiet conversation with a woman who had five husbands and was living with a man who was not, and to reach out to her on a human level. In a cultural rife with unconventional life‑styles and sexual relationships, where Christians are tempted to condemn to the point of declaring that God brings disaster on such a nation, we need to remember Jesus' example and that Christ died for all. Like Jesus, we share both the good news and Christian community with all members of society.
In this encounter, Jesus makes known a God who is not enshrined in Jerusalem or on Mt. Gerizim or behind our stained glass curtains, or in our familiar family pews. God is not bound to any particular building, appointment, style or worship book. We worship God in spirit and truth. The Truth is that the Spirit is active, causing us to reorient our lives so that all that we do is worship. Perhaps these are some of the ways that the pervasive presence of God is turning us around this Lent.
Craig Satterlee, a member of The Liturgical Conference Board, is the Axel Jacob and Gerda Maria (Swanson) Carlson Chair of Homiletics at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.