— A Sermon by Gary L. Bagley —
Some years back now, my son Ty and I were in Marathon, Florida. He was 12-years old at the time. As most of you know, Marathon is about two-thirds of the way from Miami to Key West. We had traveled there from Tampa, our home at the time, to fish for Mahi-Mahi.
Sitting in the Wooden Spoon, a little hole-in-the-wall breakfast favorite of many guides, we ate and chatted with other locals while waiting on our guide. Though it was a perfect day in Marathon, the prospects of fishing 20 to 30 miles out in the gulf were not good. When our guide appeared, he delivered the disappointing news. “Seven to twelve-foot swells in deep water. Too risky today.” I usually counted on losing a third of the days to bad weather. In past days, Ty and I had snorkeled in the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park out from Key Largo or bummed around in Key West. Ty was disappointed after having caught a 28-pound dolphin-fish the year before. Our new friends, an older husband and wife couple sitting at the next closely positioned table to us, over-heard our conversation with Frank, the guide.
“Come over and fish today from our dock, if you like,” the woman said. We introduced ourselves to each other.
“Where is home for you?” Tom asked.
“Tampa,” I responded. “And you?”
“Greenville, South Carolina, what time we are not down here,” he replied.
“Oh, yea? I spent four years in your hometown at Furman University about fifteen years ago.”
“Well, Edna here has a special interest in several music students at Furman,” Tom said.
“How interesting,” I responded. “My undergraduate degree at Furman is from their School of Music. One of my mentors, L. D. Johnson, chaplain of the University and former religion chair at the University of Richmond was to have been in our church five months ago to lead a conference,” I responded. “As you may know, L. D. died at the end of December.”
I quickly learned that Dr. Johnson was one of his best friends, had fished with him in the Keys, and had “gotten him involved with Furman,” as Tom put it. Ty and I followed them back to their home where Ty had a good substitute for the day we had planned, and Tom and I learned much more about each other. A model of modesty, while Edna was away running errands I slowly learned that Tom was the current chair of Furman’s Trustees, that Edna’s “interest in several music students” really meant that she was providing music scholarships for a string quartet, and that Tom was the owner of the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company in the Greenville-Spartanburg area.
We maintained contact with each other until after Edna died. Then, Tom died in 2009. On Edna’s 70th birthday, I sent her a Happy Birthday note after reading where Tom’s birthday gift to her was a Steinway model D nine-foot concert grand given to the university in her honor. They both were so gracious, so modest, so encouraging, so generous. A chance encounter that influenced my decision to serve as Columbia Theological Seminary’s Director of Development and Seminary Relations.
Chance encounters. Some of us met our best friend, our spouse, went through an unexpected door, made an unexpected investment…that ultimately became the best thing we ever did…all with an unexpected encounter.
That’s one way to tell the story of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, found in this Sunday’s fourth chapter of John’s gospel (4:4-15). While we know all the names of the Twelve close disciples, we know virtually nothing about any of them except for Peter, Andrew, James, John, Thomas, Matthew, and Judas. Yet, we know far more about this unknown woman whose story has been told for the past 2,000 years than we know about the other five disciples.
Metaphorically speaking, the world is full of thirsty people. Especially with the global health crisis we’re moving through, the world needs this text. We need the well and the water in it, and the bucket to draw it up. And, we need that person sitting beside us who knows more about us than anyone else.
Several factors play into this gospel story. Jews and Samaritans (who were half-Jewish, a mixed race) despised each other, each feeling that their way of religion was the true way of Moses’ law. So, here is Jesus and his disciples going through a village of Samaria—Sychar. Jesus waits at Jacob’s Well while the disciples go in to the village for food.
While waiting, Jesus and a woman from the village have a chance encounter. Jesus crossed a social boundary of his day by even speaking to the woman in a public setting—a male speaking to a female in public that he doesn’t know. It was an unspoken cultural rule. Additionally, a Jew speaking to a Samaritan was unusual and out of order.
“Would you draw some water for me to drink?” Jesus asks.
The woman crosses the social boundary right back. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman and a Samaritan?”
“If you really knew who I was, you would ask me for a drink of living water,” Jesus shoots back.
“You don’t even have a bucket and the well is deep…and what is this about living water? Do you think you are greater than your ancestor Jacob who dug this well and drank from it?” she countered.
“Everyone who drinks from this well will soon be thirsty again. Those who drink the water I offer will never again be thirsty,” he said. (Jesus was a lover of metaphors, stories, and poetry.)
So, give me this living water of yours,” she says.
Obviously, to keep the conversation going Jesus responded, “Go call your husband and come back.” This is where a second factor plays into the story. The woman was alone and it was the wrong time of day for any woman to be drawing water. Jesus knew she was socially on the outside of her community. Being unacceptable in any group or community never feels good. This woman had probably been the object of vicious gossip. It leaves one lonely…and thirsty for acceptance, kindness, and love.
“I don’t have a husband,” she said.
“I know you don’t. You have had five husbands and the man you have now is not your husband,” Jesus said.
“I see you are a prophet,” and with that, this feisty woman engages Jesus in a theological debate about the Samaritan’s way of religion versus the Jewish way of religion—whether God is to be worshipped on their mountain or whether God is to be worshipped in Jerusalem. Obviously, she wanted to change the subject.
Jesus quickly countered, “Ultimately, God is Spirit (a theme of his conversation with Nicodemus) and those who worship God—Jew, Samaritan, or otherwise—must worship God in spirit and in truth.”
She responded, “I know that Messiah is coming and when he comes, he will explain all these things to us.”
“I AM he, the one of whom you are speaking,” Jesus said. That response was highly symbolic. It is the first of John’s gospel’s “I AM” sayings. When God told Moses to go from Mount Sinai back to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to “let my people go,” Moses said to God, “Who will I say sent me?” God—Yahweh—said, “Tell Pharaoh ‘I AM’ sent you.” Jesus is using a play on words that she would understand.
Jesus and the Samaritan woman’s conversation was interrupted by the return of the disciples. They size up the situation, not approving at all of Jesus speaking with a lone woman and a Samaritan at that. One of them says, “What are you doing? Why are you talking to this woman?” The woman leaves, not even taking her water jug with her. She goes into the town and tells the people: “There’s a man at the well who just told me everything I have ever done! Could he be the Messiah?”
Chance encounters. Meeting a person who looks like a person in need of water but offering something that quenches far more than one’s thirst. Things aren’t always what they appear to be at first.
The story ends with the village people coming to see Jesus and hearing for themselves his wisdom of God, and witnessing a power the disciples later described as, “Who is this that even the winds and waves obey?”
In addition to our news filling another week of the continued spread of the world-wide coronavirus, stock market vacillations, presidential campaign processes, and divisions in our society unlike anything I’ve seen in my lifetime, I wonder if we’re any closer to Jesus’ vision of people drinking from the well that quenches life’s thirst…starting people on a road to life with all of its fullness.
One of Hollywood’s longtime favorites died nine years ago this month—Elizabeth Taylor at age 79. During her last twenty years, she was often the brunt of jokes…with eight marriages, many health problems, and struggling with weight issues. Unless you are at least fifty years old, you probably don’t know who Liz Taylor really is. By the time she was twenty-eight, she had already won two best actress academy awards. If you look at her list of movies, sixty-five plus a number of TV series, her accomplishments are astounding, in addition to her striking beauty. But in her later years, it was Elizabeth Taylor who crossed lines, befriending Michael Jackson when the rest of the world was rejecting him. Elizabeth Taylor, way past her prime in acting, raised over $100 million for AIDS research.
Things aren’t always what they appear to be. After a disappointing and difficult life, this Samaritan woman whose name was never recorded in any annals of history did an amazing thing with her life. She went to the very people who treated her with such scorn and introduced them to Jesus, saying, “He told me everything I have ever done” with her unspoken words screaming, “and he still accepts and loves me.” Because of her testimony, many people listened to the teachings of Jesus in Sychar. They invited Jesus and the disciples to stay over with them for two more days.
This brings me back to where we started. You never know who you might be meeting, and you never know how the worst of things might offer you your best experience. Things are often not at all what they appear to be at first. Tom and Edna Hartness, two ordinary people sitting at the adjacent table in a greasy-spoon restaurant one morning, made a lasting impression on me which influenced my Development years at Columbia Seminary, and far more than that, they made a lasting contribution to the lives of thousands of college students. Jesus opened-up the world of a lonely, five-times-divorced woman to feeling loved and accepted again, who became the Living Water for others she had discovered in him.
So, for the Word of God in Scripture,
for the Word of God among us,
and for the Word of God within us;
Thanks be to God. AMEN.
5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7A 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.) 9The 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.) 10Jesus 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.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but 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.” 15The 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.”