A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
Feb 4, 2018
Last week, you heard the story of Nicodemus meeting Jesus. While the woman at the well is my favorite story in the bible, I also love the Nicodemus story, and I noticed some contrasts and some similarity between them.
Nicodemus is named, the woman is not.
He comes to meet Jesus in the dark, when nobody is going to notice. She meets Jesus at high noon, in the bright light of day.
Nicodemus has status and power in society as a Jewish pharisee. She has no status or power, and she’s a Samaritan, not an Israelite.
Nicodemus doesn’t really have much of an epiphany in the moment, at least not one reported by John. His story will continue later in the gospel, which is a reminder that sometimes faith is not sudden. Sometimes it takes a while. It doesn’t take a while for the unnamed Samaritan woman though. She rushes off and testifies about Jesus to everyone she sees.
Yet, she has been interpreted over the years in a negative light, as some sort of harlot or sinner, as if she’s Liz Taylor, or a Kardashian type person, in the tabloids leaving yet another movie star husband for another. We add that to the text. Jesus doesn’t call her a sinner or tell her to repent. He never tells her to go and sin no more.
Let’s be clear. Women in first century Palestine should not be confused with tabloid fodder. They had little power to divorce a husband and no ability to fend off a divorce if a husband wanted one. If she’s been married 5 times, it’s more likely to reveal the vulnerability women face in the world. Maybe even reveal the sadness and grief of so much loss.
I confess to you I have always been troubled by Jesus’ question to the woman at the well—go, call your husband, and come back— It raises my hackles every time I read it. He doesn’t really think she wanted 5 husbands, did he?
Surely he knows her powerlessness in this scenario and yet this is the question he asks? She asks for living water, something which he brought up in the first place, don’t forget, and then he takes a turn and brings up the husband situation.
How did the thirsty woman hear Jesus’ question, I wonder?
I can picture the questions in her head.
Did he really just ask me about my husband?
Is he going to be just like everyone else and decide he knows everything there is to know about me without bothering to really know me?
How does he even know to ask me this question?
Why would I bring a husband to the well? Men don’t gather water.
Am I safe to be honest with him about my story?
Is my story safe with this man? What do I say?
Have you ever experienced something similar—where you weren’t sure how to respond to a question posed to you?
For me, this inner dialogue pops up when people ask me how many kids I have.
That may be an easy answer for some.
For me, it’s a little complicated. If I’m not sure how “safe” the conversation is, or how much time I have for the conversation, or whether the person who asked it actually cares about the details of my life as we talk at a cocktail party—then “two” is the answer I give. It’s a true answer. I’m not lying. My husband and I have two children.
The honest answer, though, is I have three sons.
As most of you know, I placed a child for adoption when I was in college. It’s been an open adoption, so I’ve been a part of his life through it all. His graduations, his wedding. It’s a gift for me to be a part of his life.
When this son, my first born son, Eric, was younger, and when I was more raw and vulnerable about the situation, I spent a lot of time figuring out when and how to tell my story about him.
When Alden and Elliott met Eric, and when they knew him and could talk about their other brother, I “came out” about being a birth mother to as many people as I could.
I never wanted my kids to feel they couldn’t talk about their brother.
I didn’t want shame or silence to be a part of their story.
I wanted their experience of family to be both true and honest.
Also, I really want to tell people about my son. He’s a pretty great guy. I preached a sermon about the adoption, using this text actually, in the first few months I was here. So that people would know about Eric and be able to talk to me about him.
Think of how many different ways people have to do this equation.
When you meet people at church, or at work, or at a birthday party is it okay to tell your honest story, to let people really see you?
About being gay, lesbian, or trans?
About being an alcoholic?
About being laid off?
About your marriage falling apart?
About your mother having alzheimers and not knowing how to care for her from far away?
About how you voted for ______________?
The world isn’t always a safe place to bring our honest stories, our whole selves.
And honestly, even if the world were good with it, we get messed up in our own heads about it. We see everyone else’s stories and decide they are perfect and ours is the only disaster. And so we have a tendency to offer either a false self, or just a barely true self, to the people we meet.
Like the woman at the well, we’re faced with that nanosecond to make all of those calculations to decide and take the risk to let people see our authentic and our honest selves in the conversation.
John doesn’t give us her inner dialogue. What he records for us in the text was her answer. “I have no husband.”
Her answer has always felt partial to me. Not wrong, exactly. Jesus says it is the truth. It doesn’t it feel like the whole truth, does it?
Her answer feels like the equivalent of an alcoholic telling people, “I’m not having a drink tonight”, which may be a true statement, when the honest answer would be “I’m an alcoholic, so day by day I’m doing my best not to drink again”.
Both answers are fine. If you know the honest truth and aren’t fooling yourself, the safe truth may be all that’s needed in some settings. There are places where safe truth is appropriate and is all you need to share.
Jesus tells the woman her answer is true. He also reveals he knows her honest answer:
“You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”
Jesus lets her know he already knew her honest truth before he asked her for a drink, AND he chose to be there, talking to her, offering her living water, offering her grace that accepts her, loves her, values her, just as she is. He saw her, as she was. And it was enough.
We preach, or hear this preached, this every week, right?
God’s grace is sufficient for us.
We are God’s beloved children.
And then we somehow are still surprised to discover God knows everything we’ve ever done and is still there talking to us.
I confess to you that in most of my life, I prefer being safely true rather than being truly honest. Vulnerability is not my spiritual gift, which is clearly sarcasm.
I really really relate to the woman at the well, and her “I have no husband” answer. In fact, the He Qi print in your worship book hangs in my home, in a place where I see it every day.
Because in her I recognize my tendency to want to be true without being fully honest and vulnerable. In her, I recognize someone who, like me, discovered life wasn’t unfolding exactly as she thought it would play out, AND who was nonetheless the person Jesus saw by the well and offered her living water.
I relate to the woman at the well, in so many ways, as her story is my story, her story is our story. Life doesn’t unfold exactly as we think it should, and Jesus meets us where we are, sees us as we are, and offers us living water.
John’s gospel is all about what we see. And what we don’t see. We’ll talk more about this next week in a story about a blind man receiving sight. Jesus called the disciples at the beginning of the gospel by saying, “come and see”.To come and see is the invitation to discipleship. Last week, Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen”. The woman from Samaria encounters Jesus and says “Sir, I see you are a prophet.”
John’s gospel picks up on the great reversal that we see in the other gospels too. The people who should see, like Nicodemus, don’t quite get it. The people on the outside, like an unnamed woman from Samaria with 5 husbands—she sees immediately.
At the end of the woman’s encounter with Jesus, she puts down her water jar and heads back to the city and tells everyone to come and see the man who told her everything she’d ever done.
She doesn’t say “come and see the man who bought the story I told him about my life”.
She invites people to come see for themselves the man who told her everything she’s ever done.
If I’m a townsperson hearing that, my first thought, is ‘what is everything you’ve ever done. Do tell’.
If she wants to talk to people about Jesus, she’s going to have to tell her story honestly. If she says, “trust me, it’s private, we had a moment, but its a good story”, everyone will walk away and leave her to her private experience.
How will they see the Good News of the Gospel and connect it to the parched and dry places of their souls if they don’t know how it has sated her soul?
She also makes her statement about Jesus being the messiah in the form of a question, which is a form of vulnerability, making a claim and acknowledging she might be wrong. We could use a world where more people acknowledged they might be wrong.
Earlier, I said there were plenty of places where the safe truth is enough. We aren’t called to tell everyone we meet everything we’ve ever done.
The safe truth won’t fly with Jesus though. God became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth. Do we think he doesn’t see us as we are? People, please. He sees you. And he wants you to see him as clearly.
There are plenty of other wells out there. Ultimately, those other wells won’t satisfy. The well of self reliance, or the well of “everything is just fine”, or the well of prosperity and success, or the well of fear and anxiety—they leave us temporarily sated but perpetually parched.
When we encounter Jesus at a well of Living Water, we bring our whole, vulnerable messy stories. If we want to go tell people about Jesus, we have to lay down the water jars we fill up at the well of safe truth.
What kind of wells do people find when they bring their empty water jars to our church?
Friends, we live in a world full of shallow wells, creating a thirsty, isolated world. There’s a lot of anxiety in the world, in the church, these days. If we have to be anxious, let’s be anxious about being faithful to see Jesus, and let go of our anxiety about budgets, declining membership, etc. We’re here to see Jesus. We’re here to see each other as we are.
What if we allowed our brokenness to be recognized, to be seen, by the brokenness in each other?
I suspect we would find the living water Jesus offers, within our own communities, slaking our thirst and renewing our souls.
I suspect God would grace us with living water that would sustain us as we leave.
I suspect we, too, might go and tell our communities about this man who knew everything we have ever done… so they might come to meet Jesus, with their honest selves, as well.
We don’t need those water jars. Let’s leave them here.