Our Gospel gives us a classic example of what Paul talked about in Romans 4 - that God justifies the wicked and “calls things that are not as though they were.” - for in John 4 we meet a woman behind the eight ball.
First, she’s a woman. That doesn’t make her less human, but there were taboos about men and woman meeting like this. In verse 27, just after our lesson, the Spirit writes: “The disciples…were surprised to find him talking with a woman.” This might follow Solomon’s wisdom in Proverbs. There he reminds his son to avoid sixth commandment temptation by avoiding women who were strangers. On the other hand, the rabbis say: “Let no one talk with a woman in the street, no, not with his own wife.”
Such things sound foreign to twenty-first century ears, but not if we live in Muslim countries. At least this Samaritan woman can walk in public without a man. She can go out without hiding behind a burqa as Muslim women must. Even in western society we’re not all that far removed from societal taboos like this. Some of your grandparents or great-grandparents may have attended churches where men sat on one side and women the other.
So, she’s a woman. But that’s not all that hamstrings her. She’s also a Samaritan woman. Jews and Samaritans hate each other politically, religiously, and ethnically. The hatred goes back centuries. Samaritans are a hybrid of Jews and foreign exiles. Thus, they broke the Old Testament “no-intermarriage” laws. Samaritans also built a second temple and so worshipped the LORD in their own ways. And of course, the occupying powers, be they Babylonian, Persian, or Roman, played the sides against each other.
The antipathy wasn’t one sided. It wasn’t just Jews hating Samaritans. Luke tells us of an occasion when Jesus passed through Samaria. He sends ahead to make dinner and hotel reservations. It doesn’t go well: “the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem.” Just as surprising as Jesus asking her for a drink is that she doesn’t give him the finger.
So, she’s a Samaritan woman. And, as we learn, a bit of a slut. When Jesus realizes that she just isn’t getting into the spiritual side of what He’s talking about (life-giving, sin forgiving water vs. the drinking water in the well), He brings up what seems like a non sequitur: “Go, call your husband and come back.”
Coyly she says, “I have no husband.”
Cutting through the semantic wrangling, Jesus says, “Right. You’ve had five. Now you’re living in sin with a man.”
So, she’s a woman. A Samaritan. And an excommunicate. And…beholden to bad theology. In an attempt to, I don’t know, derail Jesus from exposing more sins, she brings up a sore spot in Jewish-Samaritan relations: “We worship God here; you say you must worship in Jerusalem. Discuss.” Like Paul, who hurled the grenade of believing in the resurrection among some Pharisees and Sadducees before whom he was one trial, knowing it would spark a fiery debate, perhaps this woman thought, “I’ll get him riled up about theological things and he’ll forget about my sexual sins.”
Jesus doesn’t take the bait in the way she thinks. She expects the usual denunciations of Samaritan heresy, instead, Jesus says, “This is a petty theological dispute and I will have none of it. A plague on both your houses!” He says, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” Any Jews in the vicinity would pick up stones: “But the Temple! But the Lord’s words about worshiping in the place where He told us to worship! Heretic!”
Of course, Jesus is already on the outs with the Jewish leaders. Now that His disciples have begun baptizing, as John 4:1-4 mentions, and His following exceeds John the Baptist’s, the Jewish leaders want Jesus gone. That’s why Jesus is in Samaria. This “spirit and truth” talk doesn’t make Jesus a lot of friends anywhere.
But Jesus doesn’t just throw stones at Jews and Samaritans. He’s still going after this woman: “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” He reminds her that God spoke to Abraham centuries ago and said, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” From Abraham, that promise went to Isaac, Jacob, Judah, David, Solomon, etc. The promise of salvation, deliverance, rescue, forgiveness of sins through God’s dying and rising Messiah!
“You, woman, Samaritan woman, five-time-divorced-woman-living-with-her-boyfriend, worshipper of what you don't know….” Hard words. Brutal words. Damning words. Necessary words. She needed this. For while she knows about the Messiah – “I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming.” – she just doesn’t know. And she doesn’t worship in spirit or truth. She might go to the temple with her fellow Samaritans, but she comes home to adultery and sexual perversion. A poster girl for the wicked. The dead. A thing that is not.
In other words, she has religion, but not faith, not “spirit and truth.” A situation Jesus desperately seeks to resolve. Notice his first words to this woman: “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” Jesus has water and wants to give it out. To her.
So, He treats her like that rich young man who came looking for advice. Remember him? He asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus says, “You know the commandments.” The man says, “I’ve done that!” Jesus says, “You’re missing something. Get rid of what’s between you and God: your great wealth.” The man left sad; but Jesus wasn’t trying to prevent him from entering the kingdom of God. Mark says, “Jesus…loved him,” before telling him to sell everything. Jesus loved that young man.
Just as He loved this woman. His human thirst moved him to find this well and sit, waiting for someone to come. His divine thirst that all come to repentance and be saved picked this well, at this moment, with this woman coming to draw water.
Because God – and God in the flesh, Jesus – desires to justify the wicked. God wants to give life to the dead and call things that are not as though they are. Jesus said to some Pharisees, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick….For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” To Zacchaeus, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost,” as proven by His parable about leaving ninety-nine sheep to find one.
So Jesus rejects the taboos. He talks to this woman. A Samaritan. An adulterer. He breaks down the barriers separating her from God. He calls out her false religious ideas – it’s not about a place, but spirit and truth – and her false moral ideas – you can’t live like this and enter God’s kingdom, dear woman!
In other words, since she wasn’t coming to the hospital, Jesus brought the hospital to her. That’s what the Church is. It’s a hospital, not a social club. The Church, this church, isn’t just for Germans or Scandinavians or white people or those who clean up well. It isn’t for those without problems or sins or immorality. It is exactly for sin-sick souls, the weary and the burdened.
But we hesitate. We hesitate to welcome the messes and the problems, the sick. Either we’re afraid of contagion – “I don’t want to catch what he’s got!” – or we’re pharisaically proud that we’ve purged the sinners from among us. It’s in even asking the question, “Should we reach out to the poor, the ethnic, those who don’t speak our language?” It’s in how we handle discipline, “Let’s just get them removed, problem solved.” It’s in the way we look at others, like those self-righteous Jesus talked to in Luke 18, as we look down our noses and say, “Thank God I’m not like them.” Or, “It’s too bad So-and-So wasn’t here today, they needed to hear this.” As if we’re not sin-sick too.
Today, Jesus teaches us the true meaning of Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This isn’t about eliminating differences between men and woman or supporting the ordination of woman, it says that if you’re a Christian, you’re a Christian, regardless of ethnicity, class, or gender. Baptism unites us across all these things, unites us in Christ, in forgiveness, into the family of believers. No matter what we look like or sound like, how we dress, or what sinful behavior we bring to the table. No matter what, Christ came for all people, Christ died for all people, Christ rose for all people, Christ calls all people.
Because whatever it may be: five divorces, sleeping with your girlfriend, some bad theological ideas, intolerance for other races and classes, Jesus sits beside us and says, “I have some water I’d like you drink.” He makes a promise: “Drink this water and you’ll never thirst again.” He says, “I want to give you life. I want to make you something that you were not before: mine, alive, forgiven, saved!” He says, “You worship what you do not know, I want to tell you that I who speak to you am He. I am the one who died that you might live. I am the one who rose from the dead that you might live, even though you die. I am the one giving living water, healing water, forgiving water to sin-sick souls. To you. Drink and live. Drink and put behind you your sinful ways. I don’t care who you are. I care that you live into eternal life.”
Trust God who justifies the wicked, who says that in Christ, you are what you were not: pure, holy, righteous, forgiven. Christ brings this water to you too. Amen.