Well Known

by: Rev. Caroline Cupp

I spent many of my childhood summers at the shore, countless hours of intricate sandcastle construction and excavating tunnels that my cousins and I were convinced would transport us straight to China, if our silly parents would ever give us enough time to dig.

Above all, I was drawn to the water, not only because it felt so deliciously cold on sun toasted skin but because of the freedom water gave me. After a few minutes jumping waves, my cousins typically abandoned me for the warm towels waiting for them on the sand, but I stayed out in the surf. In the water my weak muscles were strong, my crooked back straight, my balance steady. The water gave me strength I couldn’t experience on land and so I thirsted for it, going further and further out into the ocean until a lifeguard inevitably noticed and a piercing whistle summoned me closer to shore. Back on the beach my mom would scold me: you have to respect the water, she’d say. The ocean’s freedom comes with a terrible power. The currents and tides are stronger than you, they will claim you if you let down your guard.

And still, the power of the water to hold me steady was stronger than my fear of it, so I returned, again and again, to those churning, foaming waves and the swirling silence found beneath them.
The story of God’s people is also a story of water. The waters whose separation gave life to creation were released in the destructive power of the flood, the Red Sea’s parting is reflected in the Jordan’s closing over Christ’s head in baptism. In God’s story, wells, those dark caverns dug by strong-willed people determined to survive in the harshest environments, are not only places of meeting and physical sustenance, but portals that link ancestors with new generations, dark with light, settings primed for holy encounter. The daily walk to the well, the filling of buckets, the sloshing weight of liquid carried on backs and heads, the emptying and refilling, was the metronome of the people of God. Each time we baptize, we bless the receiver’s connection not only to the divine, but also to this great cloud of well-diggers throughout the ages, our ancestors who knew the holy weight of water.
Given God’s preoccupation with water, it is not surprising that the encounter that we explore today takes place at a well – over and over in the Scriptures, when a woman shows up at a well, we’re cued to the fact that something significant is about to take place.

The story is a familiar one to many: John tells us how Jesus splits off from his friends and travels into Samaria, where he encounters a woman at a well and gets into an extended conversation about worship, identity, and, water. The reason why I’m weaving sections of this passage through the sermon rather than opening with it is because here Jesus and this Samaritan woman are engaged in the longest recorded dialogue in the New Testament. Jesus speaks with this woman longer than he does with his disciples, his enemies, or his family. Unlike elsewhere in John’s gospel, where Jesus tends to slip into monologues about his identity, prompting at least one commentator to observe that it should really be “Wordy is the Lamb”, here Jesus is going back and forth.
OK, so with that overly long preamble, here is the first part of this passage:

5 So [Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 9 The 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.) 10 Jesus 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.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but 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.” 15 The 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.”

– John 4:5-42

In the time that Jesus lived, and even today in many cultures across the world, men and women do not speak to each other in public. In Jesus’ day husbands wouldn’t even talk to their wives outside the house.

If Emily Post had been around in the ancient near east, and was writing to the Israelites, her etiquette guidance might have sounded something like this:

When encountering a woman at a well, a gentleman will step back at least twenty paces and avert his eyes, allowing her the freedom to go about her work decently and without bother. A gentleman will no more consider conversing with an unaccompanied lady than he would blow his nose on her dress.

Now obviously I’m joking a bit, but seriously people would jump through all kinds of hoops to avoid unintended run-ins between the sexes. The other thing is that wells at this time were strictly BYOB – bring your own bucket – so the idea that John has Jesus planted on the side of this well, empty-handed, is the ancient equivalent of having our Lord and Savior pushing in front of you in line at Wawa with a full coffee cup and no wallet, demanding that you cover his tab. This is not gentle savior meek and mild – this is Gritty Jesus. Many of us, myself included, would be more comfortable with a Jesus who is a little more reserved, a Jesus who gives us our space. But John has exactly 0% interest in that kind of savior, and I think that’s actually not just good but rather great news because at the end of the day, whether we like it or not we need pushy Jesus. The work of our life, not just the day-to-day stuff of grocery shopping and carpools and quarterly reports, but illnesses and estrangements and heartbreak and grief – we need Jesus in the mess with us, not keeping a polite distance but pushing his way right into the thick of our days and taking up space. We need a Jesus who doesn’t respect our attempts to create a comfortable distance between him and the parts of our lives where we’d really rather he not meddle, and we need a Jesus who demands something of us, who makes us act as his bucket-bearers, his hands and feet and heart and voice, because we see again and again that it is in the response to that invitation, that demand to make use of us, that we are filled and sustained.

Jesus contrasts living water with the water that comes out of the well. And while it’s impossible to boil down Jesus’ allegories into a simple explanation, when I think about the difference between living water and water that comes out of a well, I see the distinction being its container. Well water, the water we drink out of pipes and cups and bottles – that kind of water conforms to the shape we need it to take. We require water that fits neatly into bottles for backpacks, water that doesn’t leak out of faucets, water frozen into tidy rectangular cubes that can be popped out into glasses, glasses that can then be filled to the height of our preference and degree of thirst. But the water that Jesus is talking about – this living water – this is the untamed water that conforms everything it touches to it. This is river water carving out the sides of mountains, glaciers grinding across continents, ocean tides birthing ecosystems. This is water that breaks through every resistance, no matter how many dams or levees or bridges we build to try to tame its mighty power. This is pushy water. This is water that will claim us, if we let it. And this is the living water that Jesus calls us to, a water that is outside and over our individual thirst, but carries the whole world in its flow. And in response to this simple but mighty invitation, John puts our prayer in the Samaritan woman’s mouth: “Sir, give me this water.”

The story continues, reading further, we hear:

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband,’ 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!

Ah, the five husbands. I think I always unconsciously thought about Elizabeth Taylor in connection with this passage, which is maybe not so terribly far off because it seems that Christians in every era have projected the concerns and hopes of their own age across her story. While the ancient Eastern Christians quickly gave the Samaritan woman a name – Svetlana – and honored her as the first apostle and evangelist, the early Western church portrayed her as a well-meaning but slow-witted woman who is praiseworthy because she allowed Jesus to instruct her, paralleling the way that these leaders hoped that their uneducated congregants would be open to the teachings of the literate clergy.

And then you get to the Reformation where suddenly people like Calvin interpret this woman not as open to instruction, but rather as a repentant sinner, a lady of negotiable affection whose obvious depravity makes her acceptance of Jesus that much more of a teachable moment for the rest of us. Which fits for people who believed that recognizing our inherent badness is the key that opens us up to God’s grace. As the industrial age dawns, with its emphasis on reason and critical thought, scholars start focusing more on the culture and historical realities of the time when John was writing. These folks theorize that perhaps this woman didn’t exist at all, but that she was an allegory for the Samaritan people, her five husbands symbolizing the five gods that the Samaritans were said to worship before they became part of the church. Contemporary scholars also point out that in Jesus’ day a wife couldn’t initiate divorce, so whatever was happening there, whether it was being widowed, or abandoned, or fleeing abuse, she was likely a victim of tragic circumstances rather than an example of bad behavior. Supporting this point, we see that Jesus never once condemns the woman or talks about sin or forgiveness, though he isn’t shy about doing so with other people he meets in the gospel. Whatever is going on here, there aren’t any indications in the text that Jesus is standing in judgment of the woman’s actions. And the finally to bring us up to the present, with the greater acceptance for female clergy, scholars note that this woman, with her knowledge of history and theology, her willingness to ask questions, evangelize, and teach, is not only a model for all people of faith, but also an especially convincing argument for women serving in religious leadership. So, many, many lenses through which one can read this text, and depending on what we bring to it at a particular season of our lives, there are infinitely more meanings that may appear.

But I want to go back to that verse where the woman says that Jesus tells her everything that she’s ever done – this verse that births the idea that we are, as followers of Christ, are known by Jesus. Maybe it’s coming out of this Calvinist tradition where I still sometimes slip into the idea that being known by God is equivalent to having my sins exposed to God – this sense that Jesus is the expert witness at my trial, sharing my crimes and blunders with the judge and jury, with the hope that I’ll throw myself on the mercy of the court. But again, while that view of Christ’s judgment does exist elsewhere in the Gospels, it doesn’t show up here. And because it doesn’t, it begs the question of what the good news is here – why is this woman so moved, so excited, at the idea that Jesus knows her?

In his book Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon contrasts what he calls vertical and horizontal identities. Generally speaking, vertical identities are things that are passed down from parents to children: race, culture, religion, values. Even when what is passed down isn’t respected by the larger society, as in cases of racism or antisemitism, within families and specific communities those traits are reinforced and celebrated. On the other hand, horizontal identities are those things which, again generally speaking, aren’t passed down through parents and families. While vertical identities tie you to your family, horizontal ones are often the source of loneliness and shame. Solomon gives the examples of being transgender, gay, autistic, or disabled, but I think we all have horizontal identities to some degree: maybe we’re single in a community full of married people, the one person who went to college, or the only one who didn’t. Maybe we’re the guy who quietly struggles with alcoholism among a family of social drinkers, or the one who never quite found their way while their siblings always seemed to have it all together. Whatever that place is in our lives, whatever takes us out to the well in the middle of the day, outside of the company of others, it can be really, really lonely.

For me, one of those horizontal identity is having cerebral palsy. No matter how much love and support I got growing up from my family, school, and friends, being the only disabled person in pretty much every scenario is lonely. And because of mainstreaming in education, many of us disabled people go through life being the only person in our school, among our friends, later at work, on the bleachers at Little League, who look and move like we do. And it’s not that that’s some terrible tragedy or trauma, it’s just that that loneliness is part of our experience of being human, it becomes normal.

So, this week I went to the funeral of a woman who had taken me, along with many hundreds of others, under her wing. Judy Heumann was the mother of the disability rights movement – any time you see a curb cut, an elevator in a public building, or your kid gets support from an IEP – that’s Judy. She was the most extraverted woman I’ve ever known, and treated presidents and random people she met on the street with the same delighted exuberance and respect. And because of not only what she did, but how she lived, her funeral was packed, and I found myself waiting in a synagogue lobby with hundreds of people seeking to pay their respects to this woman who loved so deeply, and so well. But unlike other crowds, this one was full of disabled people. There were people using wheelchairs and crutches and canes and scooters, Deaf people and blind people, and disabled folks of every shape and size and color and nationality. And though I had never met a single one of them before that moment, being caught up in that crowd, I felt known. When the doors to the sanctuary finally opened and we were invited in, I have never seen a group of people so eager to be somewhere move so slowly. And I was like – yes. These are my people.

When that Samaritan woman says “He told me everything I have ever done” what I hear is a person who has that sense of being known, of being loved, of being enfolded, and that knowing bringing freedom, not because there was something wrong, but because there was something so deeply right that simply needed to be named. It’s where the vertical of the cross is embraced the horizontal arms that sweep us up and carry us, not away from the realities of life but more deeply into them. I see Jesus knocking down whatever dam had been holding back the living water bubbling up inside this woman, and all who see themselves reflected in her, and then allowing that water to spring forth and catch not only one, but everyone around her, in its wake. Jesus, at least in his earthly form, didn’t heal or transform the Samaritan woman – he didn’t give her her powers of argument, her wittiness, her knowledge. But because she had encountered him, all of the parts of her, even those that may have made her lonely and separated her from others were caught up in the rushing waters of the Spirit of God. In the workings of God, being known is the pathway to relationship with Christ.

So what happens next? We continue with John:

He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

I absolutely love the way that this woman talks about Jesus. I love that her worship comes out not as a statement of fact, not as a threat to those who would not believe as she does, but as a question – “He can’t be the Messiah, can he?” It’s so honest, so authentic, so unfiltered. Her question is such good news for any of us who ever thought that to speak about God means to speak with certainty about things of which we may not feel certain, to recite doctrine, to have all our doubts answered. As one preacher observed, “He told me everything I have ever done” is not exactly a recitation of the Apostles’ Creed – it’s an exclamation of wonder. Her witness was effective because it was it was so unpretentious: it invited her neighbors to come to Christ not on the strength of her arguments, but in their own way. Her excitement was their pathway to living water – this community didn’t have to keep going back to the well that was that woman’s testimony, they had that water of life that came from Christ to each of them.

As you go out into whatever this week has in store for you, I pray that the blessings of this encounter that happened not just once in a far-off place long ago, but again and again in our lives, strengthens you. I pray that you allow yourself to be claimed by the living water that holds you just as you are, and is continually wearing away and carving through all of those places that separate us from God. I pray that you feel known, not only in sorrow and sin, not only in Joy and strength, but in every single fiber of your being, and especially in those places you’ve buried down deepest, so that you might know the Christ that dwells there, and I pray that your wonder at this love breaks through like a rush of living water and carries you on its current in all the days to come. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Works Cited:
Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes
Sarah Renfro, “‘Well of a Tale’ – A Sermon on John 4:5-12”
Jan Richardson, “Lent 3: The Way of Water” https://paintedprayerbook.com/2008/02/20/the-way-of-water/
Frances Taylor Gench, Back to the Well
Meda Stamper, “Commentary on John 4:5-42” https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-john-45-421


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