Sunday, June 1, 2014 “She Left Her Bucket Behind” (John 4: 5-30)

New Testament Reading
5 So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.[a]

7 A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings 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 nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.[b] The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” 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 now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 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 (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”

27 Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” 28 So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” 30 They went out of the town and were coming to him.

Linda Bausserman preaching

The decline in membership in mainline churches has been a subject of debate for years now. People are finding that some of their childhood beliefs do not fit with their experience – whether their life experiences or their experience of God. Even some pastors of evangelical churches are rethinking some of the tenets of their faith. I was brought up in a church where we were told to have a personal relationship with Jesus and to accept Jesus as our personal savior. But once we accepted Jesus and were baptized, they were done with us. Oh, we heard sermons and were taught about the Bible but, after all the emphasis on ‘personal’ no one told us how to have a personal relationship with Jesus. In conversations with some of you, I’ve learned that my experience was not unique. Many Christians today have a second hand relationship with God. They go to church and learn about God and Jesus but don’t really come to know God on a deep level. For example, if you ask people if God loves them they will easily reply, ‘God loves everyone.’ But when asked if God loves you personally, many people hesitate or even say, ‘Ooh I can’t go there yet.’ Why? Some think it sounds vain. But it’s actually more vain to think that you are beyond the reach of God. Others think they don’t deserve God’s love. But, of course, no one really deserves God’s love. It isn’t about deserving. In fact, it isn’t really even about us. It’s about who God is. God is love and pours out that love unconditionally, regardless of who or what we are. Other people are afraid of what they might find out about themselves if they open themselves to God. I think that is a legitimate fear. We are told that when we see the face of God, we see ourselves more clearly. Sometimes, we think, maybe it’s just better not to know. Certainly it’s easier. But I think most people who come to church are interested in having a deeper relationship with God, they just aren’t sure how to go about it. We come to church and someone prays and we even pray ourselves but our prayers are often rote and we are not taught how to listen for an answer or even to expect an answer. Often we come into that deeper relationship when something calamitous happens to us and we are forced to look at ourselves and the way we live our lives, in a deeper way; and that brings us into the presence of God.

It may be uncomfortable to stand before God open and vulnerable; but I think God is gentle with us. Now I got into trouble once for saying that. I was leading a workshop on spiritual practices and a pastor on the back row raised his hand and said, “God wasn’t very gentle with Paul. He knocked him off his donkey.” But Paul was working against God, not trying to find God’s will. If we look at how Jesus treated people, we will see that he was indeed tough on the Pharisees and those who thought they knew it all already. He could be scathing to people who were proud of their knowledge and who neither desired nor thought they needed help. People who were so caught up in their own righteousness and obedience to the law that they failed to live out the intent of the law – to love God and their neighbor. So Jesus could be tough; but he was always gentle with those he helped. Perhaps I should say those who let him help them for he never forced his help on people. There are of course many stories in the gospels describing how Jesus interacts with people. But I think that the story of the woman at the well is the most complete. It starts at the beginning of the encounter, only the two of them are present so there are no distractions, and it continues after their meeting. The Samaritan woman didn’t know who Jesus was and didn’t come asking for anything. They had a complex conversation in which he told her the truth about who she was and she was then able to see who he was. She then asked for the living water he offered. And he was able to help her. By the end of the story, she becomes an evangelist herself inviting the villagers to come and meet Jesus. In contrast, in most of the stories of Jesus healing people, we never hear about what happens to them after they are helped. Jesus’ interactions with the disciples were varied and occurred over a long period of time so their stories are probably more realistic. But this story is a sort of condensed description that includes all the elements of a spiritual journey .

So here’s Jesus, tired and thirsty, sitting by a well. A woman comes in the heat of the day to get water. Ordinarily the women wouldcome together early in the day before it gets too hot or late to avoid the noontime sun. So the impression is that the woman who comes at noon is avoiding them. Many interpreters suggest that she is an adulteress and is shunned by the others. In any event she comes alone and much to her surprise finds Jesus, a Jew sitting there. It is Jesus who initiates the conversation. He asks her for a drink and she is startled, for Jewish men do not speak to women in public and Jews do not associate with Samaritans ever. The next surprising thing about this story is that the woman didn’t grab her bucket and dash away immediately. She was after all trying to avoid people. But she stays and they have this clever repartee about water and thirst. She asks, ‘how is it that you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan for a drink?’ He replies, ‘If you knew God’s gift and who was asking, you would be asking me for a drink and you would be given living water.’ She spars with him – ‘how can you give me water? You don’t even have a bucket.’ In fact, isn’t it odd she didn’t point out that he was the one asking for water. How could he give it to her if he couldn’t get it for himself. But she is obviously not as cantankerous as I am. Jesus insists that what he offers is living water and she will never thirst again. ‘The water that I will give will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life,’ he says. Next, she asks for that water. I wonder if perhaps she is beginning to catch on when he mentions an inner spring always welling up for eternal life. Or, if she thinks she will call his bluff. Or perhaps she just decides to go ahead and give it a try. After all, she doesn’t have much to lose. So she says, ‘give me that water.’ Now it’s Jesus turn to challenge. He says, “Go get your husband and bring him back here.” She replies, “I don’t have a husband.” To which Jesus says, “You got that right. For although you have had five husbands, the one you’re living with now is not your husband; you have told me the truth there.” “Sir,” she says, “I can see that you are a prophet.” This little bit of conversation is central to the story. Jesus makes this woman see herself for who she is. We have heard that when we come face to face with God, we see ourselves as we truly are. Faults and all. Another example from the Old Testament is Isaiah who, when he is carried up to the throne of God, says, “Woe is me for I am a man of unclean lips.” The opposite is also true – when we see ourselves more clearly, we learn more about God. Jesus confronted this woman with her living situation and she recognized him as a prophet. But did you notice that there was no condemnation from Jesus. He didn’t call her names, threaten Hell, or insist that she was a sinner. He simply described the facts of her circumstances. And he must have said it kindly because, again, she didn’t run off. She also didn’t deny the truth or try to explain or make excuses. Instead she launches into a discussion of religion. Now one possibility is that she is trying to shift the attention somewhere else, get the focus off of herself. It’s a lot easier to talk about religion and the law in general terms than oneself. Or she may simply be stalling for time, time to adjust to the fact this stranger knows all about her. But I wonder if she isn’t intrigued by this prophet. Perhaps she sees deeply and recognizes that he is more than a prophet. Perhaps, since he told her facts about herself, she believes that she can learn from him. Learn more about this living water. What is remarkable to me is the lack of surface drama in this scene both on the part of Jesus and the woman – no histrionics. Even though Jesus confronted her with exactly what she was trying to avoid in the villagers. I think the drama was taking place on a deeper level. In addition to his spoken words, I think she also heard the still small voice. I think his matter-of-fact approach and acceptance of her allowed her to also accept herself. She must have sensed the love in this man and was able to stay with him despite any feelings she may have had of shame or sorrow. She was able to see that she was more than her burden of sin. So she asks him about worship. ‘You worship in Jerusalem but we worship here.’ Beneath all that is going on in her difficult life, she is concerned about the right way to worship. And Jesus answers her. “The time approaches, indeed it is already here, when those who are real worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” She then says “I know that Messiah is coming.” And Jesus says “I am he.” This scene occurs before Jesus has the conversation with the disciples about who he is, before Peter says that Jesus is the Messiah. So this woman is the first to be told who he is. Amazing. This outcast Samaritan woman is told before any one else in clear, simple, straightforward terms. Then at this high moment in their conversation, the disciples return. The woman leaves her bucket and runs off to the village to tell people about her encounter with one whom she thinks might be the Messiah. This woman, who chose the discomfort of the heat of the noonday sun to avoid the villagers, is now running off to tell them her good news. Isn’t it interesting that the writer includes the detail about the bucket? She was in such a hurry to tell her neighbors that she leaves it behind. (She may have also been eager to get away from all those disciples. She has just had a life changing experience. She probably doesn’t want a meeting with a group of disapproving Jewish men. Admirably the men don’t say anything – they are used to Jesus strange ways by now.) But I think the bucket left behind is also a metaphor. The implication is that she no longer needs it. She has been filled by the living stream within. I think this story is a compact version of the process of becoming whole that can be carried over to our own times. God initiates our relationship. It usually doesn’t feel that way. You think you got up this morning and decided to come to church today despite knowing it was going to be downstairs and uncomfortable. You think you decide to pray and approach God. But the spiritual masters tell us that the desire to pray is given to us by God. So in effect when we pray we are simply responding to that desire of God. When we come into the presence of God, we see who we really are. We see ourselves with God’s eyes – the good and the bad. The negative aspects can be painful but at the same time we are in the presence of a God who loves us anyway and cares about healing us. And so somehow the pain is bearable. In the process we come to see who God is for us and how loving God is so we are drawn closer. In Isaiah 43:25 God says “I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” God forgives sin for God’s own sake, because God wants reconciliation. We don’t like to talk about sin very much. But this woman was obviously heavily burdened when she came to the well but left lightened of that load. We all hang on to buckets. Buckets of fear and worries. Buckets that we need to leave behind in faith. We are given the desire to know God, it is up to us to respond. But look at the transition that took place in this woman when she acknowledged her sin and recognized and accepted Jesus’ offer to help her. Her whole affect must have been altered because look at the effect she had on the townspeople. John 4:39-43. Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony. “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. 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.” We are told to love God and our neighbors as ourselves. We tend to focus on quantity, but what if the comparison is about quality rather than quantity. We tend to talk about how much we love. But, another aspect is how we love. We are to love God, ourselves and our neighbors in the same way. Optimally in the same way that God loves us. This woman went a step further in that she loved her enemies. She went to those who scorned her and told them the good news of God’s kingdom. She has come full circle – bringing others to meet Jesus.

What a model she is for us. She is, however, a model not a standard. What has been compressed in this story into a single conversation takes place over a life time. In fact, it replays many times in a life time. The teacher in my spiritual direction course used to say that the real answer to “have you been born again” is yes, again and again and again. We are not transformed all at once but a step at a time. And in the course of that process we learn to worship God in spirit and in truth. We become what Jesus calls “real worshippers.” He says, “Such are the worshippers whom the Father wants, God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in sprit and in truth.” God desires to be in communion with us. We have only to respond with a Yes.

We come now to the Lord’s table. This is a part of the service where we receive from God. In our reflection time we are probably just settling down and getting focused. During most of our service, the flow is from us to God as we singing praises and offer prayers (though hopefully it is a time of both giving and receiving). But in receiving the Lord’s supper we come before God individually and silently to receive. Let us be open to the gift.

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