Christ the Gathering Point (John 4)

This is some of the text I used on Sunday. I ended up preaching a message that was pretty different in a lot of ways from what I originally prepared, but I thought I’d still post this because I wanted to share the general idea. If you’re interested in listening in on our Sunday Morning messages you can subscribe the the Camas Friends Church podcast available on iTunes.

From John 4.

Water

Water is an essential part of life. It may be the essence of life. Without water life is impossible. Without access to clean water, life is miserable. When a baby is born, a mother’s water breaks. Wars have been fought over water. Racism fought around water fountains. People die daily because they lack water. People die when the mysterious power of water becomes unloosed and crashes into civilization.

When we witnees oppression we pray “let justice roll down like mighty waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Some of our most beautiful art, poetry, songwriting, you name has been inspired by water. Some know more than others that “Living water is a direct gift from God…[because] it means fresh water that hasn’t been controlled by human action…” (Doug Thorpe) The bible is filled with streams that make glad the city of God, floods, powerful seas that split, rivers and wells.

The Jordan River today is mostly sewage. Water can be polluted. Water that once offered life can become a source of sickness and unsafe to use.

“Water is never simply water. [In the bible] waters sing in poetry” (Doug Thorpe).

And out with his buddies, on the way back to Galilee Jesus gets thirsty and sits down for a drink of water at an old well.

The Old Well

Jesus’ choice of where to stop and get a drink is highly unusual. For a Jewish man of his time, stopping at this old well, once given to Jacob, was a first-century version of a sit-in during the Civil Rights movement. The setting to which the 4th chapter of John hints at could be likened to an African-American wanting to get a drink of water from a water fountain for whites only [or maybe, actually in our story it is the reverse of this?]. And while slavery isn’t the issue in our story today, deep resentment, hostility, and boundaries between people is the subtext.

Jews and Samaritans were from the same lineage of people, but over time there were some major disagreements that arose. Part of this resentment stemmed from a question around who would get to rebuild the temple after Israel was captured by a foreign superpower.

Why are there so many heated agreements around worship and worship spaces? Sometimes these disagreements and resentments linger for a few years, in the case of the Jews and the Samaritans it was hundreds of years. You might imagine the deep hatred of the Irish Protestants and Catholics for a bit of the religious flavor were working with. Jews would actually go out of their way to on their thrice-annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Pilgrimaging Jews would go across the Jordan and around Samaria rather than set foot in enemy territory.

With all of this in the background, Jesus leaves Judea where he had just had that famous discourse with the religious teacher Nicodemus. Heading back to Galilee he decides, against the common practice of the day, to not go around Samaria, but rather go straight through it.

Jesus apparently liked shortcuts also? Then Jesus got tired and decided to sit down beside an old well. That well, surely he knew, was a special well. This was a historical Old Testament landmark. It was Jacob’s well, a patriarch of the Jewish people.

Not only was a well the center of the community as a highly trafficked spot in the morning and in the evening by people getting water for their homes, but it was this particular well that was the site for two famous couples who met in the Bible: Isaac and Rebekka there, and Jacob and Rachel (Genesis 24:10-61; 29:1-20). This well was among other things a symbol of marriage and covenant, and in our story, a broken covenant.

And then a woman appears. What is odd is that came at noon to get her water which is not when everyone went to get water. It is likely that, given her marital situation, she was an outcast in her own community.

Strange Bedfellows

Can you see how tense and uncomfortable this situation is?

Jesus goes to a place where Jews don’t go, and talks to a woman who men don’t talk to, at a time when all the “upstanding” citizens in society don’t go to the well.

Here in our story Jesus approaches an outcast of outcasts.

What is going on in this passage? Why has Jesus gone to all this trouble just to talk with this woman at the well?

Unfortunately, many in the church have focused on this woman as a moral failure, or as one commenter put it, here’s just another “woman gone wrong.”

But I think there’s something else going on here.

Jim Douglass writes (in an articled titled the “Samaritan Apostle”),

Could Jesus be alluding not to her personal sex life but to Samaria’s past, in which five nations have colonized and intermarried with Samaritans (2 Kings17:24-34)? And could “the one you have now who is not your husband” in fact be Rome, a colonial power with whom the Samaritans lived (more intimately than with Judeans) but did not intermarry as much as with the previous five?

Could this passage not be about something deeper, something far more profound in human relations than just how many husbands this one woman has had?

Instead of the focus being on Jesus as judging this woman, what we begin to see is that he invites her into, metaphorically speaking, a new kind of marriage (thus the setting, etc). And not just her, but all Samaritans who entertain his message.

This marriage, signified by living water, undercuts the boundaries and resentments that have overgrown. The invitation to drink of living water is an invitation to start fresh, to taste new life within a new covenant with God.

But there’s a catch. This new covenant will involve being re-centered not around their national identity but by their connection to Christ. (And this will involve Jews as well).

A New Frame of Reference: Living Water

Water is central to the sustaining of life in an arid place like Sychar where Jacob’s well can be found, even still today.

The woman came not for the well itself but for the life that water gives.
Her frame of reference was Jacob and his ancestry.

It was an old well, central to their identity and the stories they told about themselves, and as with all wells, it was in danger of running dry.

Jesus invites her into a new frame of reference.
He invites her to come and draw life from a different well.
A deeper well that was unlimited in its source.

Come and drink deep from the well “Everyone who drinks of this water will never be thirsty again.”

Jesus draws a comparison.
There is Jacob’s Well and Jesus’ Well.
They both offer water that gives life, but the water of one is unlike the water of the other.

One well offered life that was limited. It was a well used to identify with Jacob and a frame of reference that kept the Samaritans at arms length from their Jewish brothers and sisters. The other well offered a new life. A new reference point. A new start to a story where there was room for all people. Even this noonday woman at the well. Sometimes the very stories we tell, our very reference points, are the things that keep us from finding that cool water and quenched thirst.

Jesus makes her an offer.
His offer does not come in the form of “bait and switch,” if you play by the rules then you are allowed to be on the ‘in’ team.

No, Jesus’ offer comes by way of his very presence there. Here, Jesus initiates welcome to the outcast and offers her a new starting point one where she is no longer defined by her past.

He says, “I am greater than Jacob. Jacob is not here. But I Jesus am here. I am with you. And you may drink from a living well:

“The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal, [or more literally, unlimited] life.” (Jn. 4:14)

She responds the same way any of us would in a personal encounter with Jesus.

“Sir, Give me this Water.”

Here Jesus’ visitation with this woman, their ensuing and tedious dialogue about real things that matter to both of them, (notice that later in this passage his own disciples are too afraid to enter into a real dialogue with him and question what is going on), Jesus’ graciousness to offer her something when she would expect nothing from a Jewish man, and an offer to drink from an unlimited living well, all compel her to ask for this water that Jesus offers.

The message of God, when it comes in that motion of love (that we talked about from John 1) is always compelling. It doesn’t need to be advertised, or put on a billboard. There is no need for slick presentation styles or clothing, or church buildings or flyers in this message. It is compelling because it comes by way of “grace upon grace.”

It is compelling because it is substantial. He sees that she is bound up in unfreedoms, otherwise why would she be there at noon? He offers her a fresh start, a new beginning, “a spring of water gushing up to unlimited life.”

Being Gathered together

And so in closing let us consider how these old wells, these old frames of reference, the old stories, the moments of infidelity – whether in human relationship or in relationship to God – have set up boundaries over against others, over against God, over against ourselves.

In the same way that a body of water like the Columbia is both a source of life and at the same time boundary between two things, so too was Jacob’s well.

Inasmuch as one went with a bucket to find water, Jacob’s well was an important source of daily life. Inasmuch as one identified with the Samaritan or Jewish story over against the other story, in a way that created resentment and hatred, wells and reference points can become harmful boundaries.

What are those places that have for a time maybe given us life, but now may in fact hold us back, limit us, border us off from others and ourselves? What are the places in which we have become unfree, bound up and need to drink deep from the well of living water?

What boundaries does Jesus challenge and threaten in us when he sits down for a drink with us? Are we willing and able to enter into that difficult dialogue and ask our probing questions, or are we like his very own disciples’ who avoid asking the questions out of fear of being exposed?

What is our reference point? What is our center? What or who is it that we really gather around? And what boundaries follow from that?

Here at the well Jesus worked to deconstruct those boundaries – you worship on this mountain, they worship on that mountain – Jesus worked to create a third space, not on either mountain, a place where both groups would come together and worship in spirit and in truth.

In other words, with Christ at their center they would be called to an even more open and boundary-free existence. He was calling them into a new marriage, a new covenant with one another and with God that would include those who had been hurt and experienced deep brokenness by the other.

This is the beginning of what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “Beloved Community.”

When the disciples come back he says:

But I tell you, look around you [see up in the hills, the Samaritans who have heard the words of this woman I just met, this woman who is the first to be trusted as a missionary with my message and has carried it faithfully, here they come with her].

The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.

The reaper is gathering together a new community, a beloved community, that moves beyond these boundaries and draws life from a living well. That community wasn’t built around this or that mountain but on a well that contains living water.

With this new reference point, this new living water, Jesus is the center, he is the gathering point to which all our boundaries, brokenness, resentments are washed clean, and we are given a new life, freed and made alive.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.