John 4:5-42

In this week’s Gospel lesson a woman Jesus meets in Samaria learns that all the secrets she thought she had were already known. 

We call her “the woman at the well”—as in the gospel song I’d just as soon forget I ever heard: “Like the woman at the well I was seeking / For things that could not satisfy.” John’s Gospel doesn’t really say that much about her, but that hasn’t stopped preachers and listeners from letting their imaginations run wild. After all, she’s had five husbands, and now she’s living with a man out of wedlock. So it’s been easy to jump to the conclusion that she’s been doing a lot of bed hopping.

But the Gospel doesn’t tell us that. We do know that she lived in a day when women were men’s property—if she didn’t belong to her father, she had to belong to a husband, and nobody would have thought to ask her what she wanted. You can be pretty sure that she didn’t get to pick any of her five husbands. We don’t know how she lost them either, but we know that it wasn’t her choice. And if the man she was living with now didn’t want to take responsibility for her and marry her, there wasn’t much she could do about it. So don’t assume that she’s guilty of loose living.

On the other hand, she’s still a woman with lots of strikes against her. The events in her life don’t look good on a resume, and she wouldn’t want to share them with a total stranger.

On this day, though, it’s not just a total stranger she meets. It’s an even stranger stranger who doesn’t seem to know the social taboos. Jesus asks her for a drink, and that’s improper on at least two counts. Men aren’t supposed to speak to a woman they don’t know. And Jews and Samaritans don’t strike up conversations with each other—they don’t trust each other. But Jesus acts totally clueless about this. He doesn’t seem to realize he’s breaking any rules, or that he could ruin his reputation and hers at the same time.

Jesus says some odd things about “living water” and then asks her to go get her husband, and she says she doesn’t have one, and he says, “You got that right, but you’re not exactly single either.” And of course he’s telling the truth, but again, it’s not the sort of thing you tell somebody to their face. The thing is, he doesn’t get judgmental about it. He doesn’t say there’s anything wrong with her. He just tells her how her life is going—no praise, no blame, just how things are. And that’s when it seems to dawn on her—maybe this guy’s not a lunatic. Maybe he’s just being totally open. Maybe he sees through her secrets because he doesn’t need to have any secrets of his own. Maybe he’s more than he seems to be.

And her life is transfigured. She still lives in a man’s world, but that doesn’t stop her from appointing herself to be an apostle. She runs back to town to tell everybody about meeting a stranger who made it safe for her to be totally open, totally alive, for maybe the first time in her life. She’s not sure who he is, or what he is, but that doesn’t matter. She knows what happened when they started talking: living water, spirit and truth, a safe space where you can afford to be totally open, nothing less than God with us. It’s not long before the town itself is full of people who welcomed this stranger to stick around, and they found their own lives bubbling over with living water—the very life and breath of God.

Just imagine what it would be like to meet somebody who let you be fully honest about everything that’s going on in your life, somebody who made it possible for you to be fully alive, fully yourself. 

Jesus says that meeting has already happened. It’s happening right now. You and I are already mixed up with someone “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” We’re too late to put a stop to it. But there won’t be any put-downs—just a summons to life at its fullest, life totally open to the living water bubbling up among us.

That’s the life we celebrate today in prayer and praise and bread and wine. We have a long way to go, but it’s already making us over into people who can risk some honesty for a change. How open can you afford to be? Don’t force anything, but let yourself be changed.

Fr. Charles