Conversations at the Well

By The Rev. Dr. John T. Sorensen

[“Conversations at the Well” – preceded by the following enacting of the Gospel;  Trinity Church, Plattsburgh, NY;  Lent 3, February 27, 2005.]

  • The Woman at the Well
  • The Players: Narrator, Jesus, Samaritan Women, 2-3 Disciples, Townsfolk.
  • Note: Narrations in [brackets] can be skipped for better flow of the text. Numbers are verse numbers.

Narrator: So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 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,

Jesus: “Give me a drink.”

Narrator: 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him,

Woman: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”

Narrator: You see, Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans. 8 Jesus answered her,

Jesus: “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.”

[Narrator: 11 The woman said to him,]

Woman: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”

[Narrator: 13 Jesus said to her,]

Jesus: “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.”

[Narrator: 15 The woman said to him,]

Woman: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

[Narrator: 16 Jesus said to her,]

Jesus: “Go, call your husband, and come back.”

[Narrator: 17 The woman answered him,]

Woman: “I have no husband.”

[Narrator: Jesus said to her,]

Jesus: “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!”

[Narrator: 19 The woman said to him,]

Woman: “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.”

[Narrator: 21 Jesus said to her,]

Jesus: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 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 seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

[Narrator: 25 The woman said to him,]

Woman: “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”

[Narrator: 26 Jesus said to her,]

Jesus: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Narrator: 27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people,

Woman: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

Narrator: 30 They left the city and were on their way to him. 31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him,

Disciples: “Rabbi, eat something.”

[Narrator: 32 But he said to them,]

Jesus: “I have food to eat that you do not know about.”

Narrator: 33 So the disciples said to one another,

Disciples: “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?”

[Narrator: 34 Jesus said to them,]

Jesus: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

narrator: 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,

Samaritan townsfolk: “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.”

Sermon: “Conversations at the Well”

This sermon continues the Lenten telling of the great teaching stories of John. Last week we learned what it was to be born again. This week we learn about life-giving water, and the life-giving refreshment of conversational encounters.

Our search for refreshment, for the living water of life, can be frustrating, as it was to Moses and the children of Israel. Most of us have likewise wandered in the wilderness of wondering, trying to decide what to do with the rest of our lives. Perhaps you have had a time in your life when you’ve wondered what job to take, what college to attend, what spouse to marry. For me, this day, the story of Jesus and the Woman at the well is about the refreshing presence of God in those conversations that just happen.

Eighteen years ago, in 1987 I was a chaplain at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Day School in Alexandria. I enjoyed my work immensely. I had been out of seminary almost two years, and yet part of me missed parish work. I loved being a Chaplain. I loved parish work.

Adding to the fun, there was talk of a merger between St. Stephen’s, a boy’s school, and St. Agnes, a girl’s school. They were working to merge the two schools, a prospect that there was some dissension about and which made me a bit nervous about my job security since the other school had chaplains, too.

And so my mind was churning. Chaplain or parish priest: Which will it be? What should I do? When I worked as a deacon at my weekend parish in DC, I loved it, and wanted to do more, too.

In this state of churning mind, I went to the nearby Virginia Seminary bookstore to browse and secure some free refreshments (you college students here will appreciate that) at a book signing party. A Bishop named John Spong had just published a book. Now I know Bishop Spong is a controversial character. But for me, he was living water.

The Bishop and I got to talking as the reception wound down. Turns out he had been a chaplain, once. That gave us a connection. He was an able, insightful listener, and we didn’t speak for more than ten minutes. He offered some advice that seems now, well, quite Anglican: “Why don’t you find a position where you can be both parish priest and school chaplain?”

Within days I contacted the head of the National Association of Episcopal Schools that finds Jobs for Chaplains. I told the executive that I wanted a Parish with a connection to a school, where I could work half-time at each. The very next day, a Texas rector called her up. “I’m looking for a priest who can be a part-time associate rector and head chaplain at our growing day school,” he said. What a coincidence! That’s how I got to the foreign country of Midland, Texas!

There are the small redemptive acts in daily life-like this that we can each participate in. Each of us can be open to the spirit to help be living water to each other in the unplanned, coincidental hours of our lives. We worship a god who is willing to spend time with us at the well. And, each conversation, each prayer session, each conversation with a priest or counselor or spouse or parent or child or supervisor has the possibility and potential for change and growth:

“He told me everything I ever did,” said the woman at the well. She was changed, made new.

Last week, I dusted off an old book from my shelf because I thought it fit this sermon. Jean Paul Sartre’s 1944 Play, No Exit, (have any of you here read it?) portrays Hell as a conversation without the possibility of redemption.

Garcin, Inez and Estelle are locked in a room with no windows, and no way out, for eternity. They seem to have been chosen by the valet for their personality incompatibility: Each of the three loathes one of the others and likes one of the others. But the one each one likes is the one who hates in return. There’s no hope, no redemption, no possibility of change of personality or amendment of life – life is already over, so what’s to amend.

And, symbolically, there are no mirrors allowed in this hell. There’s no way to look at self evaluate the need for a change.

In that context, thank God for the well of Jacob in Samaria – or the seminary bookstore, — or the coffee shop where you visit a friend, or the one you see for spiritual conversation or therapy. In such moments we participate in the healing grace of the spirit, as Paul wrote to the Romans,

“And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Character, Home, Love Poured in this woman at the well . . . The first thing is that they were not supposed to be talking. So he asked her for water, requiring of her what women often did in that culture: Draw water from the well. After some preliminaries that demonstrate each of their willingness to cross social boundaries of nationality and gender, they engage in a conversation that is one of my favorites in the New Testament:

Jesus: “Go, call your husband, and come back.”

Woman: “I have no husband.”

Jesus: “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!”

Ah, the mirror that is not in Sartre’s hell is in Jesus’ daily life. And so the woman who the Spirit of living water had prepared for this encounter, was ready to hold up her life to God’s mirror and find some room for change, for redemption, for repentance. Like each of us, given the right time and right place the right gentleness of God, we’re ready to see.

There’s another example of life-giving change that illustrates some of the imperfections is life. In my teen years, I loved watching David Caradine’s “Kung Fu.” This was a Chinese-American young man who had been trained in the martial arts and the art of life in a Shaolin temple in the mid-1800’s. Having killed the emperor’s son to protect his master, Kwai Chang Caine fled to San Francisco, wandering like the Israelites, who in today’s Exodus water story, journeyed by stages. In encounter after encounter, Caine is subject to the scorn and ridicule of strangers because he looks Chinese, a race subject to derision and persecution even while they were employed to build the web of railroads crisscrossing the American Western Frontier.

I bought the DVD redo of the whole first season to share an important childhood wisdom-story with my son. I remember loving his encounters. He never returned an insult. He always treated each person as God’s child. Inevitably, Caine’s life was threatened and he stopped his attackers with his Kung Fu skills. He also inevitably defended the poor and helpless, and often from the same abusers that threatened him. Many of the episodes are exciting for the skill of the hero in defeating cruel abusers. But, I discovered something as an adult I hadn’t seen as a child: they’re sometimes depressing for the lack of repentance or change on the part of the abusers. He rescues but the evildoer returns to do evil again. In the gospel, everyone is subject to the redemptive power of life-changing water. Even a hero can be trapped in a place of No Exit – unless there is the possibility of redemption and change for all in that story.

The woman of Samaria, upon encountering the Christ, “left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people,

Woman: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” He can indeed. So, he says to us: “I know everything you have ever done. My mirror is love, seen in the face of your neighbor. I come to bring you the water of life, the water of baptism that gives you all forgiveness, the exit door leads to the gate of life:

13 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.”

It is the ministry of God that you and I can be that mirror of Christ for our neighbor. God is at work in the unexpected encounters of our lives. May each of us bring living water to our neighbors, bringing springs of water gushing up to eternal life.

[The Rev. Dr. John T. Sorensen; Rector at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Glenn Mills, PA, was co-President of Albany Via Media, Inc., Holds degrees from Cape Cod Community College, Boston College (Human Development, Virginia Theological Seminary (M. Div., 1985), and Seabury Western Seminary (D. Min.);  John 4:5-42.]