the woman at the well

John 4:5-42

It is so good to be here with you this morning
at Metro Baptist Church, New York City.
I have heard so much about you to celebrate
your significant presence and ministry in this place.

I bring you greetings from the saints at Woodbrook
(and everybody else there too!).
I’m aware of the so many connections between our congregations.
One of your first pastors, Gene Bolin attends Woodbrook.
Fran Schoonmaker and Liesl Bolin are members—
as are Christy Waddail, Linda Anderson, Don Chance,
and all send their love.

I met your co-pastor, Tiffany Triplett-Henkel, five years ago,
as part of a marvelous two week pilgrimage to Israel,
and we’ve had intermittent conversation ever since
about ways in which we might draw
new and closer ties between our congregations.
Our kind of churches often lose out on associations with other churches.
Or the associations are limited to clergy.
So it is both a privilege to be with you,
and to anticipate Tiffany being with us at Woodbrook in May
and what all may yet be.

Tiffany said I could pick the lectionary text for the morning,
and being in New York City, I just couldn’t let the opportunity go by,
to share with you the long-lost, newly-discovered
musical stage production scrolls of “Well, Well, Well—
a musical irony” that just happen to have come into my hands.
And I do apologize if it seems like every other out of town guest preacher
feels the need to indulge their New York state of mind!

Clearly based on the story from the fourth gospel we heard read,
the production opens with Jesus alone on stage,
front and center. In the beginning was the word, right?

It’s a minimal set: basically a rock, front and center on which Jesus sits—
a rock we’ll come to find out covers a well.
(It’s your good fortune, by the way,
that there was no music included in the scrolls.
So you are spared any of my attempts to sing through the lyrics found!)
And the word becomes song in a solo about being tired and thirsty—
about wandering in a dry and barren land
(which would have had all kind of resonance with the original audiences!).
But because you never expect too much from an audience
(as opposed to a congregation, right?!),
the narrator enters the back of the house at this point,
singing his way through the audience,
of a people tired and thirsty wandering in a dry and barren land—
singing of the exodus, right? To make that mash-up explicit.

And then Jesus sings (there’s a lot of layering of music in this production—
melodies that turn out to be harmonies as well, to a richer music).

“It’s somewhat of a frustration (this is Jesus singing)
this business of hydration.
To be so very, very thirsty
and to see what I see in front of me.
I’m thirsty, and there’s water I see,
but there’s this big stone between the water and me.
It’s 100 feet down, in a hole in the ground.
I’m sitting on top of water I can’t drink.
The irony doth stink.”

Then a figure emerges upstage silhouetted against backstage lighting.
The narrator, still looking in that direction,
notices and warns Jesus, “Careful! That’s quite likely a Samaritan.
And oh my, not only is it a Samaritan, it’s a w-o-m-a-n!”
And she emerges into clarity,
singing a riff on a song from another musical popular in the day,
“I like to be in Samaria!”
Not only was she a Samaritan, she was proud of it.
Proud of her gender, proud of her heritage,
proud of her country, proud of her religion.
We sometimes, I think, assume someone identified as a Samaritan
should hang their heads and somehow know to be ashamed of themselves.
But this one demanded r-e-s-p-e-c-t!

“Excuse me, ma’am, my forward outburst” sings Jesus politely.
“I see your bucket and your rope,
and hope you can help me cope with my thirst.
I just need a sip or two,
if I could perhaps trouble you?”

Well the narrator absolutely erupts at this politeness,
“Don’t you know your religion’s teaching?
You really are overreaching.
This woman is deemed unclean.
And I’m not talking simple hygiene.
She will come between you and God….
Why do look at me like that’s odd?”

He really is the embodiment of the obnoxious
self-righteous know-it-all,
faithfully following rigidly dogmatic protocol.

At the same time, the woman has launched in on Jesus too,
“How is it that you, a man, a Jew, would ask a drink of me?
Are you blind? Don’t you see?
I’m a Samaritan woman. Listen what I say!
Don’t you busily need to keep me at bay?
Aren’t you afraid of being contaminated?
Your precious cleanliness dissipated?
Unless we’re segregated?
Aren’t you afraid of all the cooties
generated, concentrated and circulated through our proximity?
We should be alienated.
It’s stipulated—validated, venerated, vindicated
and now violated by your law.”
And all the narrator can muster is a stunned,
“Yeah, what she said.”

Ignoring them both, Jesus sings,
“I’m just dealing with the frustration
of this business of hydration.
There’s water here I can’t reach. (pause)
Now that just might preach.
Even if it is a little bit of a reach!
I’m sitting on top of water I can’t drink.
With theological truth I’ll now forge a link.
You stand before life and yet do not see
the living water that flows out of me.
Ha!” (pleased with himself!)

It’s another one of those phrases, by the way,
translated here as “living water,”
that can be heard meaning different things.
It can mean flowing water, running water, fresh water,
or it can mean life-giving water, water of life.
The woman hears only the one meaning:
flowing water, fresh water—
as opposed to water that’s collected in a well.
And she laughs.

“You have no bucket. You have no rope.
Why would I not think you’re quite the dope?
Where within this barren land, this expanse of sand,
is this flowing water that you claim?
I look around and see more and more and more of just the same.
I believe my eyes,
not what you hallucinate and hypothesize.
You think you’re greater
than the one who gave us this well that never runs dry?
Well, that’s a claim you’ll have to justify.”

“Everyone who drinks from this well will thirst again—
will have to hike back out here now and then.
You drink my water though, you’ll … go with the flow.
You’ll never thirst again, amen and amen.
The water I give you makes this water redundant,
welling up in you a spring of life abundant.”

She still doesn’t get it.
“Okay, sir (at least she’s a little more polite!), if you got it, I want it.
So I won’t ever thirst again,
or haul this bucket out here again.
Suffer sunburn, windburn, ropeburn
just to turn around and return, time and time again.
If you got it, I want it.”

it’s the right request for a good reason but not the right reason!
she is still thinking at the utterly literal level.
completely understandable.

And Jesus says, “Go, call your husband, and then come right back.”

“I’ve got no husband, cut me some slack.”

And Jesus says to her, “You think I don’t know jack?
You’re quite right in saying you have no spouse.
In poker, of husbands, you’d have a full house!
With an extra card left up your sleeve,
a joker at that, don’t mistake me for someone naive.”

At least one more modern production’s set design
interpreted The Well as a bar set outside town—
lots of neon lighting, loud music—
which if you think about it is more an interpretation of the woman
than the story,
and an interpretation of the woman
that Jesus does not make.
There is no moral evaluation of the woman—
just a clarity of insight into her living.

Jesus does not care about her past—
sees past what others get stuck in.
He sees the past only in terms
of what it will take to chart a new course.
“What’s been has been and what will be will be,
but what it is I see is possibility—
always and only what could yet be.
Not defined by choices made,
not set in stone—a future somehow waylaid,
but open to options, a new day dawning—
anticipated with fervent longing.”

Impressed at what all he knows—
and perhaps at his lack of judgment as well,
the woman’s respect for Jesus rises again.
“Sir, I see that you are a prophet, so I have a question for you.
Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but according to you
the place where people must worship is not here,
but in Jerusalem which we don’t value and you revere?”
Now that’s a serious question.
Were we expecting that from this woman?
A serious religious, theological question?

Samaritans believed that appropriate worship
took place on Mount Gerizim,
not in Jerusalem.
They actually built a temple on Mount Gerizim
that the Jews subsequently destroyed.
This was their understanding of the holy texts they claimed.
It was the understanding of the Samaritans
that led them to build their temple.
It was the understanding of the Jews
that led them to destroy it.
And too much, that’s the history of the faith.

Jesus said to her, “Believe me, the hour is coming and is at hand
the new truth dawns throughout the land,
when the different rules of God will not apply—
when the very presence of God will all worship intensify—
characterized by spirit and truth not rule and decree
not by what used to be.
Believe me, the hour is coming, and is now here
the truth will spread both far and near.
And only the presence of God will worship justify—
and certainty mystify.
And whom you worship will be more important than where—
more important than how—more important than when,
and it will not matter if you worship here.
It will not matter if you worship there.
You’ll be able to worship anywhere.”
(It’s still March, right? Theodore Geisel’s birth-month?
We’re still celebrating Dr. Seuss, right?)

“I know Messiah is coming, we await the revealing
the healing wondrous unveiling of concealing.
We await the one
whose presence reality will stun.”

“I am.”
In Greek there is no “he.”
“I am. I am that I am—lion and lamb.
When Messiah comes, all will be made clear.
I am that I am speaking to you here.”

And … intermission—
to give added emphasis to that astounding claim,
to give time for that to sink in,
to allow the audience to begin to mash together in their heads
the God of the history of the Jews
and the God of the history of the Samaritans—
to mash together in their imaginations
the God of their ancestors and this man—
to mash together in their wildest dreams
the God who provided water in the wilderness
with this man who offered the water of life in the wilderness of living.

Act Two begins with the disciples emerging
from the heat shimmer with various bags marked
with the logos of various fast food chains.
It’s part of the subtly of this writer,
to raise the question as to whether we
have too often turned the logos into a logo?

And in the awkwardness of disciples who didn’t know what to say,
and a woman who wasn’t going to make it easy on them,
and Jesus’ amused attention, the woman up and left.
And the silence is then broken by Jesus—
drawing attention to the jar she left behind,
“By the way, hand me that rope and bucket she just left,
would you please?
I am still, in fact, thirsty, you see.
Still frustrated—still not hydrated.”
The need for that particular irony
(well water, fresh water, water of life) is past.
And the bucket left behind
draws attention to a conversation over,
to the urgency of her return to the city,
and, maybe, to the fact that she finally chose—
ultimately chose—
a different kind of water than you can get in a bucket.

And from upstage, all we hear is the woman’s voice.
“Could it be? Y’all come and see.
This man who knows me through and through.
Could it be true? He can’t be the one for whom we’ve waited?
Can he? Yet in my heart, his words reverberated.
And a word to the wise. Don’t just believe your eyes!
All he says is fuller than can be.
I was blind but now I see.

I take what he says at face value, he means something new.
And in the residue of what I thought I knew,
I see something so absolutely true,
I must try to get through to it, and get it through to you.”

Meanwhile the disciples were urging Jesus to eat something.
But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.”
And from upstage, we hear, again,
“All he says is fuller than can be. I was blind but now I see.”

Said the disciples one to another,
“Well, how do you like that?
While he on that rock so comfortably sat,
we walked through the heat,
even though we too are beat,
to get him some lunch
from that Samaritan bunch,
and now he’s not hungry?”

Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me
and to complete his work.”
And he offered them a parable about the harvest
and those who sow and those who reap
that made no sense whatsoever to the disciples.
“What harvest? What fields? What reaper? What wages?
What fruit for eternal life? Who sows? Who reaps?
You didn’t send us to reap. You sent us for lunch.
All we reaped was a long walk.
Whose labor did we enter? What are you talking about?”
(A chorus actually defined as the disciples’ theme:
“What are you talking about?”)

I take what he says at face value,
he means something new,
and in the residue of what I thought I knew,
I see something so absolutely true,
I must try to get through to it and get it through to you.

At this point, the townspeople arrive—
the woman almost unnoticed in the midst of them.
And they surround Jesus—
actually crowding out the disciples to the very edges of the stage.
And there’s much gesturing. And the sound of conversation.
And the growing acknowledgement, in a joyful chorus:
“This is the savior of the world!”

It’s quite a progression—
from initial impression to full confession.
At first the rude encounter—no title, the verbal assault.
Then signs of slow respect, the added “Sir.”
Then the recognition of Jesus as prophet,
as Messiah (could it be?),
and finally, as savior of the world.

And it’s the narrator, initially so suspicious—
initially rejecting,
it’s the narrator who sings the final song—
realizing God’s great freedom he’s been neglecting.

“She stood before him
quiet, strong, fierce and proud.
She stood still, tall and unbowed,
bearing the designations
many consider denigrations—
woman, Samaritan, widow, divorcée,
single parent maybe, adulteress, a loose woman or easy.
Bearing the memories of past rejection and discrimination,
the ugliness of degradation.
Knowing well the pain of having been looked down upon,
looking down upon the one who now looks up to her,
and looks her full in the face,
and sees her defined never by what’s been
but ever by God’s love, God’s blessings and God’s grace—
who graces her with relationship and conversation,
listening to her—hearing her—in marvelous affirmation.

She stands before us still, as one too often reviled,
quiet, strong, fierce and proud.
She stands still, tall and unbowed,
bearing the designations
many consider denigrations.
Bearing the weight of past rejection and discrimination—
the ugliness of degradation.
She stands before us in her power—growing.
The fullness of time will tell,
she is living well.

And he comes to us still a stranger,
untainted by all we think we’re knowing—
God’s invitation into where we’re going—
the open door into so much more.

Open our eyes that we may see
all that’s fuller than we presume it to be—
that we may ever see more and more
than we have ever seen before.”

And the curtains open.


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