March 19, the Third Sunday in Lent

Kristin White

The Third Sunday in Lent – March 19, 2017

St. Augustine’s Church

John 4:5-42

They’re not supposed to talk to each other.

That rule might be more regularly observed today, right now, even, in this political and religious climate, than it is by Jesus, back in the day that finds him headed to Galilee from Judea, by way of Samaria.

This conversation takes place in the middle of the day, in broad daylight, at a public place. It stands in contrast with the exchange Jesus has in last week’s gospel, which takes place at night, in private. And this time, instead of a respected Pharisee named Nicodemus, Jesus talks with a woman, a Samaritan woman whose name we don’t know.

Conversations change us; or they can, anyway. They have the power to change what we believe – to change our minds, to change our hearts, to build connection. “In John’s gospel, (believing) is synonymous with relationship.”[1] You can’t have one without the other. And conversations pave the pathway to that taking place.

So it’s the middle of the day, and Jesus is tired out from the walk, so he sits down at the well as his disciples go to try to find some food.

The unnamed Samaritan woman comes to draw water. Jesus asks her – commands her, really – to give him a drink.

The text tells us that Jews and Samaritans do not share things in common. So she asks him a question, her own equivalent of Nicodemus’ “How can this be?” from last week. Jesus responds with a statement as confounding as what he said to Nicodemus. His answer draws her farther into a conversation that I can’t imagine she expected to have, when she left home earlier that day with her empty water jar.

He tells her to call her husband. She responds that she doesn’t have one. He answers already knowing that, knowing what she has not shared – that actually she has had five husbands, that she is not married to the man she is with now.

She calls him a prophet, and she asks about worshiping in Jerusalem instead of on the mountain that her people, the Samaritans, hold sacred. He calls her to worship in spirit and in truth.

She mentions the Messiah. “I am he,” Jesus says.

Just then, the disciples return. And they are astonished.


Look at where this conversation begins: “from a place of reciprocal vulnerability.”[2] Jesus is tired and alone. He needs a drink of water, but doesn’t have a cup or a bucket. The woman whose name we don’t know has been left alone five times. She longs for the water that Jesus promises, water that means she’ll never be thirsty again.

Look at the questions she asks. These are not questions with foregone conclusions. These questions reveal a curious mind and an open heart on the part of the woman who asks them. She is willing to ask without knowing. Her questions invite Jesus farther into the conversation. Her questions lead Jesus to reveal his identity to her.

And look at the time they take. Some conversations never even get started, because the rules of convention or engagement or personal protection prevent them from happening. And there is so much evidence to prove that this would have been – maybe should have been – a conversation that never took place. “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans,” the gospel passage tells us. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask of me, a Samaritan?” the woman challenges. The whole thing is as confounding as looking down into the depths of that well. But they take the time it takes. And the scandal of that fact is something we see revealed in the disciples’ reaction on their return. They are astonished, the text tells us. They want to know why he is speaking to her, the text tells us…but the disciples apparently don’t want to know enough to actually ask, because they don’t. That's the conversation that doesn’t get off the ground here.

Finally, look for surprise. The first time that Jesus reveals his identity as Messiah in all of John’s gospel is not to his disciples, or to the high priests, or to the crowds he teaches, or to his family, or to his closest, most faithful friends. The first time in the Gospel of John when Jesus reveals his identity as Messiah is to a woman considered so insignificant by whoever first told this version of the story that they didn’t even bother to find out her name; and not just a woman, but a Samaritan woman; and not just a Samaritan woman, but one who has been married and left and married and left, five times. Jesus shares the good news of who he is, with her. For God so loves the world.


Think of the conversations that have changed your own heart and your mind, that have created the foundations from which new relationships have grown in your life. What were the ways you found yourself willing to be vulnerable, to hold that space with the other person or other people who were willing to do the same? What questions did you ask, or respond to, without forced or assumed answers? What kind of time did you take? The best conversations can feel like time outside of time, in my experience. Is that how you’ve experienced them too? What surprised you? How were you changed?

It seems to me that we could do with more of these kinds of conversations in our lives and in our shared life, right now. It seems to me that we would be blessed by spaces of reciprocal vulnerability, by questions we really do want to know the answers to, by the gift of time together, by the kind of surprise that we can hold as sacred. It seems to me that there’s not enough of any of those things in our lives and in our shared life right now.


They’re not supposed to talk to each other, Jesus and the Samaritan woman. But they do, scandalized disciples notwithstanding. And the Samaritan woman is changed, because of it. And it’s not just her – the Samaritan woman’s whole community is changed, because of it.

She leaves her water jar at the well and goes back into the city, where she says to the people, “Come and see. Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done. Can he be the Messiah?” And they do come and see. They believe in him, because of what she says. They ask him to stay, and he does. And as they come and see and hear what he says, more people believe. “We have heard for ourselves,” they say, “and we know that this is the Savior.”

They’re not supposed to talk to each other.

And she is changed; they are changed; we are changed, because they do.


[1] Thanks to Karoline Lewis for the frame she set in her column this week, which informed the structure and content of this sermon.

[2] ibid