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The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston

The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston is senior pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, NY.

Member of:

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Representative of:

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York, NY


True Confessions

John 4:5-30

Day of Pentecost

May 30, 2004

The bowling alley. The Sportsmen's Café. The library. American Legion Post 201. The municipal swimming pool. The Kanabec County feed mill. These were the gathering places in the Midwestern town where I grew up. Spots where you could count on seeing much the same people at much the same time every day. The bowling alley. The Sportsmen's Café. The library. The American Legion. The swimming pool. The feed mill. Each place had a raft of regulars, folks whose routine would lead them ever back there to gather with others and share the stuff of life. If a one-time visitor wanted to catch a glimpse of what made us tick, she would only need to tour these six locations to see us transact business and fall in love, to watch us betray trusts and whisper dreams, to see our open wounds and our modest joys.

The well. A simple, stone-encircled hole in the ground. If a one-time visitor wanted to see what made the people of ancient Palestine tick, he could do no worse than to spend a day watching a village well. Of course, in that arid landscape the well was a means of survival; drawing and hauling water was a major daily undertaking. People needed water to drink and nourish crops. Shepherds required water for their flocks. Merchants wanted water for their beasts of burden. In that world where there was no well, there was no community. Where there was a well, there was a meeting place, a crossroads, a spot to see other shepherds and merchants, a place to hang out and chat while buckets were lowered and raised drawing from the depths the clear liquid of life.

You could pick a pretty good fight over a well in the ancient world, and I'm not just talking about Moses tossing around a few rowdy shepherds to impress Ziporah. Water rights, an issue of growing importance for people everywhere, were worth dying for in that dusty land. Who found this water? Who controls its use? What's it going to be? My livestock or your suburban development? The biblical patriarch Isaac nearly went to war over these questions. On the other hand, wells were also a place for romance. Rebekah met Isaac at a well. Jacob first saw his beloved Rachel at the well. Eligible young folk gathered at these communal spots checking each other out as potential mates. There was love to be found in the pouring out of water.

Surely, both these scenarios hang in the air when John's Gospel tells us that Jesus sat down next to Jacob's well in the heat of the noon sun and a Samaritan woman approached to draw water. Would it be a battle? The possibility for conflict is certainly here. After all, he is a Jew and she is a Samaritan. These people shared a disdain for each other that only blood relatives could truly muster. Maybe that's where the fight will start-a feud over questions of blood, of ancestry. Whose people were the true descendants of the great Jacob? Who could rightfully claim this well and the heritage that went with it? We could be in for a battle. Or maybe this would be a romance. After all, here they are, together, alone. The disciples have wandered off to buy more trail mix. All that's left are the three simple ingredients for biblical amoré-just a woman, a man, and a well. If Shakespeare could get Montague and a Capulet together, well, certainly John can work magic with a Samaritan and a Jew. He looks thirsty. She has a bucket. And we all know that love can be found in the pouring out of water. So what's it gonna be? Henry the Vth or Romeo and Juliet? A rumble or a romance? As the curtain goes up, it's not entirely clear what we're watching here. If it's a romance plain and simple, Jesus gets off to a really bad start. His pickup line is simply, "Give me a drink." And her response is anything but receptive. She quickly points out that he is a Jew, that she is a Samaritan, and that these kinds of things are just not done. Like water fountains in the pre-civil rights South, this is a segregated well. Hmmm. Nothing like a little bigotry to pour cold water on a potential romance. It's looking more and more like a fight, isn't it? Jesus responds, "If you knew who was asking you for a drink, you would ask him for living water." Unimpressed, the Samaritan woman points out to the Jew that he has no bucket and that he is unlikely to get any water, living or otherwise, without one. Sparks fly. But it's not really a battle. It's more of a petty confrontation, infused with old prejudice and just plain misunderstanding. How can you fetch me living water-without a bucket?

In the fourth Gospel, exasperated questions like this surround Jesus. Yet, he usually ignores them, choosing instead to stay with the image that has frustrated his listener, squeezing it for even more meaning. If you drink my water, you will never be thirsty again. If you take a gulp of this liquid, a life-giving spring will gush up inside of you. At this, the Samaritan woman pauses. Hmmm. Never be thirsty again? It has got to be a sham. Life doesn't work like that. Sure, we drink but we always get thirsty again. We may have moments of happiness, of joy, but those pass and we return to boredom, to depression. We always end up back where we started, looking for something that will satisfy our dehydrated spirits. So it's got to be a sham. Never be thirsty again?

And, yet, something about Jesus' offer intrigues the woman. Perhaps it was the wild thought that she might not have to make the hard trips back and forth from the well to her home any more, never again to haul the heavy jars, to hear the catcalls of the men, to bear the stares and the whispers. Perhaps she allows herself a moment's hope that the great thirst that has shriveled her soul might be satisfied by something that this bucketless man has. Oh, he's probably a huckster, but she had to take the risk. "Sir, give me this water." Now, at this point the dialogue takes a decidedly funny turn. The Samaritan woman has complied. Remember, Jesus said, "You ought to ask me for living water!" So she does. And then the sweaty man leaning against the well responds by telling the woman to go and call her husband.

To this odd request the woman responds, "I have no husband." "That's right," says Jesus, "for you have had five husbands, and the man that you are with now is not your husband." In our text the Samaritan woman seems startled or perhaps amazed at this pronouncement as she quickly murmurs, "Sir, I see you are a prophet." Over the years, scholars have wondered just what Jesus was trying to communicate here. Some say that the five husbands suggest a woman who has bounced from relationship to relationship. They see in the story an immoral person who casts aside commitments with ease. Others argue that her husbands may have died, that she is a tragic, mournful figure who has experienced a life full of loss. But we don't really know from the text. All we can say is that when Jesus speaks of the five husbands, the woman sees in his words the truth of a prophet. Or to put it another way, the Jew without a bucket manages to name the Samaritan's great spiritual thirst.

In his book Reframing, Don Capps claims that identifying the real issue in pastoral counseling is half the battle. A man walks into your study. He keeps talking about his garden, but behind the chatter about a bumper crop of tomatoes is a person with serious worries. Many times, most times perhaps, the real issue is hidden. Evidently, however, Jesus has a knack for this sort of thing. For he names the woman's heartfelt concern right off the bat. How can we tell? Well, for one thing, after mentioning the five husbands, the woman and Jesus start talking theology. All good conversations get there eventually, beyond the How are you doings? and past the foot shuffling, Nice weather we're having, eh?s are the real questions. The hard questions. How should we worship? Where does salvation come from? Who is God? The theology flies back and forth at a furious pace, then, suddenly, without warning, the Samaritan woman confesses. She speaks her faith. There by the well to the strange Jew with his promises of water and uncanny knowledge of her life, she confesses. "I know that the Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us." When the Samaritan woman confesses her belief in the Messiah, Jesus quietly responds, "I am he, the one speaking to you."

At noon, at the well, where romances were kindled, where battles were fought, where water was pulled from the depths and poured out for thirsty livestock and people, God, the great I AM showed up. And after that, after Jesus says, "I'm the one, the one that you wait for," the conversation ends. The disciples come tramping back with their sack lunches, and the woman runs off to proclaim, "Come and see a man who has told me everything I have ever done?." And, then, perhaps because all true confessions are part belief and part doubt, part confusion and part ecstatic hope, she finishes her proclamation with a question: "He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" And the thirsty people rush off to see.

That's what it's like in John's Gospel. One minute you're snapping beans and talking theology, and the next you're wondering if you just caught a glimpse of God Almighty. But, of course, I'm telling you what you already know this Pentecost Sunday--that God is there, at the well, the bowling alley, the Sportsmen Café, the library, the American Legion, the swimming pool, and the feed mill. What is left for the rest of us Christians is the halting, questioning, rushing, courageous faith of the Samaritan woman. He cannot be the Messiah, can he? Immediately, they left the city and were on their way to him.

Let us pray.

Holy Spirit,
Who lit like a flame on the prophets and apostles,
Who called Peter at the lake and the woman at the well,
Give us courage in the midst of our ordinary days
So that when we do catch a glimpse of you,
We will run pell-mell to tell, to witness,
To speak with wild, quavering voices the good news.
Amen.


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