Scripture: John 4:5-26
In the mid 1880’s Scottish farmer Hugh Fleming woke up to a day that started like any other. Like a lot of farmers in Scotland of that era, Fleming managed a fairly modest living. He was able to meet the basic needs of his family, but not much beyond that. He was going about how his daily farming chores, when he heard distant cries for help. He immediately dropped everything to find a terrified boy who had gotten stuck in a bog, and the mud was slowly sucking him under. Risking the same fate, Hugh Fleming waded out into the muck and rescued the boy. The next day a luxurious carriage, which stood in stark contrast to the simple farmhouse pulled up to the Fleming residence. A rich nobleman in expensive clothes came to thank and repay the man who had saved his son. Hugh insisted that he could not accept anything because he was just doing what any decent person would do. At this time, Hugh’s young son came out of the house, and the nobleman made a proposition. The Nobleman would pay for the boy to go to the best private boarding schools as well as college so that Hugh’s son could have a good and proper education. Knowing that this would give his son opportunities he would never have otherwise, Hugh agreed. In time, his son would go on to graduate St. Mary’s Hospital medical school and eventually become throughout the world as Sir Alexander Fleming the discoverer of penicillin. Alexander Fleming’s contribution to medicine is directly responsible for the antibiotics that we use today, and his discovery of penicillin has since saved millions and millions of lives.
That is the not the most amazing part of this story though. The rich man who paid for Fleming’s education was Lord Randolph Churchill, and the boy that Hugh Fleming saved from the bog was his son Winston. Winston Churchill ended up pursing politics and he was prime minister of England where his steely resolve led the country through the dark years of the Second World War. A chance encounter between a kind farmer and an overly adventurous boy changed the course of history. One chance encounter can easily become a life changing encounter. That is exactly what happened in this morning’s scripture. The Samaritan woman’s encounter with Jesus at the well ended up being a life changing experience. We see this throughout the gospels. This morning we are focusing on Jesus encounter with the woman at the well, but we could have picked almost any story from the gospels. We could have focused on Peter, Paul, or any of the disciples. We could have returned to the story of Nicodemus or we could turn to Zacchaeus, or the man possessed by demons that Jesus cast into the pigs, or the story of Lazarus and his sisters. All four gospels make it abundantly clear that encountering Jesus is often a life changing experience. That was true in the gospels and it is still true today. There are many ways to describe Jesus based off how people encounter him the gospels, but perhaps the most universal description is Jesus as life changer. This morning’s scripture reminds us that Jesus was, is, and will continue to be a life changer.
Chances are when the Samaritan woman came to the well, she was not expecting to encounter a Jewish man. Chances are she was not expecting to encounter anyone. She came to get water at noon, which would be a highly unusual time. It was more common to come draw water in the morning. First because it was practical and second because it was cooler. Carrying gallons of water is heavy under ideal conditions, but in the heat of the noonday son in the Middle East it becomes a very uncomfortable weight to bear. As this morning’s scripture goes on we get a glimpse as to why the woman went at noon to get water. She was serial divorcee and she was currently living with a man out of wedlock. The village where this encounter happened, Sychar, was a small village. It was the type of place where everyone knew everyone else’s business. We do not have to imagine very hard to think what this woman’s life might have been like. It is likely this woman experienced sideways glances, judging glares, and gossip filled whispers where ever she went in town. This is why she was going to the well at an unusual time. She was intentionally trying to avoid other people.
I have to wonder if she approached the well with trepidation. When she saw she would not be alone did she think about just coming back later? I imagine she approached the well doing her best not to make eye contact. Then as she began to draw the water, the unthinkable happened. He spoke to her. In the first century this was a huge breach of protocol. The cultural policy of the time is that a man did not talk to a woman he did not know without the permission of presence of her father or husband. This is why once their conversation really gets going, it is not out of place for Jesus to tell her to get her husband and come back. However, that is not the only breach of protocol. Jesus was a Jew and this woman was a Samaritan.
The cultural divide and animosity between Jews and Samaritans is something the gospels make reference to a couple of times. Yet, they do not explain the issue, because for the original audience the context was already understood. To begin to grasp where the animosity comes from, we have to go back into the history of the Israelites. After the reigns of David and Solomon, the Israelites broke into two separate kingdoms. As a punishment for idolatry and turning away from God, the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered and the people were taken into exile by the Assyrians. However, the Assyrians did not take all of them. The poorest of the poor were left behind in the land. In time the Southern Kingdom was conquered and taken into exile by the Babylonians for similar reasons. Two to three generations later the exiles from Babylon began to return to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. They had managed to preserve their cultural heritage and bloodlines in exile. Those left behind did not. They inter-married with other people groups, and in light of the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem, their faith practice had evolved. This is referenced in this morning’s scripture. The Samaritans had moved the place of worship of God from Jerusalem to Mount Gerizim. The returning exiles saw these Samaritans, who lived in the hills of Samaria, to be less than fully Jewish. Because the Samaritans had intermarried with non-Jewish people groups, they were viewed as unclean. If Jesus had drank water from a vessel handled by a Samaritan then by the standards of the day he would have been considered unclean.
The whole encounter would have been highly unusual, but as it continues the woman begins to discover that this is more than just an interaction with an odd man who does not follow normal social conventions. As Jesus talks about living water and worshipping God in Spirit and in truth she begins to get a sense that there is something much greater to him. She gets a sense that he might have the answers that she has longed for her in life. By the end, she knows that he is the messiah. If we skip ahead to the end of fourth chapter of John we see this woman again. In John 4:39-42 we can read this, “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony. . . They said to the woman, ‘we no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves and we know that this man really is the savior of the world. What started as a highly unusual chance encounter became a life-changing encounter for the woman and her entire village.
To be a Christian is to have a life changing encounter with Jesus. In our faith journey with Jesus all who consider themselves a disciple have a moment where they realize that Jesus is the living water. We realize there is an unquenchable thirst in the depths our souls for love and complete acceptance that we could not meet, until Christ meets that thirst. John Wesley referred to this experience as having his heart strangely warmed. From the old revival and tent meetings this was the “come to Jesus” moment. In our technical and doctrinal language we call it experiencing justifying grace. Everyone who seeks to follow Jesus, as their own story of encountering Jesus at a well. For some of us that moment is like it was for this woman. It was a fixed point in time where we came to know Jesus in a dramatic wave of emotion and repentance. Others of us experience God’s grace like the Samaritan villagers. The testimony and changed life of another person, wins us over to experience this life changing, living water for ourselves. For others it is a gradual process, where our faith flows gently towards accepting this grace. While there was no flashy altar call, our faith became more real to the point of full acceptance of grace. However you experienced the living water, the faith journey of every disciple has a place where Jesus changes our lives.
Here’s the thing though. For some of us that moment at the well with Jesus was years ago, maybe even decades ago. The encounter at the well with Jesus that changed our lives is in the rear view mirror. For some of us the dirt that the living water of Jesus washed off us has caked back on. The grime, bad habits, and empty actions proved to be a little hard to stay away from. For others the daily grind of life has worn us down. Back when we first experienced the life changing life of Jesus everything seemed new, wonderful, and bright. The never ending list of responsibilities and constant routine has made everything dull. Our faith which once was a bright light shining like a city on the hill, is now so unpolished there does not seem to be any gleam left. For others life has been hard. It seems the only thing we could expect was that the unexpected would happen. Meeting Jesus changed our life, but so did a constant series of unfortunate events that has left our hearts banged up, wounded, and changed by how scuffed up they have gotten. We encountered Jesus, the living water, but if we being honest our hearts and souls might feel more like a parched desert than a vibrant, wet oasis.
If any of that describes you, then there is good news. Jesus still meets us at the well and the living water has never dried up. In the Christian faith, justification is the moment when we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior. It is when we experience justifying grace, the love of God that communicates to us that we are loved by God, accepted by God, and never abandoned by God. It is through the experience of justifying grace that our dry souls are overwhelmed in the flood of living water and the thirst of our hearts is quenched. The good news is that we need not experience justifying grace just once, but we can return to the well again. God is a God of second chances, and we can never permanently blow it with God. If we have fallen off the wagon and back into behaviors we know that we are wrong, then Jesus will meet us at the well. If we have allowed our dreams of transforming the world be dulled by the monotony of life, then Jesus will meet us at the well. If we have been banged up and changed by the hardships of life, then Jesus will still meet us at the well.
The love of God has not changed, the living water still quenches the greatest longings of our heart. If you know you need a change in your life, then may you meet Jesus at the well. May you seek to let go of that which burdens you. May you seek the love and acceptance of God with an open heart. If it is for the first time, or the first time in a long time then hear the good news, God forgives you and Jesus loves you. That is a truth that satisfies. As Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” May you meet Jesus, the life changer, at the well.