A sermon preached by Alice Lawhead at St Mary’s, Iffley on 12th March 2023
John 4:5-42 – The Woman at the Well
In the troubled West Bank village of Nablus, there is a church and in the crypt of that church is a well that goes 40 metres down into the earth. Indeed, it is the presence of the well that caused the building of the church, because that well is reputed to be Jacob’s Well – of today’s Gospel reading – and the church itself is dedicated to the Samaritan woman who met Jesus there. Church tradition, especially that of the Eastern Orthodox, gives the name Photine, or Photina – meaning ‘the luminous one’ – to this person that most of us know simply as ‘the woman at the well’.
The Orthodox church has a special love of the book of John, and a special place of reverence for St. Photine. Because she was the catalyst for a revival in her town of Sychar, she is described as ‘equal to the apostles’. Legend has it that she and her grown children moved from Sychar to Carthage after her encounter with Christ, where she was urged to quit converting people to Jesus, to keep her faith private. The story is a complicated one, but the high points are that she just couldn’t stop and the story ends with her martyrdom – but only after she had converted Nero’s daughters and many others in his household whilst in prison.
Well. All very interesting, but what can we learn from today’s Gospel lesson, a story so familiar that many of us could recite it by heart?
We might start by dealing with the red herring in this story. If you read mysteries, as I do, you know what a red herring is: That detail that seems important but which actually distracts us from the most relevant action. Something like ….. the butler having a beard, or a tuft of tartan fabric found snagged on the quince bush in the kitchen garden.
It is very often said that this Samaritan woman was disreputable, probably a prostitute, because ‘why else would she be drawing water at noon, in the heat of the day’? Well, presumably to avoid meeting up with the more respectable women of the village who would draw water in the cool of the morning, because they looked down on her and she would rather not subject herself to their scorn.
To which I say: who amongst us has not found ourselves shuffling into the Tesco Express at 10:15 at night, because we forgot to get milk for the following morning? (Let those without sin cast the first stone! ) And I can tell you from experience that ‘Bible lands’ have their seasons and it’s not always blistering hot, even at noon. So, Photine was drawing water at noon; the disciples were foraging for food in the village at the same time. These things happen!
And as for all those husbands? Five, and counting? In a culture where girls can be married as young as 12, to older men, it is not outside the realm of possibility that this woman had been widowed many times. And in a culture where infertility was shameful and unacceptable, it is not outside the realm of possibility that this woman had been ‘honourably’ divorced many times. Divorce was an uncomplicated way for a man to jettison a wife who had not lived up to her side of that bargain – or, indeed, any other marital expectation. And in a culture where second wives and concubines were socially acceptable, it not outside the realm of possibility that she might be living respectably with a man not her husband.
If Photine was in her 40s or 50s or 60s (the text doesn’t give her age), she might well have survived five marriages and, given the time and circumstances, that fact was in no way remarkable.
However it was, Jesus wasn’t judgemental of her situation – no ‘Go, and sin no more’ admonition here. He merely pointed out the facts of her domestic arrangements and when he did so she did not seem embarrassed or shamed by his insight. She merely concluded that he was a prophet who knew all about her without having previously met her.
And I think it is worth noting that this Samaritan woman, living in a culture where the testimony of women was so often ignored or discounted, apparently had the sort of credibility and respect amongst her own people that on the basis of her report they came out to the well to see what was going on.
So, having dealt with those red herrings, let’s look away from Photine for a moment, and cast our eyes on Jesus, because the story about the woman at the well is equally about Jesus at the well.
Jesus … choosing to journey through an area of the country that he might be expected to avoid. Sort of like going out of your way to drive through a no-go housing estate, when you could easily have taken the bypass.
Jesus …. positioning himself beside Jacob’s well, a place with resonance for both Orthodox Jews like himself, and those heretical Samaritans. Prepared to drink from a Samaritan’s cup.
Jesus …. having a deep discussion with a local woman – the longest dialog recorded in the New Testament! Not talking down to her as either a Samaritan or as a woman, but meeting her head on. And she, for her part, gives as good as she gets.
Now, as a woman I am alert to the fact that Jesus ‘leans in’ to this interaction with Photine, but I think we should all be alert to that element of this story. The fact that he proactively engages her in a deep theological discussion, against expectations and against propriety, and that the disciples don’t like it. Because it’s a pattern.
Remember the woman with a flow of blood who touched Jesus’ robe, hoping for healing. Immediately Jesus wanted to know who reached out to him, whilst the disciples wanted to brush it off with – ‘there are so many people around!’
Remember how he treated Mary of Bethany, who anointed his feet with precious ointment; and the woman who washed his feet with his tears. The disciples were outraged, embarrassed, wanted it all to end – but Jesus credited those women, and the love they showed.
Remember the Canaanite woman who asked Jesus to heal her daughter. The disciples were keen to have her sent away, but Jesus leaned in. He challenged her assumption that he would heal her daughter: he, a Jew, she a Gentile. She pushed back, insisting that even dogs get table scraps. He engaged with her, perhaps even provoked her, seemed to relish the discussion, the banter.
And at Jacob’s Well, it was pretty much the same sort of situation. When the disciples came back from their lunch run into town, they were astonished at what they saw. Orthodox icons depicting the scene show the 12 male apostles looking on in dismay and dumbfounded as Jesus stands alone with the woman – St. Photine! Oh, dear. Here he is, engrossed in a conversation with a woman, one-on-one, as if she were equal to …. a man!
And then, in this story of Jesus at the well, he is so refreshed by this encounter that when the disciples offer him some of the food they’ve gone to fetch, he says: No thanks. This is meat and drink to me: to be doing what I was sent here to do. To be talking to this child of God. Forget lunch …. I’ve already eaten.
Jesus Christ, our risen lord, still comes to us today. He doesn’t take the bypass. He comes to where we live, even if and when it’s become pretty much a no-go area. He waits for us to show, and he strikes up a conversation. He leans in.
He doesn’t lean in to call us out, to shame us. God sent his son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. No, he leans in to reveal that he knows us: our painful past, the messy condition we’re in now. He leans in to love us. He’s listening to what we have to say, because it’s important to him. He looks forward to a bit of back-and-forth, a bit of banter — a good long talk. He offers living water, to quench our spiritual thirst. And in doing this …. (dare I say it?) he himself receives spiritual food.
Because, after all, that’s why he came to our neighbourhood in the first place.