A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year A; John 4:5-42, the woman of Samaria at the well
In the beginning, when all was formless and void, the Spirit of God brooded over the waters of creation and brought those waters to life (Genesis 1:1-2). The Spirit didn’t only populate the waters with living things, but She formed and shaped and infused the water with life, with creation and creativity and sustaining, even healing properties. In the beginning, when the Spirit of God brooded over the face of the deep, living water happened.
There is more to this story than we see on the surface, deep as it is, buried under the bucket wheel of the well at Sychar, in the heart of Samaria.
The well at which Jesus and the woman of Samaria meet has a long and deep history, stretching back to the legends of the patriarchs: Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and his brothers. And in that family history, when a man meets a lovely woman beside a well, and asks her for water, it should be the beginning of a love story, of a marriage made by divine coincidence and the alignment of ancestors (see Genesis 24,29).
On the surface, they appear to come from different traditions, diverged long ago after the exile and before the restoration of the temple; but beneath their divisions lie the legends of the ancestors, and their love stories, contracts made out of meetings beside the well, covenants made with the living God. Read in a certain way, the banter between Jesus and the woman can sound almost like a flirtation; but the spark is the long, slow heat of the love of God that has drawn each of them to an understanding of how God so loves the world.
In the noonday, the sun has stood still as they linger in the light of eternity.
“But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” (2 Peter 3:8)
No wonder the disciples are lost on their return. They are distracted by day to day divisions and details; Jesus and the woman are on a whole other timescale. By asking about her life, breaking open her personal history, he brings that, too, into their scheme of eternity; hence, she tells the city that he has told her everything that she has ever done …
The disciples, when they went to the city, were focused on buying bread, or something to eat to get them through the journey through uncomfortable territory and out of there. But the woman feeds her people with the gospel – Come and see, she says. Can this be the Messiah?
Jesus tells his disciples, confused and bewildered as they are, in essence to be grateful, for they are reaping what others have sown. They are living into and off of the labours of others. The grace that they are witnessing and experiencing in their travels with Jesus is the product of the labour of the Spirit of God, who brooded over creation and laboured it into life.
And what are we to take from this encounter, if not that every person we encounter, however estranged by personal circumstance, history, demographic, presentation; everyone we come across, dressed in a habit or done up in drag, delivering packages or driving us mad, smiling or scowling at a cruel world – every person we meet has been laboured into being by that Spirit who brooded over the waters of creation, the waters of God’s womb. Every person we meet is a product of that love story, a love child of the living God, who bears God’s image.
If we are bewildered by them, or feel divided from them, perhaps it is worth remembering that we have only walk-on parts in their love story, which stretches into eternity. Others have laboured, and we enter into their labour, and reap from it.
One day, I met a woman by the lake. Now, where I was brought up, we didn’t really talk much to strangers, except to pass the time of day. And, at least for now, in the quiet of the day, this woman was quite visibly the only Black woman at the beach, where she had never been before, which was foreign to her. Perhaps I looked just odd enough myself, emerging from a swim, a deep dive into the well while everyone else was respectably dry, that she thought it worth the risk of talking to me, asking me to take her picture in front of the water. And then, for a few minutes set aside from our separate days, she invited me into her story. With the lake as our matchmaker and our mediator, we didn’t forget our different backgrounds and journeys, but they were united by this moment, in which we were two women drawn together by the water.
In the beginning, when all was formless and void, the Spirit of God brooded over the waters of creation and brought those waters to life. The Spirit didn’t only populate the waters with living things, but She formed and shaped and infused the water with life, with the love of God. In the beginning, when the Spirit of God brooded over the face of the deep, living water happened.