Holy Vessels: Stories, John 4:7-14
First United Methodist Church, March 24, 2019
Pastor Toni Carmer
There are times when we’re weary…
When the road has been long. Uphill, it seems.
When the best we can do is pick up one foot after the other.
When grand thoughts are beyond us. When the simple task of focusing on our feet and the trail ahead is enough for now; the best we can do.
When we realize that it’s time to sit at the well…to have a deep drink of living water, with Jesus sitting there next to us, telling us everything we’ve ever done. Telling us our story. Already knowing our story. And loving us still.
The woman has come to the well at noon; at a time different than when most women come to draw water. Earlier makes sense, before the sun stands at its peak. Or later, before sunset, when the air is cooler. Plus, it doesn’t seem so much of a walk in the company of other women. Chatting together about their children, their husbands, about what they’re fixing for dinner. But this woman comes by herself. In the middle of the day.
Maybe she has a lot on her mind.
Maybe the sound of her own footsteps on the dusty path to the well are the only sounds she cares to hear.
Maybe she has friends in town, women who she exchanges recipes with, who she meets with once a week to sew, who share with her their laughter and tears, prayer concerns and life celebrations.
Or maybe she doesn’t have friends in Sychar. Maybe she’s new to the community and has found the small town to be wary of newcomers.
Or maybe they know her well: that she has been divorced or widowed—or both—more than once. She’s had bad luck, her track record hasn’t been good for whatever reason. She isn’t certain if the conversations that hush when she approaches the marketplace is about her or not, but sometimes it’s just easier to smile and to move on. To avoid eye contact. To do what needs to be done and go back home. Where things are more predictable. Perhaps not perfect, but safe. At least for now. With all that has already happened in her life, it wouldn’t be surprising if her “normal” includes a degree of angst.
Upon arriving at the well, she is surprised to find a traveler there—a Jewish man, who she recognizes because of his clothing and his manner of speech—a Jewish man who asks her for a drink of water.
His engaging her in conversation is also unexpected. For this Jewish man to be in Samaritan territory is one thing, but talking to a woman? A Samaritan woman? She’s startled. But she isn’t speechless. Why would you (a Jew) ask me (a Samaritan) to give you a drink of water?
Their conversation continues as Jesus offers her living water. They’re speaking at different levels and it isn’t surprising that it takes her a bit to understand his meaning. But to not have to make her way up here every day to fill her water jug? That she could live with.
Then Jesus gets personal. He tells her to go get her husband and to come back. She’s been very respectful to this traveler, calling him “Sir,” asking questions of him, trying to figure out what he’s saying, but when he tells her to do this, she clips right back at him, “I have no husband!”
Jesus responds to her truthfulness. He doesn’t condemn her. He doesn’t belittle her. He simply offers a one-sentence summary of her life, and she realizes this is no ordinary man: he’s a prophet at the very least. And this conversation about me? She realizes, it’s a little too much. She deflects, pointing out the differences in their faith experiences.
Jesus patiently responds to her, teaching her, and she tells him she knows the Messiah is coming, the one who is called the Christ, and he will teach us everything, she says.
That’s when Jesus reveals to her that he is the Christ. The One who her people are waiting for is right here, at the well, talking to her.
At that moment, the disciples return, wondering what in the world Jesus is doing talking to this woman, although it’s worth noting they had gone to Sychar—these Jewish men—looking for food among a people whose food ordinary Jewish men wouldn’t in usual circumstances have lowered themselves to eat. Jesus is obviously having an impact upon them in doing this, although we know they will not for some time understand who Jesus is as clearly and as completely as this unnamed woman does, who then leaves them and her water jar behind and returns to her town, telling others what she has just experienced. We’re told in verse 39 that many Samaritans from that city come to believe in Jesus because of her testimony. Jesus and the disciples end up going to Sychar and remaining there for 2 days and many more came to believe after listening to him.
The story of the woman at the well and her encounter with Jesus teaches us some important things about who Jesus is, and about what we look like through his eyes. He knows her past. He lays it open to her in a way that doesn’t shame her. Instead it emboldens her to go out and tell: even though he knows her story, he reveals himself to her. She was an outsider, but she becomes a witness. She was a beginner, a newcomer, someone whose faith doesn’t completely line up with the faith that Jesus proclaims, but through his patient guidance, she learns, she experiences, and she becomes an apostle sent to testify to his Good News.
Like the Samaritan woman, we each have a story. Some of our stories are well known by our friends and family, while others of our stories are known only by us, and perhaps a few others who know us well. Some of our stories we feel good about, and others not so much. We all wish we could have some do-overs. But our stories form us into the people we are. They teach us, when we acknowledge them and allow them to teach us. They can make us better. They can help us to be more gracious and open and loving to others, as we realize we’ve all made mistakes…there have been moments when we’ve been unkind, or simply not aware of the background of a situation that might have helped us to respond to someone in a different way. A better way.
We each have a story. They make us who we are. They can make us better when we’re willing to learn from them.
A pastor remembers Cindy, who he met for the first time in the church basement, drinking a cup of coffee. Her hair was long and plain, her dress simple, and her voice raspy, most likely, he guessed, from a lifetime of smoking.
“How are you,” she asked. The pastor said he was good, smiling with some hesitation, wondering her intentions. “I’m good, thanks. How are you?”
She said she was ok, that she’d just moved back from Arizona where she’d gone to live for a few years, but she had some physical things going on that required her to come back home. Then she began to cry.
“I’m sorry, but my landlord is about to kick me out and I’m not sure what to do.”
The pastor gave her some money, hoping that would be the end of it, but a few weeks later she came back with a thinly veiled request for more money, and then there was a 3 a.m. phone call from the hospital sometime after that.
Before long, this pastor and his wife found themselves fully engrossed in Cindy’s life and it was wearing on them. After a particularly difficult night, the pastor said to his wife, “Look, if she can’t take care of herself, then she needs to be admitted to an institution. We have 3 kids of our own. We can’t be her caregiver, too.”
He went to bed feeling guilty and overwhelmed. He prayed, and somewhere in the stillness of sitting with God, he sensed a divine response: “She loves me, and I died for her, too.”
“That was the key,” the pastor says. “I had wanted Cindy’s needs to conform to my comfort level. Her neediness wasn’t supposed to go beyond my desire to give. Yet God was helping me to see her as someone God loves very much.”
A few weeks later, Cindy met the pastor at church and with a big smile, told him that her aid had come in.
He said, “that’s great.” He gave her a hug and said, “God loves you very much, Cindy.”
“Yep”, she replied. “And I pray for you and Amy and for your boys every night.” (Alive Now, September/October, 2010).
We each have a story.
We’re people. Pretty ordinary. Human.
Sometimes we’re overwhelmed…weary. When the road has been long. Uphill. When the best it seems we can do is to put one foot in front of the other.
When we realize that it’s time to sit at the well. To have a deep drink of living water, with Jesus sitting there next to us, telling us everything we’ve done. Telling us our story. Already knowing it. And loving us still.
Jesus died for all of us. Loves each of us. He can use us; he can use our stories.
We are treasures. Gems. Beloved.