Exodus 17:1-7 • John 4:5-42
So last week we met Nicodemus. He was the Pharisee who snuck out in the middle of the night, face hidden, phone off, to ask Jesus his questions. He had a lot to lose, after all. He was a man among men. A community leader. A member of a club that had stacked the deck for themselves. So he had to come at night. He had to do his searching in the dark because he had a lot to lose; his way of doing religion frowned on asking questions that unsettled well-defended patterns.
Sometimes it is like that for us too. Some of the questions that we want to ask, people around us don’t want to hear. Questions about deep things, questions that show our flaws and our doubts aren’t always welcome at the gym or around the dinner table at the retirement home. Vulnerability doesn’t play well in corridors of power that have a lot to protect.
I think that’s why I like this woman at the well so… well. John makes her about as opposite from Nicodemus as she could be. He is a public figure who sneaks out in the middle of the night to ask his questions and yet he seems to disappear before the story is over. She meets Jesus in the middle of the day, but of course, she is hiding in plain sight. She goes to the well after the morning rush, when she knows others won’t be there. But, in spite of her preference for hiding, her story is amplified. She becomes the first evangelist in the Gospels when she calls a town meeting to tell them what Jesus has done for her.
Nicodemus is a man of high standing; he’s a Jew, and he happens to be of the right gender. She is a woman in a man’s world, she’s of a half-breed clan, she has burned through five husbands—although we could well imagine it is them who have burned through her. She’s had a rough, unstable life. And we don’t even get to know her name.
And yet, both of them, these two seekers who are about as opposite as they come, find in Jesus someone who will take their doubts and hold their uncertainty. And given what happens when the disciples come back with lunch, we might even say their questions are Jesus’ food!
So how can we say with any integrity as followers of Jesus that any question is out of bounds? How can we say our doubt is off the table when that’s the food Jesus brings to this table? How can we say our limits define us when our baptism comes from such a deep and life-giving well?
The Exodus reading gives us such a great image when it says the Israelites journeyed by stages. That’s kind of the story of our lives too as we seek to make sense of the world, isn’t it?
The questions we ask at 4 are different than a 12-year-old’s. What we wonder about after a first date or as college students are different from mid-life. Our hopes and our struggles when we are exhillarated and exhausted by the new life we feed and change and cart around are different from the doubts that emerge when a job disappears or a death bed calls or we are in a wilderness and constantly thirsty for something more.
The questions we ask when we are hungry are different from the questions we ask when we are full. But they all have a common theme: Is God among us? Is the Lord with us or not?
I hope you’ve been reading the daily reflections that have come out since the beginning of Lent. You can see in them, I trust, some similar signs of faith and the God it seeks who holds us throughout the changes of life. You can find there springs of living water that are simply astonishing.
We journey in stages, and the questions that come up are the questions that come up and we need the space to ask them if we hope for well-watered lives.
I like this woman. She’s tough. She pulls no punches. She meets Jesus at a well that holds not only water, but an ocean of ancient conflict between their people. And as soon as Jesus speaks to her, she lets it be known she will not shrink away: “How is it that you, a Jew, asks a drink of me, a Samaritan?” You know as well as I that people like us just don’t talk.
And yet, they do, don’t they?
Perhaps it is that refusal to shrink from truth that’s caused her trouble in her past marriages that is so compelling. Who knows? But we can tell that Jesus drinks up her quick wit and hunger for honesty. He sees her for who she is and he loves her. And when they’re done, she leaves her water jar behind because she is no longer thirsty. And Jesus isn’t interested in lunch because his deeper hunger for meaning has been filled. This one who seeks for truth has found her home in the Way, the Truth and the Life.
And it changes everything!
At the beginning of the story, she is alone with her thoughts. We can guess she would prefer to keep to herself the rather inconvenient particularities of her story—even if they are the result of living in a world that has set her up for failure. Is it really any different with us and the chapters of our stories we’d rather keep hidden?
But look at where she is by the end! Nothing measurable has changed, but everything has changed. Her heart is young again. She is a new creation. And for me, this is the most astonishing thing of all: She flies to the very people she’s likely been trying to avoid to tell them about a stranger who is by all rights an enemy who has told her the sordid details of her life that she has spent so much energy keeping quiet.
Not only are her worst fears not realized, but her deepest and most hidden hopes are met. She meets love and she is reborn; she is transfigured; she finally sees in herself what God has always seen in her. And she sees her community in a new light as well. They are no longer the enemy, despite the ways we can imagine they might have shunned her, rejected her, diminished her. They too are transfigured in her eyes, and she has become the very pail she left behind, bringing to them life-giving waters.
This, my dear friends, is the power of grace. This is the power of the gospel for transforming you and me, and the world along with us. This is the Spirit of Life and it works against anything that blocks our way to newness of life.
Beloved of God, do not imagine there are no second chances or even fifth chances. With this God, that may be the only thing there is—yet another chance. God proves God’s love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. And this death is the source of our life. Not even our worst can stand in the way of it. Nothing you can do or have done, nothing that you are can stand in the way of God’s work in you.
Do you believe this? Are you willing to open your life to it? Come to the waters of salvation. Bring your whole self to it. Hold nothing back. See what God might just do.