The story of Jesus and the woman at the well is one of my favorite stories in all the Bible. John was a master story teller, and I love the subtlety with which he this story. Just about every word in this story has multiple layers of meaning.
But even before the story begins, we learn something important from the way that John has positioned this story in the Fourth Gospel. Immediately before the story of the woman at the well is the story of Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus, the learned and important Jewish leader who came to Jesus under cover of darkness. We heard that story last week.
By positioning the story of the woman at the well immediately after the story of Nicodemus, John is showing us that Jesus treats this nameless, morally dubious woman with just as much dignity and seriousness as he treated the learned and pious Nicodemus.
Now, let's go back to the time of day when this story takes place. It was noon when the woman came to the well to draw water. Think about that for a minute. What is it like at noon on an average day in that part of the world? Why is this woman coming to the well at noon? Usually women came to the well to draw water when it was cool in the morning or evening. This woman must have a good reason for coming to the well at the hottest part of the day. Carrying a heavy stone jar full of water from the well back to the village was not easy at any time and was even more difficult when the sun was directly overhead, beating down on her.
She came to the well at noon because she wanted to avoid the other women. And we don't have to wait long to find out why she was avoiding them. Jesus says to her, "You have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband." She is an outcast, an adulterer, perhaps even a prostitute. No wonder she wanted to avoid the other women in the village. Or perhaps they had made it clear to her that they would have nothing to do with her. Perhaps they had even threatened her.
None of us likes to have our faults and shortcomings pointed out to us, so she changed the topic of conversation as fast as possible. "Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet..." She must have thought, "Religion! Yeah, that's the ticket. It may not be a topic for polite conversation, but at least everyone has an opinion about it."
And given that Jesus was a Jew and the woman at the well was a Samaritan, they had no shortage of things to talk about.
The Samaritans were the descendants of the people of Israel, that is, the Northern Kingdom, who had been overrun by the Assyrians in 722-21 BC. The Assyrians had completely destroyed the ten tribes of the northern kingdom. There capital had been the city of Samaria, hence they were called Samaritans.
The Samaritans worshiped and offered sacrifices on Mt Gerizim; the Jews or people of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, worship at the temple on Mt Zion in Jerusalem. The Samaritans regarded only the Torah, the five books of Moses, as authoritative scripture; the Jews (at least most of them) regarded the books of the prophets as authoritative, as well.
Doesn't seem like a big difference, does it? Samaritans worship on Mt Gerizim; Jews worship on Mt Zion. Samaritans believe only in the Torah; Jews also believe in the prophets.
Around the time of Jesus' birth, a band of Samaritans profaned the temple in Jerusalem by scattering human bones in it. Samaritans even killed a group of Jewish pilgrims in the year 52 AD.
All that animosity because they disagreed about the proper location for worship and the number of books in the Bible? Seems silly, doesn't it?
One of the criticisms most often levelled at religion is that we disagree about insignificant things.
Following the Protestant Reformation of the 16th c., a series of conflicts between Protestants and Roman Catholics broke out in Europe that lasted just over a century, the so-called "Wars of Religion."
One side believed that the pope, the bishop of Rome, was the vicar of Christ and should govern the church on earth. The other side believed that scripture alone should govern the church.
One side believed the doctrine of transubstantiation, namely that the eucharistic bread and wine literally became the body and blood of Jesus. The other side held a variety of views about the eucharist but denied the doctrine of transubstantiation.
One side believed that clergy should remain celibate: the other believed that clergy could marry.
Do you know Dr. Seuss's The Butter Battle Book? The story of the war between the Yooks and the Zooks?
"In every Zook house and in every Zook town
every Zook eats his bread
with the butter side down!
"But we Yooks, as you know, when we breakfast or sup,
spread our bread," Grandpa said,
"with the butter side up."
A terrible war followed between the Yooks and the Zooks. Each side developed dreadful weapons such as the "Triple-Sling Jigger" and the "Jigger-Rock Snatchem" and "Poo-a-Doo Power" made of
"...ants' eggs and bees' legs
and dried-fried clam chowder."
And the book ends when each side has developed the ultimate weapon - the Big-Boy Boomeroo - that will blow its victims
"into pork and wee beans!
... and small smithereens!"
The conflicts between the Jews and Samaritans or between Protestants and Roman Catholics were a little more serious than disagreeing about which side of the bread should be buttered, but not much more serious.
Sisters and brothers, this is one of the besetting sins of religion: Quarrelling and fighting about insignificant things.
We should keep in mind what Jesus said to the woman at the well: "The hour is coming and now is when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth..."
"True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth..."
That's all that matters.
Do you remember what Bishop Dan said when he visited us last year? He said that the biggest challenge facing Christ Church was learning to deal with conflict. The biggest fear I had before I accepted your invitation to become rector of this church was that conflict had become a way of life.
Conflict is a part of life, but it must never become a way of life. Let me repeat that: Conflict is a part of life, but it must never become a way of life. When there is conflict, apply the Dr. Seuss' test: Does this matter more than whether you butter your bread on the top or the bottom? And unless it's more important than that, let it go.
This is a good church, and I know that you are good people. We must not let conflict take hold here again. Two weeks ago the vestry engaged in a planning retreat at Lake Havasu. It was a wonderful, constructive weekend, and it was the first planning retreat that the vestry has had in several years. We are going to accomplish a lot this year, unless we let conflict become a way of life.
So listen to Jesus: "... the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem... true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth..." The hour is coming and now is when it won't matter whether you are Jews or Samaritans, Protestants or Roman Catholics, whether you butter your bread on the top or the bottom, whether we use incense or not, whether we use the 1928 prayer book or the 1979 prayer, whether we use Rite I or Rite II. True worshipers will worship God in spirit and in truth.
There is one other little detail in this story that I want you to think about. When Jesus' disciples return, John tells us that "the woman left her water jar and went back to the city."
"She left her water jar..." Doesn't seem very important, does it? Think again. What does that little detail tell us?
Did she just leave her water jar behind in her excitement? This woman was by no means wealthy. That jar may have represented a significant portion of her worldly goods.
I believe she left the water jar behind because she no longer needed it. She no longer needed it because she now had the water of life in her heart. She no longer needed to carry around that heavy water jar. She no longer needed to endure the heat of the sun beating down on her as she carried it back and forth between the well and the village.
Is there anything in your life like that heavy water jar? Is there anything you are carrying around that you need to leave behind? I know there are things such as that in my own life. There are things such as anger and resentment toward people who hurt me long ago. There are disappointments and sadness about things that I did or failed to do, opportunities missed, hopes and dreams never fulfilled.
What are the things you are carrying around that you need to leave behind? What are the things in the life of this church that we are carrying around that we need to leave behind?
I invite you to let go of them, to set down the heavy things that you are carrying. You don't need them any more. Jesus gives you everything you need. Think about how much farther and faster we could go if we let go of those things.
The story is told of two members of a very strict monastic order who were on there way from there own monastery to another one. There order was so strict that they could not even look at a woman, much less speak to one.
As they traveled, they came to a deep and fast river. Waiting to cross the river was a young woman in an advanced state of pregnancy who was unable to cross the stream without help. So one of the monks picked her up and carried her across on his back.
After crossing the river, the two monks continued on their journey, but the one who had not carried the woman was furious with his companion for violating the rules of their order. He refused to speak to his companion all day. Finally, they came to their destination, and the monk who had carried the woman across the river said to his companion, "Brother, why are you angry with me? All I did was carry a woman across the river. You, on the other hand, have been carrying her around all day."
What are the things that you have been carrying around all day? What are the things that you need to let go of? What are the things that are impeding the mission and ministry of this church? Let go of them.
"...let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 12.1-2)