This Can’t be the Messiah?
There probably couldn’t be two more different individuals than Nicodemus, whom we met in last week’s Gospel reading, and the woman Jesus meets at the well. To recap, Nicodemus is well educated, especially in religious matters, a revered member of society. The woman that Jesus talks to at the well is the complete opposite.
Some things to note about her: first, she was a woman. Didn’t the Jewish male of the day pray three times a day the shema in which he was thankful not to be a woman? Why would Jesus talk to a woman? Not only is she a woman, but she is a Samaritan and Jews despised Samaritans. They were a small cultural group who had broken off from Judaism, preferring to worship God on Mt. Gerazim rather than at the temple in Jerusalem. Jews thought they were racial mixers, collaborators with the Romans, and believed that they were cunning and deceitful. Why would Jesus talk to a Samaritan? She is also, we learn, a woman “with a past.” She’s had more husbands than Elizabeth Taylor and the young man she is living with now is not her husband. We might say she has been unlucky in love. Why would Jesus talk with a woman with such a checkered past? This woman can’t believe that this man, a Jew, speaks to her, a Samaritan. She is the wrong gender, the wrong race, and the wrong religion. Yet, Jesus reaches out to her and engages her in a conversation.
Two other differences between Nicodemus and this woman: Nicodemus comes by the cover of night to a private home where Jesus is staying, whereas the woman is there in broad daylight at a public well. Nicodemus comes to Jesus with specific religious questions on his mind, whereas religion is probably the last thing on this woman’s mind as she goes about her daily chores.
Think for a moment. Where do you meet God? I know you all want to make me happy and tell me that you meet God here, in this place, in this sanctuary, and I hope that is so, that in some fashion we encounter the divine here. However, is church the primary place you encounter God?
One of the privileges of being a minister is that people share with me their religious experiences, those personal experiences of God. I used to think that people had some dramatic spiritual experience as a result of searching for God, when they were busy looking for God, on a religious retreat, pouring over scripture, or trying to listen to a sermon without dozing off. After listening to many people, I have come to the conclusion that most people find God when they aren’t looking for God. Usually God comes to us when we are just going about our daily business, our ordinary lives and something, in some way, twigs us to God’s presence.
She called me early one morning. “Michael, I found God last night.” Her husband was at home under the care of hospice. “I was rubbing Don’s feet last night to try and get some circulation and all of a sudden, it was like God spoke to me, telling me that everything was going to be okay.” Another man came to my office. “I don’t know how to explain it. I was driving down the highway into work. I was thinking of everything I had to do that day and God just assured me of God’s presence with me. It wasn’t bright flashing lights, or really anything special, just a feeling.” Another woman told me that she was washing the stack of Thanksgiving dishes after the children had gone to bed and it seemed as if God came and stood with her in her kitchen.
There are people who have dramatic encounters with God, but there are also people who meet God, not on a mountaintop or while wandering in the desert, but at the office, or standing at the kitchen sink, or while they are feeding the dog. I have come to the conclusion that God has a strange sense of occasion and an odd idea of location. Didn’t Jesus tell Nicodemus that, “The wind (or the Spirit) blows where it will?” It will come to us whether or not we’re ready for it, looking for it, or even want it. The woman at the well didn’t come for a lesson in theology. She wasn’t there to get her spiritual needs met. She is there doing the most basic of human tasks – drawing water from a well. Isn’t it amazing the way in which God reaches out to us in the ordinary moments of life?
Jesus sees an opportunity. Had he stopped specifically at that well and waited for the woman? Does God purposely choose certain, somewhat ordinary occasions, to speak to us? Jesus asks the woman about water and she in turn asks him how he is going to draw water with no bucket. Jesus says that he is talking about “living water.” She doesn’t seem to know anything about that. He then goes on to let her know that he knows all about her – her failures and her sadness – things which no one else knows. Yet, he is still speaking to her. Jesus doesn’t make any assumptions about her.
The woman is touched in some way and then she does an interesting thing. She goes back into the village and tells everyone what has happened to her. Does God have a sense of humour? This woman, a non-Jew, uneducated, divorced several times, probably misunderstood, if not despised, by the community, is the first preacher of the Good News. She was the first person to run and tell everyone about Jesus…and all she meant to do was to go and get a bucket of water. True, Jesus hadn’t given her much theology to go on. But he did meet her where she was. He spoke to her innermost needs. And then she is off to preach his message and we read that many people from the city believed because of her testimony.
Even in all of this, the woman has her doubts, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” I think that often we, as Christians, feel that we must understand everything before we can open our mouths to speak. Or maybe because we have questions about our faith we think that our relationship with God is somewhat lacking. In the case of this Samaritan woman, the important thing wasn’t that she understood but that she had the courage to listen, to marvel, to dwell in the moment, and to consider that with faith in this man Jesus there were great possibilities. She dared to be engaged by this mysterious stranger. She dared to let herself be moved from a chance encounter to demanding questioning.
Hear her speak. “He’s not the Messiah, is he?” I hear her opening up to God. I hear someone who is willing to consider a God who is much greater than her previous understanding of God. She is willing to be shocked, surprised, and touched by this God.
William Willamon, the American theologian, writes, “I’ve got a definition for you. Who is a Christian? A Christian is someone who is willing to be open to the possibility that something’s afoot, that the risen Christ is not only enigmatic and elusive but also flirtatious and revealing; that, even though you may not have the time or the inclination to go looking for God, God in Jesus Christ just might be looking for you.”
Watch out. Tomorrow, going about your daily tasks, when you take in hand a bucket, or a keyboard, or a book, or a Bible, keep looking over your shoulder. God’s afoot. In life, strange things occur. Miracles or coincidences, call them what you will. Jesus is at the well waiting for you. This can’t be the Messiah…or can he be?