Are We Glad When God is With Others? (A sermon about the woman at the well)

The Israelites traveling in the wilderness were thirsting to death, and they cried out, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
And Jesus said to the woman at the well, I AM.
Seven times in the Gospel of John does Jesus say, I AM.  This is the first time.  
I AM is what God told Moses when Moses stood before the burning bush and politely asked for God's name so that Moses could casually drop that awesome moniker before Pharaoh in the course of suggesting that Pharaoh might ought to let the people go.  "Whom should I say has sent me?" Moses asks God.  And God said to Moses, "I AM."
Now we hear Jesus say it as well.  Unfortunately, our translation has supplied an extra pronoun so that it reads "I am he," but in the Greek, Jesus simply says to the woman I AM.  He will go on to say I AM six more times - to the disciples when he walks on the water to their boat; three times to the Judean people who challenge his testimony and try to stone him for blasphemy; to the disciples again, after he has washed their feet; and to the soldiers and Temple authorities who come to arrest him at Gethsemane.  
Jesus also uses the I AM metaphorically throughout this Gospel.  I am the bread of life, the light of the world, the vine, the good shepherd, the resurrection, the gate, the way the truth and the life.  In each of those situations, Jesus is showing us who God is and testifying to everyone so that they might come to God through his testimony.
So while in the Gospel of Mark Jesus goes to great length to conceal who he is, in John he uses the divine name for himself all over the place.  And the first time he does so is here, to this Samaritan woman whom he meets in the heat of the day at Jacob's well.
What an extraordinary encounter this is. This woman is a despised Samaritan; an outsider and an outcast, apparently having lost to death and/or been abandoned by several husbands, who comes to the well at noon, when nobody comes to the well; who is well versed in her tradition's stories and history; who actively engages Jesus in a theological discussion; who recognizes Jesus' calling himself by the divine name and rushes off, leaving her water jar behind, to offer urgent testimony to her city; and through that testimony she brings others to Jesus. 
Through that testimony she brings others to Jesus, and they see for themselves, and they believe.
In the Gospel of John, this is the point.  The whole Gospel was presented as testimony, given so that people would believe, and through that belief have abundant life.  This unnamed Samaritan woman who was not a 21st century celebrity who controlled her own destiny, able to marry and divorce as she pleased, but was a first century woman entirely dependent upon men who had apparently repeatedly cast her aside - she, not the upstanding Jewish community leader Nicodemus we met last week, shows us what a true disciple of Jesus is supposed to do.

Finding herself accepted, loved, given the dignity not afforded to her before, she is inspired to go off and share what she has found with others.
We should also notice that it isn't just evangelism that is being praised here.  The Samaritan woman sees (which is terribly important in the Gospel of John, seeing) that Jesus is some sort of prophet - a holy man - and so immediately engages him with the pressing theological question of the day:  where is God?  Samaritans say God is over here, in our territory, at Mt Gerazim; but Jews say that God is over there, in Jerusalem, in your territory.  
But Jesus answers her:  God is here, with you, in front of you, at this well.  
The conversation echoes what we hear in the Exodus text:  Is the Lord with us or not?  Is the Lord with us Samaritans, who are despised by you Jews?  Is the Lord with me, a cast off with no dignity left?
And Jesus answers, I AM.  I am, with you, right here.  That's what you need to know.
And then the disciples come back from their shopping trip, and they see Jesus talking with the woman, and they know better than to say anything.  Perhaps they are thinking, "There he goes again."  Or, "Oh, Jesus, what are you doing now?"  But they know better than to say anything to Jesus about breaching custom and tradition, breaking social rules, about offering comfort to the enemy, for God's sake.  
They are learning to live as if the Lord were with them, which of course he is. And they are learning to see that it doesn't necessarily follow that if the Lord is with them, then the Lord can't be with someone else who is different, someone with whom they don't usually associate, someone who they think the Lord ought to ignore.  They can rejoice in their being loved without begrudging that love being given to others as well.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could rejoice that God is with us without feeling an urge to keep God from being with someone else?  Without feeling that we need to protect God from people we think are unworthy?  Even if we are astonished to find Jesus hanging out with people we think are inappropriate, couldn’t we figure out a way to wait and see what fruit comes from the association?  Come and see! Jesus says to his first disciples.  Come and see! they say to more disciples.  Come and see! says the woman to the Samaritans.
The disciples manage to stand back and let Jesus do his thing, and see what happens - and lo, this woman brings to Jesus a harvest that had nothing to do with the disciples.  She invites new Samaritan believers to come to partake of the living water that never runs out, and they come.  
There is enough of that living water for all, and yet it seems so hard for us to be willing to share it with all who are thirsty.  Just as the woman first questions Jesus about his ability to provide water without a bucket, we might also misunderstand his meaning about living water.  We might confuse it with the water that comes from wells in the earth and therefore think that it is limited or needs to be managed.
Last Tuesday was World Water Day, and through education by charitable organizations working to bring clean water and sanitation to places where people, especially children, are still dying of water-borne disease, many of us understand water to be a limited resource.  It is precious and life-giving, but something that must be managed so that it doesn't run out, doesn't become contaminated, doesn't become diverted away from those who need it most.  In dry places like the Middle East and parts of Africa, in the American west, and in overcrowded urban slums in Asia and South America, water is a precious commodity and people fight over it.  Heck, here in Georgia we've been fighting over it for years with our neighboring states.  
These charitable organizations want those of us who don't even have to think about water - we just turn on the tap and out it comes - to see that in many parts of the world, lack of clean water is still a major cause of death among children.  It detrimentally impacts education, economy, and health.  
Even people who are surrounded by water need  clean running water to live, as we are  seeing in the wake of both the recent earthquake in Japan and the one last year in Haiti where cholera, a water-borne disease, continues to kill.  There is no question that we need to be concerned and involved in the efforts to bring clean and safe drinking water to everyone, for life.  There is more than one way to think about having life abundant, and having clean water is one of those ways.  Remember the Israelites in the wilderness thirsting to death and perhaps you will be inspired to do something about providing clean water to those who are dying for the lack of it.
So yes, we all need water to drink.   And also we need salvation.  And with the Samaritan woman we begin to understand that when Jesus says living water he is not talking about running water but about eternal life, the life abundant in the here and now that comes from the presence of the Spirit of God.  Having received the life that Jesus offers, knowing that the Lord is among us, providing for us, the Spirit overflows within us so that we can then become sources of life, sources of that living water for others.  There is no limit on this water, no need to conserve and manage it.  We don't have to fight over this water.  It gushes everywhere and there is more than enough for everyone.   
The Samaritan woman, assured in the knowledge that God is with her, goes to tell others, to bring them to Jesus, and they come to know salvation, too.  The living water is given to all who come.  And the disciples, who are still practicing living in the knowledge that the Lord is among them, see the good fruit borne of that one unlikely encounter.  
I hope they were glad.  


Greg Richardson said…
Jesus also says to her, and to us, "If only you knew . . ." They each participate in the process of revealing their truths to each other; the Father seeks those who worship in spirit and in truth. If only we knew.
Yes - this is such a great story, with so much in it to consider. I love how Jesus and the woman engage one another here - it does feel honest.
Nancy Wallace said…
Great sermon. I am particularly struck by your thought about acting as if the 'living water' is 'limited' or 'needs to be managed'. There's a lot of challenge behind that idea - food for thought.
Thanks, Nancy. I think that we often do try to manage the living water instead of letting Jesus do his thing.