This story of the woman Jesus talks to at the well is a long and deep text—and it brings up a lot of questions. Below are six of those questions, any one of which could spur a full sermon.
My invitation to you is to notice which questions grab your attention, pique your curiosity, make you want to hear more. Listen for where you hear the voice of God speaking into your life through this text, and where this story might speak into the life of your congregation. Are you ready? Here we go.
Question #1: (OK, this question backs up to verse 4.) Did Jesus really have to go through Samaria?
No. No, he didn’t. Most Jews who made the trip from Judea to Galilee crossed over the Jordan River and went around Samaria. So why does the writer of John say Jesus had to go through Samaria? If it wasn’t a geographical necessity, maybe it was a theological necessity. So what is it about Jesus’ encounter with this woman that makes it such a significant piece of his ministry?
And what are some things that we, as followers of Jesus, have to do—even though we don’t have to do them?
Question #2: Why is Jesus even talking to her?
The Gospel writer says that the disciples didn’t ask Jesus why he was talking with the woman—which strongly suggests that they wanted to ask that very question. For Jesus to be speaking with a Samaritan man or a Jewish woman would have been bad enough. But a Samaritan woman? To top it all off, Jesus is not berating her or lecturing her; he is having a theological conversation with her. Jesus treats this woman—who is inferior to him according to a number of social measures—as his equal.
Sometimes Christians think that just “humbling” ourselves to interact with those who are “below” us means we are being Christ-like. But it’s not enough to try to do what Jesus does, we also have to try to do it in spirit in which he does it: engaging people authentically as equals with consideration and respect. It is worth asking what social barriers, implicit and explicit, we might need to break if we want to follow Jesus more faithfully.
Question #3: What is up with this “living water”?
Water is a point of connection between this week’s Hebrew scripture reading and the Gospel reading. What was the significance of water for the Israelites in the wilderness? For the woman at the well and Jesus and the disciples? For us today?
By “living water,” Jesus seems to indicate some sort of internal, spiritual nourishment that is not dependent on outside forces. How has God provided strength, support, peace for you or for your community in difficult times? What spiritual practices might help us connect more deeply with God so that we have access to the living water?
Question #4: How should we worship?
Of course, Jesus says that we should worship “in spirit and truth,” which is easier said than done. In the context of the general disagreement between the Jewish people and the Samaritans, Jesus is saying that the location of worship doesn’t matter. The trappings of worship don’t matter. Most of us learned this lesson a little more forcefully than we would like when the pandemic hit in 2020.
What aspects of your community’s worship feel the most authentic and truthful? Are there parts of worship that feel like they are just for show? Are there aspects of your worship that exist just because “it’s always been that way”? How might the Holy Spirit enliven the worship life of your congregation?
Question #5: Why are the disciples always so dense?
Whenever I feel like I am particularly falling short in my attempts to follow Jesus, reading about the disciples usually cheers me up. There are so many stories about how they just don’t understand. Even after seeing Jesus perform miracle after miracle, they act like every little set back (a storm at sea, a hungry crowd) is a grand crisis.
In the context of this story, we have to wonder where the disciples have been all of this time. This is the longest recorded conversation anyone has with Jesus, full of great theological depth– and the disciples miss it. For, as far as we are told, no good reason. When they do finally catch up with Jesus, “they were astonished that he was speaking with a woman” (v. 27). Astonished? Really? They’ve already seen him turn water to wine and swing a whip around the temple courts and this is what astonishes them?
Question #6: How do we share the Good News of Jesus?
I think the concluding section of this passage has a lot to teach us about something that is almost a forbidden topic in may progressive(ish) churches: evangelism. We are told that “many Samaritans from that city believed in [Jesus] because of the woman’s testimony” (v. 39). And it turns out that her testimony did not involve shiny pamphlets or tearful altar calls. Her testimony was simply her telling her neighbors about her own experience with Jesus. About her allowing her neighbors to experience Jesus for themselves.
In my church context—and maybe in yours—very few people want to be evangelical. But they just might step a bit out of their comfort zones to be invitational.
I do hope that one (or more) of the questions above can set you on a productive sermon path this week. Blessings!