“Woman, believe me,” says the Lord Jesus. Believe him as he turns the conversation to make a complex theological pronouncement about the hour having come, and true worship, and where salvation comes from, and do the Jews know better than the Samaritans, and about God being a spirit, and about spirit and truth. Got all that? If she believes all that, what does that do for her?
This pronouncement of Jesus alters the tone of their conversation, this most wonderful and subtle conversation between two characters in all the New Testament so far. Two single people, at a well, at noon-time—a time of day when no other women will be there. Not just any well—Jacob’s well, and Jacob was the patriarch who fell in love with a woman who showed up at a well. Moses met his wife at a well. In the Torah a well is a setting for romance. And here this stranger is asking this woman if she will have a drink with him. And then it’s not long before he makes a comment about her sex life. The potential for flirtation is noticed by the disciples when they show up, we are told, but they keep their mouths shut until she walks off.
The potential is there but Our Lord does not go there. And yet the conversation is direct and even intimate. After the opening exchange about water, which, as typical in St. John’s Gospel, plays on an initial misunderstanding of what the Lord Jesus says, the woman catches up to him, and she says emphatically, “Yes, give me this living water.” She’s getting it that the living water is prophetic.
That’s when the Lord Jesus tells her to fetch her husband, and she says she doesn’t have one and he says, you’ve had five and the one you’re with now is not. “Well, I can see you’re a prophet, let’s change the subject!” The woman is canny, and she deflects the attention from her love-life.
Which actually may have included lots of suffering. In that society, her husbands had the power of marriage and divorce. Five men had taken her and then divorced her. Now one man has offered her some minimal security. Or was it less brutal than that? She appears to be smart and engaging. Had she maybe had some discretion in her life, but looked for love in the wrong places? It’s hard to know how three-dimensional a picture we should try to make of her, without being anachronistic.
In any case she deflects the attention from her love-life with her question on theology, about the bitter doctrinal dispute between the Samaritans and the Jews. Under the surface of doctrine were issues of ethnic enmity, economic distress, and political hatred. Despite the nice conversation, Our Lord is still the enemy. But that’s just when he says, “Woman, believe me.” Believe that I have come to this dispute to be the solution that moves beyond the points of the dispute. “The hour is coming.”
She gets where he’s going. She recognizes the prophecies. She knows her stuff. She says, “I know the Messiah is coming.” But that’s strange for her to say. By rights she should have no interest in the Messiah, who being from the House of David would bring political victory to Jerusalem and be an enemy to the Samaritans. This woman doesn’t fit. She’s an outsider to her own people. But she says it, “When the Messiah comes, he will tell us everything,” and Jesus answers, “I am. I’m him talking to you.” “I am”—what the Lord God said to Moses from the burning bush. “I am.” It’s the climax of the story. There’s nothing further she needs to believe. It all comes down to him. Belief in him.
The spell breaks when the disciples arrive, and she departs for home. What does she mean when she tells her villagers to come see a man who told her everything she ever did? In that short conversation? What had he said that read her whole life as an open book, that she felt known by him, and also comprehensible to her own self? Could this be what the Messiah is like, and not our enemy but for us too, not the political savior of Jerusalem, but the savior of the world? And is this the result of belief in him, that in him you both recognize your God and you recognize yourself?
The appeal of this story is the close engagement of these two characters. He initiates, and she keeps responding, except for that one time when she initiates to change the subject. The appeal is how this is a picture of Christian belief, and how much of belief is a response to God’s initiative.
We have this cultural idea that belief is a free choice that humans make or not, upon their own initiative. But the story confirms our experience, that your belief is mostly your responding to the mysterious initiative of God that you just can’t shake, and at the same time you’re often just trying to hang on, your belief is just trying to stay in and keep making sense. Only occasionally can I say, “I know the Messiah is coming!” and feel a small triumph of confidence. Belief is like nursing. I mean, you the believer are the little baby and God is your mother and your belief is your attaching to her breast.
Drinking is the story’s metaphor. The woman’s believing is her drinking, and what Jesus is doing is pouring into her his life, he pours his Spirit into her.
Let me import the language of the Epistle to the Romans. I’ll repeat it for you because I love it so much: “Meanwhile, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” I am saying that the Lord Jesus is pouring God’s love into her heart and she is drinking it by her belief. I am saying that belief is a two-directional engagement: you invest your belief in God, and God invests God’s own Spirit in you, right through the medium of your belief.
You need God to do this back to you, because of your suffering. The problem with suffering is what you see in our first lesson, from Exodus 17, with the Children of Israel thirsty in the desert.
Their suffering produced complaining, and complaining produced quarreling, and quarreling led to resistance, and they threatened their leaders. Years of slavery had trained them to expect the worst and resist authority. They were a people traumatized, and their exodus was traumatic too. They did not know how to live in the desert and they feared abandonment. “Is the Lord among us or not?” Their hopes were disappointed. They represent our natural condition. Every day we face this nature in us, and we quarrel and complain about our disappointed lives and we test the love of God.
What our lessons suggest to us today is that the opposite of belief is not unbelief, at least not for religious people. The opposite of belief is complaining and quarreling. And that’s what pushes love away. You believe in love, but testing pushes love away. Like you’re angry with someone you love, or even just disappointed—you test them, then you push them away, and then you give up trying, like the woman at the well. Gradually, slowly, you dry up, you get dry and hard, and you harden your hearts. You can confess it. It’s Lent.
Harden not your hearts. Soften your hearts. Just as Moses gets water from the rock, so the Lord Jesus pours his love into the heart of the woman at the well, and that softens her and gets her spirit flowing. She suffered her sequence of husbands, apparently, with endurance, and her endurance produced her character, yet hope still disappointed her, so now the Lord Jesus pours his love into her and gives her hope. You can see the fruit of her hope in her mission to her village, she is the very first evangelist in the Gospel of John. She overflows. And the story ends with everybody believing—it is a full harvest of belief and an overflowing fountain of life in his name.
Right now in our congregation we are interested in action. I get that. Political action, social action, which needs to happen among us; also action for the congregation, in the renovation of our sanctuary, and soon getting ready for our homeless shelter. Also we’re going to need two or three new teachers for Sunday School next year. All good works, and faith without works is dead. If you believe something, what good is your belief if you don’t act on it.
But today our lessons call you back from action to belief itself. It is, after all, the season of Lent. Come back to drink. Don’t take your belief for granted. Don’t stop drinking. You need to get filled up again, in order to keep your suffering turning the right way round towards hope.
The marvelous story calls for your belief. That’s all it requires but it does call for that. Not your strong belief but your thirsty belief—if only that there’s nothing else to believe in. I invite you to believe the promise that God’s love has been poured into your hearts by the Holy Spirit.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.