A few weeks ago I had the privilege of leading the 7th grade confirmation class. The topic for the night: Who is God? We had 30 minutes on the schedule to discuss. We reviewed what they had explored in previous conversations about God as Creator, Lover, Promise Keeper and Boundary Eraser. Then I handed out blank notecards and asked them to write down questions they’d like to ask God. I collected them and read through them this past week. Here are a few: what are your preferred pronouns? When all of the bad stuff in the world happens, why do you let it happen? Why do you ignore me? Why did you create us? (Thanks by the way.) All of the questions, honest, vulnerable, faith-filled.
If I were to pass out notecards to you, what questions would you write down that you’d like to ask God?
John’s gospel is full of people asking questions. The gospel writer is making a point: questions are part of faith. If you didn’t have questions, you wouldn’t need faith. In just the first couple chapters of John’s gospel the characters ask question after question: what are you looking for? Where are you staying? Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Where did you get to know me? What sign can you show us? How can anyone be born after having grown old? How can these things be? And this is just the beginning of the story. There are 18 more chapters of this.
The woman at the well in the Gospel raises lots of questions in her conversation with Jesus. It’s a great story. Preacher Anna Carter Florence thinks it’s one of the best in the Bible and has gone so far as to say, “If I were to pick one story that shows us the most about who Jesus is, it would be this one.”
Jesus is making his way back to Galilee from Judea. The story says he “had” to go through Samaria but the truth is that that doesn’t make geographical sense. There was a more direct route. Apparently it’s necessary for Jesus to take the long way home. Tired from the long walk through foreign territory he stops. He rests at a well—an ancestor’s well—Jacob’s well. The story says it’s noon. The sun doesn’t shine brighter at any other time of day.
This is a contrast from the previous story in John’s gospel in which Nicodemus, an insider in matters of religion and power, comes to Jesus with a question in the middle of the night, avoiding any potential for a crowd. At the well today—it’s the opposite of night: it’s bright light, no sneaking around, no hiding here.
A woman—we don’t get her name—shows up to fill her bucket—not typical behavior. Women came to the well at dawn—when the temperatures were cooler and the fellowship familiar. But this woman, like Nicodemus, was avoiding the crowd—but for totally different reasons. She’s not an insider to the system with power or prestige. She’s not part of the community, an outcast, on the margins, completely dependent on others. She’s had five husbands and lives with a man who isn’t her husband. People have made assumptions about that detail but the truth is that it tells us nothing about her moral character. Jesus doesn’t offer forgiveness in this story. He never asks her to repent.
The conversation starts with Jesus being vulnerable. He needs something from her. He asks for a drink of water. Because he’s thirsty. Pretty straightforward except for the fact that he’s a man, she’s a woman. He’s a Jew. She’s a Samaritan. Jesus is a rabbi, a religious leader. She’s got no credentials AT ALL. She’s got nothing—no family, no value, no name. For every justifiable reason in the world they should have never met. For sure they should never have spoken. But Jesus ignores cultural shoulds. He breaks through human constructs created to keep a certain order and asks her for help.
“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” It’s a fair question. She knows the rules. He shouldn’t be talking to her. Jesus then changes his ask to an invitation: he will give her living water. She asks to receive it.
This is when Jesus tells her everything she has ever done, as she later puts it. He sees her—which is important in John’s Gospel because to be seen is to be known. When Jesus sees her, she begins to see him and she knows—he’s a prophet. To be seen changes everything. To be seen and accepted, not judged, affirms her of having value and worth. She has encountered holy love and can’t help but tell others about her experience of God.
To be seen has power to transform lives. It’s true for each of us. Don’t believe me? We’re going to do an experiment. It may stretch you and take you outside your comfort zone, but don’t worry—it will only last a few seconds and this is safe space. Steph Smith led us in this exercise at our last staff meeting. I want us to do it as a congregation too.
You don’t need to move… necessarily… which means extroverts… go ahead and move if you feel so compelled, introverts, feel free to stay put but I hope you’ll still participate. I invite you to look around. Make eye contact with someone you didn’t come with or someone you don’t know particularly well. And when you do, say out loud or mouth the words, “I see you. I’m glad you’re here.” Go ahead…
Did you feel what happened there? Energy went up… and it’s not just because there may have been some added anxiety in the room. Energy is up because we took time to see someone and to be seen by someone. The eye contact and brief acknowledgement deepens our connection. Taking pause to see another communicates they have worth and value.
To see and be seen starts with vulnerability and leads us outside ourselves to curiosity about each other… I encourage you to follow up with the connections you just made immediately… following the service.
On this First Sunday in the season of Lent we often hear the story that follows Jesus’ baptism, of his being tempted in the wilderness before he begins his public ministry that eventually leads to the cross. It’s a story in which the devil shows up and attempts to undermine who Jesus is but Jesus leans into his identity as God’s own son and is strengthened in purpose and mission for the road ahead.
This year we’re hearing a different story as we begin the season and it’s just as important for matters of faith. In this story we encounter Jesus fully human, fully divine. He is vulnerable, he’s thirsty, he doesn’t play by the rules of this world. He sees a woman who is overlooked, forgotten, an outsider, denied community and love. He sees her but there is no judgement—he offers her living water—God’s unconditional, unending love. He sees her and knows her and it is enough for her to experience the grace of God.
This is God’s gift to you today and always. Jesus sees you—the whole of you and meets you where you’re at with God’s grace. And it’s not just true for you. So Jesus sends you out from here—assured of your identity as a beloved child of God, fed in faith through word and the holy meal, to be grace for others navigating the wilderness of loneliness, hunger, rejection and fear. It requires slowing down, making eye contact, taking risks and being vulnerable. It’s easy to forget to show up this way for others, but the story of the woman at the well reminds us that every time we do we are engaged in holy work that has power to heal the world.
Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber writes: “No one gets to play Jesus. But we do get to experience Jesus in that holy place where we meet others’ needs and have our own needs met. We are all the needy and the ones who meet needs.”
We’re in this together—so may God bless us and keep us steadfast in the work of seeing, connecting, listening, learning, offering and receiving help that all would know God’s love and grace. Amen.