meeting at the well

a sermon, based on John 4.5-42, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 3rd Sunday in Lent, March 19, 2017

Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a religious insider, came to Jesus “by night.”[1] A Samaritan woman, a religious outsider, comes to Jesus “about noon.” In this literally night-and-day difference between a respected insider and a recognized outsider, there is an understated, yet unmistakable point about what God values. Not outward prominence, but an inward hunger to seek God’s Spirit. In God’s eyes, Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman are equals.

This encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman (in the spirit of equality, I identify her by her name from Eastern Orthodox tradition, Photina[2]) is a story about God who persistently, passionately looks, longs for us precisely where we are. And what an unlikely encounter! For Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, a Samaritan is a member of the wrong race; one sharing a historic enmity with the Jews, and worshiping, not in Jerusalem, but on Mount Gerizim, in the wrong place. And Photina is the wrong gender and a serial monogamist; a lifestyle at best unconventional, at worst contemptible.

The Samaritan Woman at the Well, Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

Nevertheless these two implausible dialogists engage in conversation; also unlikely, for they don’t speak the same language. Jesus talks of “living water.” Photina thinks in purely physical terms, observing Jesus has no bucket and the well is deep. Nevertheless, as Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about new birth, he speaks to Photina about new life.

Photina, inquiring about the proper place of worship, still doesn’t “get” it, but she’s thinking of spiritual things. Jesus never rebukes her ignorance, rather rejoices in her interest, acknowledging her deepening reflection with this revelation: “The hour of true worship is coming, indeed, it’s here!” Photina cautiously makes a connection: “I know the Messiah is coming!” Jesus honors her dawning recognition: “I am the Messiah”, offering her the gift of new life. In joy, she receives it, becoming an evangelist, sharing this good news, bringing others to Jesus.

Deeper still, this story is about God’s inclusive love. The welcoming love, inherently mutual, of Jesus, a Jewish male rabbi, and of Photina, a Samaritan woman. Each a reflection of the “otherness” of the other. And, in the likeness of their awareness of their “otherness”, they find common ground on which to stand, bridging ancient animosities.

We, as individuals with individual histories and memories, perceptions and opinions, are always “other” to every other one of us no matter how bonded by blood or by choice, by similarity of culture and behavior, creed and belief, or any other likeness that evolves in the loving container of our relationships.

If this is true, how much more “other” is any one of us with another whose essential humanity is different in origin and orientation: cultural, philosophical, political, theological? Infinitely more.

If this is true, how much more “other” is any one of us with another who has hurt us, thus one against whom we wear the armor of resentment; perhaps bear the arsenal of revenge? Incomprehensibly more.

If this is true, how much more “other” is any one of us with parts of our personality or character we don’t like? I’m intolerant of what I consider the imperfections of others, though I’m patient with my own. And, in the expediency of the moment, I can be indifferent to the love and justice I frequently, freely profess to value. While these attitudes and behaviors arise sometimes, thus not always, their root is an internal and abiding brokenness that yields the bitter fruit of my lack of integrity.

Here’s some good news for you and for me! With the people who differ from you or me, Jesus and Photina meet us at the well. With the people who have hurt you or me, Jesus and Photina meet us at the well. With the parts of ourselves we don’t like, Jesus and Photina meet us at the well. Encountering us. Calling us into conversation, into relation with those who are “other”.

Yes, this encounter, this conversation involves the pain of acknowledging our separation from the “other” and from ourselves, the peril of attempting the miracle of dialogue with others and ourselves, the problem of acknowledging, accepting others and ourselves. Yet Jesus and Photina meet us at the well, offering, sharing the gift of living water, the grace of new life, so that we can walk away from the well as changed people able to love “the other” and ourselves.


Illustration: The Samaritan Woman at the Well, Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest


[1] John 3.1-17; the appointed gospel for the 2nd Sunday in Lent.

[2] Photina, from the Greek phos, “light”, as the Samaritan woman at the well was enlightened by Jesus who promised her the gift of living water (i.e., the Holy Spirit; see John 7.37-39) and as she, as an evangelist, enlightened others, sharing the news of Jesus.

2 thoughts on “meeting at the well

  1. Paul,

    I’m so excited to meet those different from me at the “well”. Living water for me means so many things, including new life. I believe that the reason certain people come into lives is so that we continue to share new life with others, even if it’s only for a short time. I’ve learned through my grief that the speaking engagements I’ve been doing are like living water for me. I meant people in similar situations and circumstances and by sharing our stories we know we aren’t alone and we give each other life. Some of these people have spoken other languages and though we may not understand every word the other says, we still exchange our kinship through our hugs. I’ve also realized that even some of the folks I see weekly at church are folks I don’t know well. I’ve made a much more conscious effort to slow down long enough to get to know them better. Meeting them at the well has also been healing for me.

    My thanks and love to you as always for your awesome words!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wonderful, Loretta, to hear of your experiences and the connections you make with folk and that they make with you AND the relevance AND the reality of sharing new life with them.

      Jesus and Photina, for me, serve as a metaphor for what can happen – something marvelous, verily, miraculous! – when people, somehow, can overcome all that separates them to join/share in a life-changing (new life-giving) experience. Moreover, for me, Jesus and Photina show us that it is precisely in the mutual recognition of “otherness” that folk can find common ground on which to stand and to build bridges of connection where before there was only a chasm of separation.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s