Thoughts on Preaching (Jn 4: Woman at the Well)

John 4 is probably my favorite story in the whole Bible. Truly, this story is (as the church fathers described the Gospel of John) a puddle that a small child can wade in, and at the same time an ocean that an elephant can swim — or drown! — in.

John 4, the story of the woman at the well, is the Gospel lesson for this morning, the third Sunday in Lent, based on the Revised Common Lectionary. (You can listen to my sermons, and those of our pastor John Ratliff, here.)

Here is my little sermon outline so far, though I do hope to preach this “narrativally,” and not so much like a bullet-point lecture.

Opening Question: “Why is this woman alone?” First, because she is excluded from her community in every possible sense (racially, gender-wise, socially, morally, theologically). Second, nobody wants to be with her (why would they, given all of that?) and she does not want to be with anyone (she feels the shame of exclusion). This is why, at “the sixth hour,” when the sun is directly overhead and there are no shadows, she is alone at the well performing a task which in that day was never done alone (drawing water).

Note: what might be viewed as evil in her life God was using for good. Just like Mary Magdelen, who was so mentally tormented and tortured that Mk 16:9 says that she had “seven demons” cast out of her. Only til you lose everything can you really find Jesus. Only then can he find you. You will never find the one thing til you lose everything.

Then I am going to look at three images which are intensely prominent in John’s Gospel, which are huge in this story as well.

I. water: we see a movement from subsistence to life-giving abundance, from well (v6) to spring (v15).

II. spirit (which is both Hebrew and Greek is the same word as “wind” and / or “breath.” (All correct pneumatology begins with this observation.) In John water is never alone: it is always coupled with spirit. If you read about water in John, look around, and you will find “spirit” nearby. This means the Holy Spirit, and in a real sense this life-giving water is precisely the Holy Spirit which Jesus gives to the church on the day of Pentecost (John’s version of Pentecost is 20:19-23 when be breathes of the disciples and says, “Receive the HS.”). Also, spirit, like water, is a fluid, and there is something about fluids which, gives them, as opposed to solids (think of a rock) a certain “sovereignty.” They flow, and seemingly of their own accord. “The wind blows where it will,” Jn 3:8. Like a branch flowing in a river, the initiative is with the fluid, not with the branch. The water initiates and does the carries. The branch in a sense is acted upon. So we see a movement here from static to fluid or dynamic.

III. Life. From tenuous to transformative. Wells can get clogged up but springs cannot be held down. They will overcome any amount of gunk you throw at them. Jesus moves this woman from a state of being interested only in physical water (like the people in chapter 6 who are interested only in filling their bellies — 6:26) to becoming a holistic sharer for others. There is a movement from physical to holistic and from self-seeking to others-sharing. At first, she just wants to avoid dying of dehydration, but by the time Jesus is finished with he she rushes back to the community to share her new-found wealth, her new found well spring of life (which is Christ). Note: she did not have to be coaxed, prodded, or externally motivated to do this (did she stop by the bookstore on the way back to her villiage to pick up a copy of Evangelism Explosion or “The Four Spiritual Laws?” No: instead she told her story. Those things would have only stifled that!

“Eternal life” (v14) is not unending life lived in the eternal state. No: it is the indestructible, uncloggable life of a spring. But not just that, it is “eonic life.” Life of the God’s new eon. It brings about a new world.

This is the point of the “sowing and reaping” part of this story. Look at what this eonic life does: it brings about the transformation of the world. We see it beginning to happen in this woman’s life and in the life of her village.

C losing Question: “How did this happen?” Where did she get that boldness? Answer: verse 16. See, why did Jesus, out of the blue, say: “Go get your husband.” Is he changing the subject? No: he saw that she was alone and immediately had the suspicion (as any case-wise counselor or pastor in that day would have) that her social isolation was the result of something having to do with … men.

How does this happen? Through liberation. She was in bondage. She was drinking from some other well, which had become her false hope, her addiction, and Jesus set her free.

He said to her, “Woman, go get your husband.”

He says to you, “Christian, go get your ….” Your what? “Christian, go get your bank account. Go get your social life where you’re in the inner circle . Go get your children. Go get your stainless reputaton.”

Go get them and do two things with them. Compare them to me (the quality of life they give you), and see that they don’t stack up to real abundant life. And then, lay them at my feet. I will raise them back up. I will give them back to you, but now in a way that is healthy, now in a way that facilitates your new divine, abundant life with me.

Jesus puts his finger right on the issue, right on the pulse of her heart, and what does she do? She repents. How do we know this? B/c look at what she does! She runs back to her villiage. What? They very people who excluded her? The very people who did not want to be with her … and with whom she did not want to be. (You see, repentance is social and public.)

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