The Disciples at the Well

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Lent 3
March 12, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: This story rightfully focuses on the Samaritan woman. But the church would do well to focus on the actions of another "character" here: the disciples. After all, "they" are "us."

In our passage for today, we encounter someone familiar to any with an even slightly greater than remote knowledge of the Gospel stories: The Samaritan woman, "the woman at the well." There can be no doubt that she is the main character here, as well she should be. But it is helpful, perhaps especially today, to focus on a lesser character or characters in this adventure: the disciples.

As much as we might want to identify with the woman at the well - and many of us can and do so, and justifiably - we would all do well to identify at least as closely with the disciples. The disciples are "us." We are the disciples. The actions of the disciples, toward Jesus, and toward the woman of Samaria, could be, in some sense or other, our actions. How are their actions our actions? How do our actions mimic theirs?

A necessary journey

We are told in the verse right before this one that Jesus "had to" go through Samaria on his journey back to Galilee. He had to - it's like he couldn't continue on his ministry without going through Samaria. Why? In other Gospels, he bypasses Samaria easily enough, especially when he encounters hostility there.1 Yet, in this case, we are told that he had to go through Samaria. This passage through Samaria is a vital part of his ministry. Samaritans are every bit as much a part of his "target audience," as we might say today, as anyone else.

The proximity of Jesus' stop at Jacob's well ties the story tightly to Jewish heritage and tradition, and in so doing, ties the Samaritans to Jewish heritage and tradition as well.

Jesus stops at Jacob's well. The time is "about noon." It was the middle of the day. Light is at its brightest and most intense. Into this light steps this woman of Samaria. The disciples, however, have gone dark. We're told that they have gone into the city to buy some food.

Stepping into the light

A Samaritan woman steps into the light of high noon as Jesus rests by Jacob's well. A woman, a Samaritan, coming for water in the middle of the day. The disciples are absent; only Jesus and this Samaritan woman are present. There is much tongue-in-cheek back and forth between the woman and Jesus. The woman talks about water - physical water, H2O, the stuff of life, or so we should think. What we learn from Jesus is that physical water is only the stuff of part of life. There is a greater life, and a more nourishing kind of "water" - and Jesus is the source of that living water.

They talk about physical water, and about God's gift of living water. Initially, they talk past each other. She doesn't understand, at first, but by the end of their conversation she does. "Sir, give me this water," she says.

In spirit and in truth

And then this conversation veers sharply into a discussion of true worship, of worship in spirit and in truth. True worship happens neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. True worship happens, rather, in spirit and truth.

Samaritans worship what they do not know. Jews worship what they do know, because God chose to interact with the earth through the Jews. But there is a new day and a new way coming. God is spirit. God is not tied to a physical location - or to a human tradition.

You're starting to sound like the long-expected Messiah, the woman says.

"I am," Jesus replies.

Jesus identifies himself to the woman as the Messiah.

And right then, his disciples return. They are shocked to see her; yet they say nothing to her. And the woman puts down her water jar and leaves. She goes into the city, quickly to return with a friendly posse of Samaritans.

The disciples and the woman spend very little time in Jesus' presence at the same time. It's almost as if they repel each other. When she arrives, they are already gone. When they return, she puts down her water jar and leaves.

She puts down her water jar and leaves it there because she understands that the "water" being discussed is not physical water, but living water, spiritual nourishment welling up from within. Spiritually speaking, there is no longer need for a physical water jar. It would be an encumbrance to her, lugging it all the way back to town, where she is going to gather people up and lead them to Jesus (yes, here we have a woman leading people to Jesus!).

Yet there is no contact between her and the disciples. They don't speak to her. They arrive, she leaves - and leaves her water jar behind. And the disciples urge Jesus to eat. And Jesus starts talking about a different kind of food, as he spoke to the woman about a different kind of water. Do they understand, as she did? Do we?

Living water, mystery food

Drink the water Jesus gives, and you'll never be thirsty again, Jesus says to the Samaritan woman. Eat the food that Jesus has, and you will quickly lose interest in lunch, Jesus says to the disciples.

What is the nature of the interactions that we're seeing here? Who is this famous, mysterious woman at the well, and how is she significant to us? Believe what you will about women preachers, women priests, women ministers or whatever. However we view her and her work, here she is every bit as much of a disciple as Peter, James, John and the others. She is an example of discipleship, every bit as much as they are - even though they go in, literally, opposite directions, and even though they, literally, have nothing to say to each other. Is this an example of how to approach unchurched people?

Yet the Samaritans are not, strictly speaking, "unchurched." In context, they practice a form of Judaism seen as bastardized, invalid and heretical by the established proclaimers of orthodoxy. Hence, the Samaritans go to an expression of "church" that is regarded by the Jews as false or inadequate. Note that Jesus does not draw them back into the established "church"; Jesus comes to the woman at the well, and, through her, to them, offering something new - that to which the religious life is supposed to be pointing, toward which it is supposed to be drawing everyone. Jesus offers a real relationship with God on earth, God in flesh, God among us, living water, real food - to them, and to us, neither on "this mountain" nor in Jerusalem. But where, then? No "where." True worship, Jesus says, doesn't happen "here" or "there" or in any "where," in any physical location; it happens in "spirit" and in "truth." Do the disciples worship "in spirit and in truth" any more than the Samaritan woman?

An unknown God

Samaritans worship what they do not know. Jews worship what they do know, because God chose to interact with the earth through the Jews. But there is a new day and a new way coming. God is spirit. God is not tied to a physical location - not tied to orthodoxy or labels of any kind - but available to any heart that hungers or thirsts.

Jesus identifies himself to the woman as the Messiah, and she "gets it." And just then, right at that moment, here come the disciples. They are shocked that he is talking to this woman, in this place.

The disciples are "us." Are we shocked, when we are shown Jesus speaking to ... well, I'm sure we can fill in that blank with a number of possibilities, a number of "types" we exclude without really thinking about it. Who is it that, when we see Jesus undeniably speaking to them, we are struck dumb?

The disciples are speechless. And the woman puts down her water jar and goes and does what we would expect disciples to do: exhorts people to come and see Jesus. It is the Samaritan woman who does this, not the disciples. Perhaps only she can reach out to her people in a way that the disciples, being natives of another country - or another persuasion, or another way of looking at the world - cannot.

The disciples - the church - press food upon Jesus. And Jesus says, don't worry about feeding me; I already have food to eat.

The disciples - the church - respond by confusing food that we physically consume with the food that Jesus is talking about.

Jesus tells the Samaritan woman, "... go, call your husband." Jesus tells the disciples, "look around you, see how the fields are ripe for harvesting." Different commands to different people in different situations.

The fields are, indeed, still ripe for the harvest. Who are the "others" who have worked hard to provide a harvest for the disciples to reap? Well, in this case, it's the Samaritan woman. She has sown a harvest amongst the people in her town. It is up to the disciples - to us, the church - to encourage, to equip, to enable and to reap the harvest sown by Jesus. May we look, with eyes unclouded by our orthodoxies, to where "outsiders" bring their people to Jesus.


COVID-19 and Proclaim Sermons : We are very aware of the innovations pastors are making to bring their preaching directly into homes. We want to help in every way we can. Please feel free to use Proclaim Sermons in any way you need to in your efforts. This includes copying it into emails, using it in video broadcasts or on your website ... frankly, please use it however you think will best serve your congregation.