Lent 3 – Grace unexpected (John 4: 5-42)

When Jesus meets this nameless woman in John’s gospel, we expect a showdown.  A woman – a Samaritan woman –the rules of behaviour don’t leave room for casual conversations between single men and unrelated women, especially if they are from opposite sides of the track.  Religion and tradition created fear between and among people of different heritage, different gender and different social status – some things never change.


John’s gospel – written almost 100 years after the resurrection of Jesus – brings with it a conviction that some of these differences are too deeply engrained to be overcome, even as it proclaims Jesus as the one who breaks down such barriers.  Not only was there tension between Jew and Samaritan, there was tension building between Jews and the followers of Jesus – people who were ‘the same, yet different’.  There is always plenty to be wary of – even more when you live on the edge of society, or under an oppressive government, or follow a faith that is misrepresented or misunderstood.


John’s gospel grows out of these tensions and in a community that is eager to define itself and explain its beliefs.  There is much in the fourth gospel that sounds like deep theological thinking to our ears, and that is not what we want.  We want to know who Jesus is and how he can lead us to the promised peace of God.  And then, Jesus meets a woman who is the object of fear and misunderstanding; a person without power, without voice, without social standing.

The woman at the well doesn’t have time for deep theological arguments either, instead, she confronts their differences.  She names the elephant in the room.

“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”  Their theological and social differences should divide them – these are differences that cultivate fear and breed contempt – but neither Jesus nor this woman will be bound by those expectations.

As it happens, they have nothing to lose by talking.  Jesus is following his own path – guided by a vision of God that is baffling even to his closest friends.  And this woman is already on the fringe of her society Her past (and present) have placed her in an unhappy place in the world.  She seems to have moved from one relationship to another without finding the husband that society expects her to have.  She is different, and so she is to be avoided.  But Jesus will not – cannot – avoid her.  And this looms larger than any other lesson that the gospel might teach us.

We find our own ways to describe and exclude people like her in our time – and we are none too kind when we do it; we are only too eager (it seems) to imagine differences that divide, for division separates us from things we don’t understand – things we fear.

We make moral judgements about people who are different – objects of our unspoken fears – there must be something wrong…(with them),  and these moral failings (so called) are the sort of thing that Jesus should call out and demand be corrected – (that’s what we do on Jesus’ behalf) – but Jesus does not make any reference to morality, or behaviour, or even sin…Jesus is not afraid of the differences between them (though he recognizes that they are significant).  He points to the one thing we all share; a connection to God. All of humanity has desire for relationship and a hunger to serve God, and each of us pursues this after our own fashion.  This “forbidden” conversation is about worship; it’s about faith; it’s about theology, and it’s simple.

We worship God, each in our own way, but God is even now seeking our true worship, not in one place over another – in one style over another – but in spirit and truth.

Jesus honours this woman with conversation, with knowledge, and with the same generosity of spirit that is offered to those who seek peace with God.

It is remarkable that the village responds to the invitation Jesus offers through this woman; it is remarkable that his disciples don’t appreciate the miracle that they are witnessing – and we are offered in this story a remarkable lesson, not in complex theological doctrines of omnipotence of Jesus (how did he know all that?), nor the divinity of Jesus (didn’t he claim to be Messiah?) but in the irresistible nature of grace and the triumph of love over fear.

When Jesus treats this outcast as a fellow human; acknowledges her as one beloved of God; he is making the grace of God plainly visible, and she is not only converted (from doubt to faith), she brings the whole village with her.  That is a far more powerful lesson – and a clearer path to follow – than any exploration of the finer points of theology can offer.

In the end, for all of the window dressing that John’s gospel offers us, the meeting at the well is a lesson in unexpected hospitality – in looking past cultural baggage and finding a child of God, both for Jesus and this nameless woman.  Jesus offers grace and love as the antidote to our fear, and we would be wise to take our medicine.



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