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Monday, March 24, 2014

Jesus Pauses for the Woman at the Well

Jesus Pauses (John 4:3-30, 39-42)

            “Jesus pauses.”  It is not as commonly quoted as “Jesus wept.”  In fact, it is not actually a Bible verse at all.  But it is something Jesus does.  He pauses.  Jesus moves with intention.  His actions have purpose and, it appears, he always has a plan.  Sometimes though, he steps off book, out of the plan.  Sometimes, he delays his movement.  He pauses because we need him to pause.  Whenever we see Jesus do something to help people, something seemingly spontaneous, we ought to know he is in the act of showing what God does.  God pauses to help.
            I thought about saying “Jesus stops.”  It certainly wouldn’t be wrong to say it that way.  Jesus and the disciples were headed North on the road and in fact they did stop.  “Jesus stops” is not radically different than “Jesus pauses.”  However, this is such a brief rest stop and even more than brief, unexpected, that I thought ‘pauses’ gets more to the heart of what we see of God in this story.
            Note verse 3 and the beginning of 4.  “Jesus left Judea and started for Galilee again.  This time he had to go through Samaria, and on his way he came to the town of Sychar.”  From later in the story and also from other accounts in this Gospel and also in Luke’s Gospel, we know there was tremendous animosity between Jews and Samaritans.  Samaritans were descendants of the intermarrying of Jews and the ancient Assyrians.  Thus, the Jews hated them for making the race impure.  This all sounds awful to us but we are far removed from that time in history.  It made sense to the people back then.  “You are a Jew,” she said to Jesus.  “And I am a Samaritan woman.  How can you ask me for a drink of water when Jews and Samaritans won’t have anything to do with each other” (v.9)?
            She did not question the reality of racism.  She accepted it.  She did not blame the Jews nor accept any blame on Samaria’s behalf.  Jews and Samaritans hated each other.  That was reality.  She knew it.  Jesus knew it.  There were Jew in Northern communities and the capital and center of Jewish life was Jerusalem, in the south.  For Northern Jews like Jesus to come from their homes in Galilee to festivals at the temple in Jerusalem, they had to pass through Samaria.  And to get back home, they had to pass through Samaria again.  This was all normal.  Jesus, the disciples, the woman – each knew this was life in their time.  To hate, that was life.  To walk in the region of the people we hate, that was life.  To be thirsty from hours of walking in the hot sun, that too was life.
            What did verse 3 say?  Jesus was on the moved, headed for the work God prepared for him in Galilee.  Samaria was not on the agenda.  He had come to Israel.  This was such an unimportant stop; it seems there was no reason for John to write about it. 
            Then Jesus stepped out of character.  He, a Jewish man, made the most normal of activities, drinking water while thirsty, an extraordinary thing when he asked for that drink from a Samaritan woman.  She pointed out the absurdity of his request.  Men don’t talk to unaccompanied women in the public square.  Jewish men don’t address Samaritan women in any circumstance.
            Jesus responded by pointing out the absurdity of the existence of hate among people.  He dared to announce that the emperor had no clothes.  “You don’t the gift God wants to give you.”  He replied.  “If you did, you would ask and I would give you living water.  Life-giving water.  Water that would quench your thirst forever” (paraphrasing v. 10, 13).  This was exactly when Jesus paused.
            She did not know that.  She could only see him as some kind of loopy prophets.  Prophets and doomsayers were forever coming along from the Jews.  She was bored enough to enter the fray.  She turned from nonsense talk of living water to theology.  She, rightfully, claimed the great Patriarch Jacob, as her ancestor.  She, like the Pharisees, would nail Jesus with deft theological reasoning.  “Are you greater than Jacob,” she asked with a raised eyebrow.
            Theology can be really safe when it is not personal.  When it is removed from my life and serves as an intellectual abstraction, theology never has to matter.  I love theology.  I read heavy doses of theological writing.  It informs my preaching and my living.  But it becomes irrelevant if it goes silent when I close the book.  The theology Jesus lived could not be contained in a book.  He would not let this woman escape his gaze by retreating to theological strongholds. 
            “No who drinks the water I give will ever be thirsty again.” He responded.  “The water I give is like a flowing fountain that gives eternal life” (v.14).
            Cue her eye roll.  She was sure he was a prophet.  A clamoring, impotent false prophet.  He wouldn’t be swayed by her attempts that theology, so she would play along.  If he wanted to be ridiculous, she’d join this odd, out of place Jew and have a little fun.  “Sir, please give me a drink of this water.  Then I won’t have to get thirsty and keep coming back to this well, day after day” (paraphrased, v.15).
            Jesus was done playing games.  He told her to call her husband.  And she had had it.  She was done with the games too.  “I don’t have a husband.”  Who cares if this crazy Jew ridiculed her?  The women in town came to the well in community, but she, a woman discarded by too many men, was no longer welcome in that community.  Her Samaritan sisters disregarded her as much as they disregarded the Jews.  This coo-coo Jewish man was showing her more kindness than anyone had in a long time.  What the heck?  Just tell the truth.  “I don’t have a husband.”
            Prophecy is only from God when it matters, when it is true, and when it is personal.  Jesus delivered blunt, prophetic truth.  “You don’t have a husband.  Five have cast you out.  Now, the man with whom you live doesn’t even bother recognizing you as a wife.  He satisfies himself with your company.  He gives you no regard, no respect.”
            She was completely bare before Jesus.  Oh, her clothes were still on.  But he sees everything.  He saw right to her heart.  He saw her deepest pain. That’s what Jesus does.  He is always, always on his way somewhere.  And he always, always, pauses to look us right in the eye and pierce our souls with truth and love.  Jesus did that with this woman, and we see what God does with us. 
            For her part, the woman was not laughing anymore.  She again raised issues of theology, but this time, she was quite serious and ready to listen.  Then she moved from theology to faith.  “I know the Messiah will come,” she said, “and he will explain everything” (v.26). 
            Jesus responded, “I am he.”
            To review, Jesus paused along the way to Galilee and asked a Samaritan woman for water.  As he did he told her God wanted to give a gift, a gift of living water that would give eternal life.  They carried on a conversation that was times amusing and at times quite serious, personal, and even invasive.  But in the end, she said, she believed in God’s Messiah.  Jesus responded he was that Messiah and he already told her two things.  First, he told her God wanted worshipers to worshiper in spirit and in truth.  It did not matter where worship happened as long as it happened in spirit and in truth.  Second, Jesus told her he could give things only God could give.  And she believed, at least partly.  She believed as much as she could and that bit of faith was enough.  Jesus met her where she was.  He paused on his predestined journey for someone who was in deep pain and who was open to the truth.
            Does that describe us?  Is there pain in me?  Oh yeah.  You?  Definitely.  We live in the legacy of sin.  To be human is to be created “very good.”  To be human is to bear the image of God.  We are the pinnacle of God’s creation.  But, the fall has damaged what God has made.  In our own lives, we re-create Eve’s moment of choice in the garden.  In our own lives, we stare at the forbidden fruit.  And we choose to bite it.  Not every time.  Sometimes we heroically win the victories Jesus won when he resisted Satan’s temptations in the desert.  Sometimes, we choose not to sin.  Too often it goes the other way.  We are sinners.
            Sin hurts.  We are hurt by our mistakes.  We suffer pain from the sins of people who have come before us.  We are injured by sins of people around us.  And our friends and neighbors and the people who we pass daily are wounded by our sins.  This is the legacy of the fall.  Jesus Paused for someone in pain.  Are we individuals and collectively a people in pain?  There is no doubt.
            The woman at the well, though, was not only one in pain.  She was also open to seeing God.  She made not have known just how ready she was to receive salvation.  She wasn’t intentionally seeking.  She was just about the drudgery of a toilsome daily task – hauling heavy buckets of water from the well to her cottage.  That’s where God shows up.  People want “mountain top experiences.”  People want to come to church and to be lifted out of their seats by the majesty of the music.  People want to be carried to the heavens by the fury and brilliance of the preaching.  Maybe that happens in some places.  But what preacher in history could top Jesus?  And what was his genius opening line with this woman?  “Can I have a drink of water?”
            God meets us in our plain, everyday, mundane places.  God meets us where we live.  There God acknowledges the pains and disappointments we live with.  God does not deny or minimize the harder parts of life.  God brings living water to our thirsty lives.  God pauses so that we can see Him if we are willing to believe there is something more than what our eyes see. 
            Remember the beginning of this passage.  Jesus left Judea and started for Galilee.  He had to pass through Samaria.  But that region was not a scheduled stop.  His mission was to announce the Kingdom of God among the Jews.  That mission did not include a side trip in Samaria.  However, he met a woman who listened and received the gift God wanted to give.
            In the epilogue of this amazingly simple yet deeply profound story, the woman ran to the town who shunned her for circumstances she most certainly could not control.  In such a tight-knit community, a woman 5 times divorced would be known and scorned.  Everyone knew who she was and avoided her.  But here she was shouting in the center of town.  She was so excited to be that close to God, she told the very people who had been cruel to her.
            For their part, they investigated and Jesus was so compelling and inviting, they asked him to stay with them and he did.  Remember, he was on his way somewhere and just paused to get a drink and share the good news of God’s coming with a woman who was in deep pain and was willing to hear him.  From that pause, John tells us, “he stayed on for two days” (v.40). 
            The people said to the woman, “We no longer have faith in Jesus just because of what you have told us.  We have heard him ourselves, and we are certain he is the Savior of the world” (v.41).  It does not matter how many husbands she has had.  It does not matter if Jesus is Jewish and they are Samaritan.  This is bigger than all that.  Upon hearing, they realized the gift God wanted to give.
            God still wants to give that gift.  The story of Jesus – cross and resurrection – is the story of God coming because God wants to give people life.  God wants to give you and me eternal life as adopted sons and daughters of God.  God pauses and comes beside us because he loves.  That’s what God does.  When God pauses, be ready for the unexpected.  Be ready to receive love and grace.  When God pauses, we also pause to listen to Him that we might receive the abundant life he offers.


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