March 19 2017 Sermon: “Details and Gaps”

March 19, 2017

“Details and Gaps”

The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray

John 4:5-42 (NRSV)

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” 27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” 39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 

40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word.  42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”


My grandfather Sonstegard was a great story-teller.  My sister and I could give him a few key elements, like a princess, a dragon and chocolate pudding, and he could weave a fable out of thin air.

Any good story is made up of details and gaps.  The details are the important things the author wants us to know, and the gaps are where our imaginations take over to fill in the story.

And if a written story filled in every single detail for us, it would be very long and very boring.  This is why I think, a book version is always better than a movie version, because the movie version fills in all the gaps for us.

When we read from the Bible, like the passage we read today, we may find that there are a lot of gaps, information we wish had been included.  And there are details included that don’t make a whole lot of sense to us because we don’t understand the geography or the culture.

We might think that when we sit down to read it is just us and these 37 verses of the Bible.  One of the biblical scholars I’ve been reading this semester talks about how we should read all of scripture as interconnected to other parts of scripture, interpreting other parts of scripture, like one big centuries-long conversation back and forth, and if we only read the Bible in little pieces we will miss a whole lot.

So for example looking at our text today, what is this story about the land that Jacob gave to Joseph and why is it important?  We would have to read back in Genesis to find out.

Why do Jews not share anything with Samaritans?  We have to read back in 2 Kings to find out about how five foreign nations were resettled in Samaria by the Assyrians and how that changed the people who lived there.

What does Jesus mean by living water?

We might hear echoes of when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness and God commanded Moses to strike a rock and a spring of water appeared in the middle of the desert.

Or we might think of the first miracle that the writer of John tells us about, when Jesus is at a wedding in Cana and where there were also stone water jars that Jesus asked to be filled.

We might discover reading through John’s account of Jesus’ life a time when Jesus is at the Festival of the booths and Jesus stands and proclaims, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.  As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:37-38)

Sometimes we read a text and find the answers we seek, but I think more often our questions lead to more questions, and we seem to think that means we did something wrong, we read the text the wrong way, but what if reading the Bible is supposed to work like that, like a long conversation with plenty of questions.

What struck me reading the passage this week was how similar it was to last week.  Last week Nicodemus, a male Jewish leader, one of the religious and intellectual elite, an insider, comes to Jesus and they have a conversation.

This week the woman at the well, a Samaritan woman, an outsider, considered inferior because of her gender, her ethnicity and her relationship history, has a conversation with Jesus.

John’s account of Jesus’ life has many such conversations; and in both cases faith grows through conversation and questions.  Both Nicodemus and the woman at the well show us that faith is not always instantaneous.

We don’t always get it all at once.  We wrestle with it, struggle with it, ask questions, sometimes it takes time.

Let’s go back to the details and the gaps of this story.  The details of the story are that Jesus finds out that the Pharisees are upset because many people are becoming his disciples and his disciples are baptizing many people (you can see that in chapter 4 verses 1 and 2) so he decides to leave Judea and head back to Galilee.  The text says that Jesus had to go through Samaria.

And here is a detail and a gap.

Jesus did not have to travel through Samaria; there was a well-worn path around Samaria that many Jewish travelers used.

Did Jesus have to go because that was God’s will for him?

Because Jesus needed to move beyond just talking to his own people?

Because he sensed a great need in this land of strangers?

Because God’s salvation was for all people?

Jesus arrives at a well.  It is noon and his disciples leave him behind alone as they go to the city to get food.  And a woman arrives with a heavy jug to fill from the well.

It was customary to fill your water for your livestock or your home in the cool of morning or evening.

Why does this woman come in the middle of the day?  Another gap.

It is in the gaps so often the Spirit speaks to us through God’s Word.

We learn a little later on that this woman has had five husbands and is living with a man who is not her husband.

There used to be an assumption that this woman had done something wrong, that she was sexual immoral, but neither the text nor Jesus’ words suggest this.   She could be a widow, who has lost several husbands, perhaps one to famine, one to fever, one to infection, one to tragic accident.  She could be barren, and rejected by her husbands.  Under Levirate law she could not ask for a divorce, but her husband could easily divorce her in a very public way.  Or after the death of her first husband she might trapped in a levirate marriage, married off to other male members of her husband’s household.

And now she lives with a man who will not marry her, someone who is happy to have her household services but unwilling to offer her the protection of marriage.

When other people would have come to well with their children or servants or family to carry the heavy water home, she comes alone.

Is it because she feels like she is cursed?

Because she is ashamed?

Because other people look down on her?

Because her grief is too great to be around other people?

Jesus crosses every ethnic, religious, and cultural boundary to speak to this woman, and she knows it.

Jesus as a Jew should not be touching anything belonging to the unclean Samaritans. And when the disciples return they too are astonished to find him talking to the woman.  She could have left.  It would have been the safe thing to do.  But she stays, she too crosses boundaries which opens the door to transformation.

And they have a conversation about the difference between water and living water, and about their common ancestor Jacob, and about her personal story, and about worshipping God, and about the Messiah.

Jacob Neusner, in his book “A Rabbi talks with Jesus,” explains that for a rabbi to dialogue with others is a sign of respect.  He writes, “It is my form of respect, the only compliment I crave from others, the only serious tribute I pay to the people I take seriously — and therefore I respect and even love.”

It is to this unnamed woman that Jesus speaks the first of his “I am” statements which form the backbone of John’s story of Jesus: “I am the bread of life,” “I am the good shepherd,” “I am the resurrection and the life,” “I am the true vine” (There are 7 or 8 or 9 depending on which ones you count).  Jesus says to her, “I am the Christ, the one who is speaking to you.”

And the woman is so overcome by this conversation that she goes back to the city, and she is changed.

Instead of seeking solitude she finds people and tells them that Jesus told her everything she had ever done and for this reason she thinks he might be the Messiah.  This is a fascinating detail.

She doesn’t say he told me he would give me living water or he told me about true worship or he told me straight to my face that he was the messiah.

But instead she says, “He told me everything I have ever done,” and John actually repeats this statement twice. He says later that many people believed in Jesus because she said this.

Why was that the thing that made her believe?

Was it that she couldn’t believe God would still love her in spite of her great pain and suffering?

Was it just knowing that she was known by God?

Was it suddenly feeling free of the burdens she had been carrying?

Was it about being given back her dignity?

And did you notice what she left behind?  That heavy jug of water.  The text specifically tells us this.

Why does she leave it?

Was it because Jesus needed it and it was something she could offer him?

Was it because she was now free of the burden of it; it represents her dependency and shame and now she is free?

Because it would have slowed her down as she ran back to the city?

Was it because she and Jesus had moved from strangers to family and she left it in his keeping?

Maybe it was a promise that she would return for it and bring others with her?

This story is so rich with meaning it needs more than one sermon and more than one reading.  It is so rich with meaning that each time we return to the text with all our questions, we might hear the Spirit speak to us in a new way.

Since so often our faith grows through questions and conversation, I am going to leave you with these questions.

In what way can you identify with the woman at the well?

What is the one question you would ask Jesus if you could?

What token of your difficult life would you leave behind?