March 12, 2023 – The Third Sunday In Lent

Mother Elizabeth Farr

“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 (John 4:42).’”

There are so many layers and dimensions and details to consider in today’s Gospel story. The Gospel of John does not tell the Good News in parables. At least not as we know them from the other three Gospels, where the parables are the stories of Jesus to the disciples and the crowds.

Stories that surprise because they celebrate an unexpected image – a shepherd who leaves the 99 vulnerable to go out in search of the one who is lost, workers hired late in the day who receive the same wages as those who have worked the full day, a wayward son who is welcomed home by his father’s lavish love, a Samaritan whose care and compassion makes him good in defiance of every name and stereotype the world would hurl at him.

The story of a Samaritan. Defying expectations. Being the exemplar.

The Gospel of John does not tell the Good News in parables – and yet, this Gospel keeps throwing surprising images at us and imploring us to hold those images alongside what we have always known. What we have always been told. What we have always assumed. To hold the familiar alongside the unexpected and have our hearts and minds transformed by God’s truth and spirit.

“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 (John 4:42).’”

All of the layers and dimensions and details. Let’s start with one of the bigger details. Let’s start with the world. Last week we heard another story from the Gospel of John (John 3:1-17). We had another image thrown at us as Nicodemus came to visit Jesus “by night.” Now there’s a lot in the story of Nicodemus that we could hold alongside this story of the Samaritan woman at the well.

The most obvious: Nicodemus comes by night. Jesus and the Samaritan woman meet at noon. That contrast is intentional. These two stories are meant to be in conversation with one another. Especially when we look at John 3:16 – that verse in the story of Nicodemus that says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

For God so loved the world. What does the world look like? What does God’s love in the world look like? In our Psalm today, we hear, “In his hand are the caverns of the earth, and the heights of the hills are his also / The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands have molded the dry land.” It sounds like God has the whole world in God’s Almighty hands.

And Jesus must have known that his followers would struggle with this truth. Jesus must have known that we would struggle with this truth – the truth that God’s love is active in the whole world. Jesus must have known that we would struggle and even begin to make judgments on which parts of God’s creation God holds – and which parts of God’s creation are held elsewhere – outside of God’s love.

After the encounter with Nicodemus, Jesus takes his disciples on an intentional journey, a journey to answer the question, “What does the world God loves look like?” They leave Jerusalem, go into the countryside, and begin to travel north to Galilee. And then Jesus does something surprising. The Gospel of John tells us, “He had to go through Samaria.”

If we looked at a map, or if like Jesus and the disciples, we had made this journey many times, we would know that that wasn’t true. There were ways to get to Galilee that avoided Samaria – and people avoided it everyday. Especially Jews from Jerusalem.

The Jews and the Samaritans held common history, but in the time of Jesus, they were defined against one another. We know this. We know the parable from Luke’s Gospel. We know the audacity of thinking anything good can come from Samaria. Surely the world God loves and the world in which God sent God’s Son does not include Samaria. Not that land. Or those people. We all have a Samaria and Samaritans that we place outside of the story of the whole world God loves.

And to that, Jesus says, “Journey with me. It is necessary that we go to Samaria.” And so Jesus goes. And he sits at Jacob’s well at noontime. And he seeks out the unlovable. God’s son comes to the world God loves, and that world is a woman of Samaria. A woman who has been married five times and is living with another partner. An unlovable woman even by the measures of her own community. That’s why she comes to the well at noon and not early in the morning with the other women.

God loves the world of this unlovable, ostracized woman, and so he sends his Son into her world, and Jesus and this woman have the longest conversation of any conversation with Jesus in any of the Gospels. They’re still talking as the disciples get back from picking up food in town.

Here they all are – Jesus – the Samaritan woman – and the disciples – gathered at the well – that place where so many important meetings have happened and relationships have begun: Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel. God forms families. God creates new horizons at the well. And here, at Jacob’s well, God is revealing the world God loves – the world of unlovable, ostracized women and people of long animosity gathered together.

The Samaritan woman fully engages this experience with Jesus at the well. In his nighttime visit to Jesus, after hearing about being born again and being born from above, Nicodemus finally says, “How can these things be?” and those are the last words we hear from him. He leaves in the dark, afraid of his encounter with Jesus and not willing to stay in relationship and continue the conversation. “How can these things be?”

The Samaritan woman has questions too, but she holds them in the full light of day. She wonders about the living water that Jesus offers even as she asks that it be given to her. She takes the time to dialogue with Jesus. She names the hard things of her life and she pauses long enough to hear Jesus affirm that they are hard. She names the truth of her life. She trusts Jesus with that truth, and she also pauses long enough to hear Jesus proclaim his truth, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

The Samaritan woman shares the experience of her changed world at the well, her world with Jesus now in it, and even in her sharing, the woman still has questions. “Come and see this man,” she tells her community, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Unlike Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman is comfortable with her questions being her witness to God’s love in the world.

“I met Love today at the well. Is this Love the Messiah? Does the Messiah want anything to do with my world – with our world?” Sometimes our questions are our greatest witness – the best evidence of the Spirit still moving in the world. People desire that witness. Our communities need to hear our questions about our encounters with Love in the world.

The community of the Samaritan woman comes and meets Jesus at the well. They meet Love, and they invite Love to stay in their world. The witness of the Samaritan woman becomes the witness of the whole community, and Love spreads and grows: “We know,” the people say, “that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

Of the whole world. Held in God’s Almighty hands. The Samarias. The unloveable women. The ostracized people. All held in God’s hands. It is necessary to go to Samaria because “. . . God so loved the world . . .”


*In the preparation of this sermon, I am grateful for the scholarship and commentary of Karoline Lewis in her book Belonging and also her commentary, along with Joy J. Moore and Matt Skinner, on the Working Preacher podcast:

Year A  –  The Third Sunday in Lent  –   March 1, 2023   –  The Rev. Elizabeth Langford Farr