Encounters With Jesus: The Woman at the Well

Scripture: John 4:1-26

Maybe you think you know my story.

Maybe you’ve heard it before.

I know you’ve heard that I was loose. A scarlet woman. A sinner. How else would a woman end up with five husbands, and then living with a man who wasn’t even her husband? We do make assumptions about these things sometimes, don’t we? But that’s not how this story goes.

This is a story of redemption, but not that kind. Jesus never told me to go and sin no more. That is someone else’s story.[1]

My story is a sad one. It didn’t start out that way. I was sought after when I was young. My parents arranged my marriage to the oldest son of a prominent family in our village outside of Sychar. He was a good man. I was bright-eyed and hopeful about the future. We talked about what life would be like: full of joy, and the laughter of children. But time passed, and there were no children.

He died young, my husband. We never even knew why.

We have a custom, in our society, that when an man dies without children, his brother should marry his wife and have children for him.[2] I didn’t want his brother, but what choice did I have? His brother, meanwhile, didn’t want children that wouldn’t even bear his name. He didn’t need to worry. Eventually, that brother died too.

It was then that people began to whisper.

There was one more brother, one more chance to carry on his family’s line. But at this point you know how the story goes: no children came, and that brother died as well.

People began to say that I was cursed. To be honest, I began to believe them. My husbands’ family shunned me, and I didn’t blame them. My own father wouldn’t take me back.

A widow is worth nothing in our society – especially a childless one. I lived on what charm I had left. I found one man to take me in, and then another. What could I do? My only other option was to beg. My fourth husband left me, and the fifth. The sixth took me in, but wouldn’t marry me at all. Would you have?

People said it was my fault, having so many husbands, but how much choice do you think a woman in my society had? None of this was how my life was supposed to go. But oh yes, we like to think we know someone else’s story. 

But that brings me to that one fateful day at the well.

When I went to get water that day, I intentionally left after most of the village women would have already come and gone. I was tired of the whispers and stares. The ones who didn’t act like they were afraid I’d cast a spell on them looked at me with pity in their eyes instead. I didn’t want any of it.

There he was, sitting there: a man I’d never seen before. He must have been a traveler. I prayed he was just thirsty; the only other reason men came to wells was to meet women, as our father Jacob did, and his father Isaac before him.[3] I did my best to ignore him. I had every intention of avoiding women that day, and I certainly didn’t need to deal with men.

But he didn’t ignore me. Instead, he asked me for a drink. His accent was Galilean. Jewish. I backed away. My people don’t associate with Jews. Oh, we have a lot of shared history, Jews and Samaritans – in fact, according to the Scriptures we share, we used to be one people. But not anymore. They have their Temple, and we have ours, and we are each heretics and idolaters to the other.

“Why are you asking me for water?” I said. The whole thing seemed a little off.

He smiled at me like he had a secret. He leaned in, and he said, “If you knew who I was, you’d be asking me for living water.”

Living water. It sounds fancy in translation, but all it really means is water that flows, like from a spring. Still, there was no spring here, just the well, and besides, from the way he said it – living water – it was clear he meant more than that.  Yep, here was just another man, talking big. Another man, trying to sell me something. I’d heard it all before. I pointed out that he didn’t even have a jug. Was he magic? Was this some sort of magic water?

“Look,” he said, “you get water from this well, you drink it, a few hours later, you’re thirsty again, right?” I nodded.

“Well,” he said, “whoever drinks the water I have will never be thirsty again.”

“Well, then, fine,” I said, as all of my bitterness rose to the surface. “Give me your magic water. I don’t ever want to have to come back to this well, anyway.”

Was I thirsty? Of course I was thirsty. I was thirsty for a life that wasn’t this one. Thirsty for a life with friendship, and intimacy, and community. I was thirsty for a life where I was cared for, and respected. Thirsty for a life where all my bad luck didn’t define me and I didn’t have always come to this well alone, where people knew my story instead of just assuming they did. All of it, I was thirsty for all of it. So yeah, if he had magic water that could do all that, I’d take it.  

He just looked at me for a while. Looked at me like he knew me. He softened somehow, or maybe it was me. He didn’t seem like he was selling something anymore.

“Why don’t you go home and get your husband,” he said quietly.

I felt myself tensing up again. “I’m not married.”

He said, “I know.”

He let that sink in.

“You’ve had five husbands, haven’t you,” he said, “and the man you’re with now isn’t your husband.”

“Look at that,” I said, “a prophet.” But my voice shook a little bit as I said it.

Could he know? Could he know my story?

And if so, could he know all of it? Not just the bad luck, not just the rumors and the whispers, not just the choices I was forced to make, but all of it – all the disappointment and the grief I’d been forced to bear; all the pain of exclusion; the fear that what they said was true; all the sheer force of will that kept me going every day? Could he know that bright-eyed girl I used to be, dreaming of the future?

His eyes said he did. He did. He knew all of it. He knew that I was thirsty for more than water. But then, aren’t we all?

I said this next part shakily, as if testing out a hypothesis. I said, “Sir, our people don’t worship God in the same way as yours. But we both believe the Messiah is coming.” I set those words down and waited.

It was quiet for a moment, and then he said, simply, “I AM.”

And that was the end of our conversation. A group of men – I suppose his disciples – arrived on the scene. They stopped in shock when they saw him talking to me, a Samaritan woman, but he beckoned them forward. But me, I put my jug down and ran. I ran toward the city and the people I usually tried so hard to avoid. I ran toward them to tell the story of the One who knew mine.

And because of me, the Samaritans of Sychar came to have faith in a Jewish Messiah.

And from that day on I told my story differently. Not just a story of brokenness, but a story of hope. Not a story of someone cursed, but of someone chosen. Not just a story of death after death, but a story of new life, for me and everyone who heard my words.

And not the story of a redeemed sinner, but the story of a person fully known.

From that day on I told my story differently, because it was part of a bigger one, and telling it meant telling God’s story too.

[1] Cf. John 8, the woman caught in adultery. The first time I preached on this passage, John 4, I really did think Jesus told the woman to go and sin no more. (I set myself straight before I preached it, though.)

[2] Deuteronomy 25:5-6 (the Samaritans also held the Pentateuch as Scripture, by the way, with some minor textual differences); cf. also Matthew 22:23-33. This practice is called levirate marriage.

[3] The well as a place to find a wife: Genesis 24 and 29

Encounters With Jesus: Zacchaeus

Scripture: Luke 19:1-10

Late one morning in the town of Jericho, a man named Zacchaeus happened to find himself up a tree.

He hadn’t set out that morning planning to climb trees. In fact, it had been a long time since Zacchaeus had climbed a tree, though it brought him back to his childhood, running and playing around the village with the other kids. He wondered briefly what they were up to these days. Zacchaeus had long since left that village for the customs hub of Jericho, and he had rarely looked back.

No, it had started out like any other morning, as Zacchaeus set out to make his collections. He noticed that the main part of town, by the road that led to Jerusalem, was awfully crowded that morning. He stopped to ask a bystander what was going on.

“Jesus of Nazareth is coming through!” the man said. Then the man realized who he was talking to, and his face clouded over.

Zacchaeus was used to that kind of reaction, but to tell you the truth it was getting to him these days. Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Actually, he was a chief tax collector, in charge of a bunch of lower-level tax collectors, and that made him relatively unpopular with the masses. It wasn’t just because people liked to grumble about the inefficiency of the public sector. It was because being a tax collector meant collecting money for the Roman Empire, the occupying power.

Sellout, they called him.

In cahoots with the enemy, they said.        

And worse names, too: Cheat. Fraud. They accused him of skimming some off the top for himself. Sometimes they spat the words of the prophets at him, words about trampling the poor under your sandals.

Zacchaeus narrowed his eyes back at the man, then turned around and kicked the trunk of a nearby sycamore tree.

He had heard about this guy Jesus, who was on his way into town.  He had heard he was a healer and that he told stories about the Kingdom of God. People even claimed that when you were with him it was like being in the presence of God Godself. Zacchaeus hadn’t really put much stock in any of it. He was more of a realist than a romantic. You know what was real? Money. Money was real.

Still, if Jesus was coming right through his own town, he figured he might as well stick around.

People were continuing to gather and Zacchaeus pushed his way to the front of the crowd so he could see. It seemed like Zacchaeus spent his whole life fighting his way to the front in one way or another: fighting to prove he was as tough as the tall kids, fighting to leave his village and make something of himself. This time he happened to jostle a woman in the process. She looked over to glare at him and when recognition dawned, she glared harder. “Traitor,” she muttered under her breath.

Zacchaeus felt anger rising up in his chest like a fire. He turned around to storm home. He stopped to kick the sycamore tree again as he went. Then he had an idea.

And that’s how Zacchaeus found himself up a tree that morning.

He felt a little silly at first. But he also breathed a little easier once he was slightly removed from the crush of the crowd. From his perch on a strong branch, he surveyed the scene and felt a wave of bitterness rush through him. There were people talking, laughing, little kids jumping up and down and sitting on their fathers’ shoulders. It was a scene that was familiar to him, one he would have fit right into, once.

But he was poor, then, too.

Zacchaeus sat in that tree and had a fight, in his head, with all the people down on the ground. They wanted to call him a sellout for working for the Romans? Well, who maintained those roads they walked on every day? Who provided security and protection against all the nations around them? Hypocrites, he thought, always complaining when they don’t even know how much they benefit from Roman rule.

Oh, fine, it’s not that the Romans are perfect, he thought, still fighting with the people in his head. But it’s a rough world out there, and a man has to make his way in it somehow. Everyone was jealous, he knew, that Zacchaeus had managed to make a life for himself, that he had found his way out of the poverty they lived in – that he dressed well and could afford to throw a nice dinner party now and then.

Any of them would have done the same if they’d had the opportunity, he said to himself.

And the cheating? Well, Zacchaeus wasn’t saying it was true, but if he demanded extra from his guys, who demanded extra from the people they collected from, it was just because the guy above him demanded extra, too. It’s just the way the system worked, he didn’t make it up. You had to live in the real world.

Zacchaeus sat in that tree, justifying himself.

“I’m a good person,” he finally said aloud, to people who weren’t listening and didn’t care. He heard how it sounded coming out of his mouth, the absurdity of it.

He shook his head and almost went home. Who needed Jesus, anyway. He would probably just judge him like everyone else. The religious ones were always the worst.

But just as he was about to climb down, the crowd erupted in cheers, and Zacchaeus looked up. He could see people running up to someone a ways down the road, trying to lean in and touch his robe. That must be him!  He could see the man on the road leaning down to a hug a child.  He could see him stretch his hand out to bless someone. And for a moment, Zacchaeus allowed himself to get swept up in the excitement, and he felt a strange feeling: maybe hope, if he remembered what that was.

Jesus drew closer and closer until he was almost under the tree where Zacchaeus sat. Zacchaeus shrunk back, seeking safety in the anonymity the branches provided him, and waited for Jesus to pass.

But Jesus didn’t walk past.

Instead he stopped. 

And he looked up.  Right into Zacchaeus’s tree.

Zacchaeus’s eyes inadvertently caught his.  Zacchaeus quickly looked away.

But Jesus didn’t move.  So Zacchaeus looked back, half waiting for Jesus to call him out.  Sellout. Fraud.

But Jesus just stood there for a minute and then he called over the sound of the crowd, “Zacchaeus.”

Zacchaeus suddenly wished that instead of being up high in a tree, he could sink into the ground. He didn’t know how Jesus knew his name, but his reputation must have preceded him. He braced himself for the words to follow. He prepared to fight with Jesus in his head. I’m a good person, he muttered to himself. He felt that fire rising up in him again.

“Zacchaeus,” Jesus said, “come on down from there.  I’m coming to your house.”

Zacchaeus paused, wondering for a moment if he had heard correctly. But Jesus stood there, looking up. And, since he didn’t know what else to do, Zacchaeus climbed down and stood before him.

And, in a complete surprise to himself, he started to cry.

And instead of justifying himself Zacchaeus suddenly wanted to say, no, no Jesus, you can’t come over, because it’s true, what they say, all of it, I’m a sellout and a fraud, a traitor to my people and a disappointment to God.

But Jesus just stood there, and somehow Zacchaeus sensed that Jesus knew. But he wasn’t looking at him with judgment. He didn’t wear that same cloudy expression Zacchaeus was used to everywhere he went.

He knew who Zacchaeus was. And he wanted to come over anyway. 

The crowd seemed to catch on to what was happening. “You can’t go to his house,” came one voice.  “Don’t you know who he is?”  “He’s a sinner!” another voice said.  “Sinner!” came more voices.  The voices echoed and blurred in Zacchaeus’s ears.

And though Jesus had only asked to come to his house, without even thinking, Zacchaeus blurted out the only thing he could think of to make the voices stop: “I’m going to give half of what I own to the poor!”

The crowd got quiet for a minute.  Zacchaeus had surprised even himself again.  For a split second he regretted it.  He wondered if he could take it back.

But then he saw a little smile begin to form on Jesus’ face.

So he didn’t take it back.  Instead, Zacchaeus took a deep breath, and he said, a little shakily this time, but with resolve: “And if I’ve cheated anyone, I’ll pay them back four times over.”

He was surprised to find that it felt good to say it.  He felt lighter, somehow, like possibilities were opening before him, like things could be different, and he didn’t have to fight so hard anymore. He looked Jesus in the eye this time, and laughed. Not because it was funny, but because he was free.

Jesus laughed back.  “Child of God,” he said, “this is what salvation feels like.” 

He put a hand gently on Zacchaeus’s back, and on they walked, down the road to Zacchaeus’s house.

Star Words: Call

Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-8; Matthew 4:18-22

“Call” is a word I’ve used a lot since I became a pastor. In fact, if I had a way to go back and tally things up, it might be the Star Word I’ve used the most of all the Star Words on our list. I’ve used it to talk about my own entrance into ministry, and with people discerning whether that is their path too. I often use it in sermons: I pose it as a question – where is God calling us? – or as an answer: This is what God calls us to. Sometimes I use it in conversation with you all: how are you feeling called to serve?

I think that before I was a pastor, or at least before I was in the process toward becoming one, I didn’t use the word call very much. And that does make me wonder if it’s another one of those words we throw around in church without necessarily stopping to talk about what it means.

It’s not that the word or concept of call or calling is entirely absent from our secular world. It is a word we use sometimes, not just in the sense of a conversation on the phone but in the sense of fulfilling a higher purpose: so-and-so has found their calling. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Disney movie Moana – it came out about 5 years ago but I had never seen it until this fall when Moana became suddenly very popular in our house. Moana is Disney’s Polynesian princess, the daughter of a chief who sets out to help her island in a time of need. She stands at the brink of the sea and knows she is supposed to cross it, just like her ancestors once did. “See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me,” she sings in the song “How Far I’ll Go.” So we do hear and understand these things, both inside church and out.

What I don’t know is whether we mean the same thing. What does it mean to be called by God? And maybe the most important question: how do we know?

If you think about those stories in the Bible that we sometimes call “call stories,” there is seldom any room to doubt just what is happening and what’s supposed to happen next. Moses encounters a burning bush in the wilderness and hears a voice telling him to lead God’s people out of Egypt. The prophet Isaiah sees smoke filling the temple and the threshold shakes as he hears “Whom shall I send?” For Jonah it takes being swallowed up by a giant fish to convince him to go proclaim God’s grace to his enemies in Nineveh. Mary has a face-to-face conversation with an angel who tells her she is going to be the mother of Jesus. And later, when that baby boy grows up, fishermen drop their nets at the sound of his voice, and follow.

I used to think that call stories should happen like that – the proverbial flash of lightning, the one, clear answer or direction for your life, that when God made it known, you knew. And I know people now, with stories like that. But for most people, I think, that’s not how it works.

I know that for me, call was something I awakened to gradually. I read books by faith leaders who inspired me with their work and sacrifice for justice. I learned to read the Bible in a new way and fell in love with God’s story. I met people and had the growing realization that these were God’s people, in all their varying colors and backgrounds and abilities and stories.  The more I learned about the Kingdom of God, this vision of divine reality here on earth, where all are loved and all are valued and all are welcome, the more I wanted to invite other people to be part of that vision with me. And I prayed and I asked questions and I talked to people and they said things like, “Yeah, that sounds right,” and “We’ve always seen something of that in you.”

I didn’t go to college thinking that I was headed to seminary when I graduated. But somewhere along the way it was a thought that crossed my mind, and came and went for a while, until eventually it didn’t go away anymore.

Like most pastors I know, I’ve told my call story a lot of times by now, from my interviews with the Board of Ordained Ministry to the random conversation in line at 7-11, and I think one of the mistakes we make in church is assuming that call stories are only for pastors, because we’re the ones that tell them. But they’re not. God calls all sorts of people to all sorts of different things: to teaching, to science, to caregiving, to politics, to art. These are vocations that are every bit as crucial to the Kingdom of God, to God’s intended reality here on earth, as standing up to preach every Sunday (or sitting down, as the case may be) and each of those journeys, I know, has its own holy story.

And that story might even change over time, as new chapters are added. I used to think that “call” was when you knew the one thing you were meant to do with your life, even if it might have been any number of things. I don’t necessarily believe that now. I used to hear people in ministry say a lot that you shouldn’t be a pastor if you could imagine yourself doing anything else. I don’t know if that’s a thing they say in other professions, but I think it misses the mark. I could see myself doing lots of things. This one, I believe, on most days, is the best way I can use my gifts and passions and skills for the glory of God. I prefer that quote by Frederick Buechner – “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Note that “calling” is not synonymous with “career.” Not all of us will find our deep gladness meeting the world’s deep hunger doing the thing that pays us money. Some of us have to put food on the table; not everyone has the luxury of being choosy. Some of us may be unable to work at a job; others may be past that point in their life. Still, some people answer their God-given call by volunteering with kids on the weekends, or serving in church leadership; some people answer their call less by doing a certain thing and more by doing whatever it is they do in a certain way: by making sure their employees are treated fairly, by making choices with integrity, by bringing joy to their neighbors, or by always looking for a chance to help. Maybe the problem is that sometimes, we make the idea of “call” too fancy. We think we have to be the chosen one; when really, we can be called on any given day to make the hard choice, to welcome someone new, to forgive someone, to march or sit or ride a bus, or to pick up the phone and let someone know they’re loved. Sometimes, God called people, like Moses, to a lifelong position; sometimes God called people, like Jonah, to a particular task. Sometimes, when Jesus tells us to drop our nets, he means for the rest of our lives; sometimes, maybe, he means for today – and nets or no nets, we follow him.

I love the story the author Barbara Brown Taylor tells of a hard decision she once had to make.  She prayed and prayed, hoping God would reveal to her which path God wanted her to take. Eventually, she said, the answer she got was this: “Do whatever pleases you, and belong to me.”[1]

In the end, our ultimate, unchanging call is this: to be God’s people in the world. In the end, our call is this: to follow Jesus in whatever circumstances we find ourselves; to love God and our neighbor with everything God has given us. And might God sometimes have a more specific task or purpose for us? Sure. And if we are living every day with the intention of giving what we have for the God’s glory, then I suspect we won’t miss that call when it comes. And if we do? There will be other chances.

You may never see the hem of God’s robe filling the temple, or meet an angelic messenger face to face, or hear a voice booming from heaven. But we follow one who called fishermen and tax collectors, overlooked women and Pharisees, and he calls us too, to live and love as God intended, and to use our gifts for the Kingdom of God.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World