Biblically speaking, men meet their future wives at wells. It happened for Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. Jesus, of course, was never married, but he’s well aware of the symbolism of his speaking to this Samaritan woman at a well. He knows that throughout the Bible, God is often depicted as husband or bridegroom to his people, Israel, his wife or bride. In the New Testament, Paul and the Book of Revelation also pick up this theme. So on Valentine’s Day 2016, we’re studying a scripture that points to the greatest, most romantic love story ever told: that Jesus, God the Son, left his Father and his home in heaven in order to cleave to his bride—the church, those of us who believe in Christ—and “become one flesh” with us.
Sermon Text: John 4:1-18
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
I am directionally impaired. In other words, I’m terrible with directions. I always have been. I confess that my sense of direction gotten even worse in this age of GPS. I use Google Maps almost all the time now! But I use it, not just to know how to get from Point A to Point B, but also how to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. Google Maps does a nice job of directing me around traffic.
Even this past week, I was taking my son Ian to his elementary school, which is just a few miles form our house. You just make one left turn out of our neighborhood. This past week, however, there was an accident blocking the entire road 50 yards from my intersection. I had to make that one left turn, but that one left turn was blocked. So how do I get around it, so that I can get to my son’s elementary school?
Beats me, because, remember, I’m directionally impaired. But not to worry! Because I have Google Maps, which tells me how I can get there by making a right-hand turn instead of a left-hand turn. Only problem, of course, is that by making that right-hand turn, and going around the accident, it took an extra ten minutes to get to the school. But… I got there O.K., so that’s all that matters.
I mention this because most faithful Jews in the first century, who were traveling from Judea to Galilee, the way Jesus and his disciples are, wouldn’t go the most direct route—that is, through the region of Samaria. They would instead travel northeast to Jericho; they would cross to the other side of the Jordan river; and then they would go north from there. That way they could avoid Samaria altogether. Why did they do this? Because Jews and Samaritans were enemies.
In a nutshell, Samaritans practiced a corrupted version of Judaism. They accepted only the first five books of the Bible as inspired by God, rather than the entire Old Testament. Although they were ethnically related to Jews, they had intermarried with pagan people throughout the centuries; many Jews considered them “half-breeds.” Several centuries earlier, when Jews were allowed to return from captivity in Babylon, the Samaritans did not welcome them back. Many faithful Jews believed that even traveling in Samaria would make them “unclean.” So they avoided one another.
But not Jesus. Jesus had his disciples go through Samaria, and on their way, they stop for lunch in a Samaritan village. The disciples go into town to get some food for Jesus and the rest of them, while Jesus sits down at this well and rests. It was the sixth hour—high noon.
This was an unusual time of day for a woman, by herself, to come and draw water from a well, but that’s what this Samaritan woman does. Typically, women would go in a group, early in the morning to to get all the water that they needed for the day: water for drinking, water for washing, water for bathing. They would fill large jugs up with water and bring them back to their homes. Christian interpreters have always understood that this woman is coming in the heat of the day, by herself, to avoid the shame and embarrassment of being around the other women. Because of her marital and sexual history, which Jesus draws attention to in verses 17 and 18, this woman was a social outcast. She was someone that other people would want to avoid.
But not Jesus. Now, let’s please notice how absolutely scandalous Jesus’ actions are by talking to this woman in the first place, much less asking her for a drink. The woman herself understands this when she says, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” For one thing, Jesus doesn’t have a bucket to put any water in—so if he’s going to drink the woman’s water, he’s going to drink after her, from her bucket. Jews and Samaritans don’t do that!
There are so many things “wrong” with what Jesus is doing, at least according to social custom. Not only do Jews and Samaritans not talk to one another; not only do they not share water jugs; Jewish men didn’t talk to women in public, at least to women who aren’t their wives. It was considered very forward. And Jewish men especially don’t talk to women at a well. It was considered flirtatious in the extreme! In first century Palestine, it was well-known that wells were a place where men could pick up women!
Seriously, if you’re familiar the Old Testament, you may think of three different stories related to men finding their future wives at wells. Isaac finds his wife, Rebekah, at a well; Jacob finds his wife, Rachel, at a well; Moses finds his wife, Zipporah, at a well. Wells are places where, biblically speaking, men meet their future wives.
But Jesus knows his Bible better than anyone; he knows exactly what he’s doing. He wants us to think of all these romantic and courtship and wedding connotations when he speaks to this woman at this well. Throughout the Old Testament, after all, God is often depicted as a “husband,” and his people, Israel, are depicted as his wife—or a bride to his bridegroom. Often, as in the Book of Hosea, the wife is unfaithful, but the fact remains that one important image of the relationship between God and his people is of a marriage relationship. In the New Testament, both Paul’s letters and the Book of Revelation pick up this theme, referring to the church as the “bride of Christ.” In Ephesians 5, for example, Paul begins by talking about the relationship between Christian husbands and Christian wives, and how they should love one another self-sacrificially. Then he relates this to the way Christ loves us, his church.
Then, beginning with verse 31 of Ephesians 5, Paul quotes Genesis 2, and writes, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound,” Paul says, “and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
Jesus Christ, in other words, leaves his heavenly Father and his home in heaven, in order to “hold fast to his wife, and become one flesh with her.” Our Lord Jesus loves us so much he wants to have a relationship with us that’s a lot like a marriage, except it’s even closer… more intimate. Can you imagine?
Brothers and sisters, we are gathered here this morning, on Valentine’s Day, to celebrate nothing less than the greatest, most romantic love story the world has ever known!
This means that, in a way, all the greatest love songs point to Jesus Christ. In a way, all the greatest love songs describe the way Christ loves us: [sings]
When somebody loves you
It’s no good unless he loves you all the way
Happy to be near you
When you need someone to cheer you all the way
Taller than the tallest tree is
That’s how it’s got to feel
Deeper than the deep blue sea is
That’s how deep it goes if it’s real
Who is able to love us “all the way,” the way we need to be loved? Only God, only Jesus Christ.
Back in the ’70s, after the Beatles broke up, when Paul McCartney was publicly feuding with John Lennon, John complained in an interview that Paul only writes silly love songs. Paul responded by writing a number one hit song called “Silly Love Songs”: he sings, “You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs/ I look around and I see it isn’t so/ Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs/ And what’s wrong with that?”
And I’m sure that John would have said, “What’s wrong with that, Paul, is that there’s so much more to life than falling in love, being in love, or being heartbroken because you’ve lost love or can’t find love. There’s war, there’s hunger, there’s murder, there’s greed.” And years ago, after I became a Christian, I might have echoed these sentiments. I went through a phase in which my love for secular music cooled down. Christian rock was becoming popular, and for a while that’s nearly all I wanted to listen to—because, you know, these guys were singing about deep stuff, about life and death, about heaven and hell, about eternity. Important stuff! But here’s the thing that I failed to appreciate at the time, which I appreciate now: For most people, most of the time, nothing is more important or more significant than falling in love, and being in love, or having your heart broken because you can’t find love or because you’ve lost love. These are the most profound emotions that we human beings have!
This is the kind of love that everyone wants—and they want this kind of love nearly as much as they want oxygen, or food, or shelter, or—since this is the thing Jesus is talking about—water.
So it’s no coincidence that Jesus compares what he offers to one of most basic things we need to survive: water—or “living water.” We take water for granted, of course, but if we didn’t have it, or if it were scarce, it would be nearly the only thing we’d think about. An adult can survive about 45 days without food. We can only survive a few days without water. That’s why, if you’re on Survivor, or one of those many Bear Grylls reality shows about being stranded on a desert island, the first thing you need to worry about is finding fresh water. It’s more important than anything.
So what does it mean that Jesus tells the woman that he’s offering her something that’s just like this?
And see, I don’t think Jesus is changing the subject when he asks her about her husband in verse 16. He knows—because he’s God and he knows her better than anyone—he knows that she’s had one husband after another. He knows that each time—after divorcing and remarrying, and divorcing and remarrying, over and over—each time she must have thought, “This time… this time, I’ll find what I’m looking for. This time all my dreams will come true. This time my heart’s deepest desires will be fulfilled.” Because that’s what we all want… that perfect love that has inspired 100 million “silly love songs,” and a 50.3 million novels, and 1,563 romantic comedies, and nearly every poem ever written—we all crave what this Samaritan woman is looking for. Let’s not look down on her. Let’s not feel superior to her.
In verse 15, this woman complains about having to “keep coming to this well” all the time, but Jesus knows that going to the well, over and over, is the perfect metaphor for her life: She has been unable to quench her deep, spiritual thirst because she keeps looking in the wrong places for that thing that will quench it! Aren’t we a lot like her?
Brothers and sisters, there’s an important part of us that belongs to earth, obviously: we are earthly creatures. But there’s also a part of us that belongs to heaven, that’s meant for heaven, that’s made for heaven. And that part of ourselves can only be satisfied with heavenly things—with the things of God, with the living water that only Jesus makes available. Don’t try to quench that heavenly thirst with things that are earthly, with things that are less than God.
You’re not going to find what you desperately need in a man or a woman, in a sexual relationship—even in a marriage—in a bottle or a pill or a syringe, in a dream job, in all the money in the world, in awards and trophies and rings—even, for that matter, Super Bowl rings! Many years ago, the now two-time-winning Super Bowl quarterback Peyton Manning wrote a book with his father in which he described the decision he made to accept Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord when he was 13. He talked about the sense of peace and assurance he receives from being in a saving relationship with God, and how his faith in Christ remains his top priority. He said for him it’s always been about the Big Four: faith, family, friends, and football. In that order. “As important as football is to me,” he said, “it can never be higher than fourth.” I like that, and I know the times when I’ve been unhappiest in life have been those times when I’ve let something else or someone take that top spot that belongs to Christ!
What about you?
See, these words of Jesus judge me. Because Jesus is telling us here that he’s offering us something right now—not just something in the future, in heaven, in resurrection—but right now, that ought to mean everything to us—that ought to make a profound difference in our lives. Does it?
Facebook turned 12 years old last week, and there’s been a very popular hashtag that’s been making the rounds. It’s called, “#BeforeFacebookI.” It’s about all the ways that Facebook has changed our lives. For example, “Before Facebook I had to stalk my exes with binoculars and camouflage gear.” “Before Facebook I assumed everyone knew the difference between their, they’re and there. But we were wrong. Very wrong.” “Before Facebook I had no idea which Golden Girl I was.” “Before Facebook I didn’t “LIKE” things like funerals and divorces.”
So I’m wondering… What if we had a hashtag that read, “#BeforeChristI”? How would you answer it? In other words, if you’re following Christ today, what difference has he made in your life? Has he made a difference? Are you allowing this “living water” that Christ offers us to satisfy our life’s deepest craving?
A couple of Sunday mornings ago, I woke up in a panic. I thought that something was wrong with the skin graft on my left ear, where I had a skin cancer removed. When I took the bandage off, it didn’t look good—and I was freaking out! So here I am, a Christian pastor, who always preaches about not being afraid, always being joyful, always trusting in the Lord, and I’m deeply stressed about this one small thing. I realize that I’m talking to some people who’ve had some serious health challenges and by comparison, my skin cancer was a small thing. And yet this small thing, the biggest health challenge I’ve faced, terrified me! So that was a situation in which I was failing to draw upon the living water that Christ offers me. But I’m glad I went through it—because the Lord has used it as a learning experience, I’m sure. The next challenge I face, I’ll be a little better equipped to handle it.
But it’s not all bad: This past week has been one that has been focused on death. Robin Godbee lost her dad. I had a clergy acquaintance, a classmate from seminary who was younger than me, drop dead from a heart attack. I went to his funeral. I talked another friend this week who just came back from Florida, where his dad had died. And, as you may have seen on Facebook, I’m coming up on the fourth anniversary of my mom’s death. So it’s been kind of a heavy week.
But I promise you, even in the midst of all this, I have felt a great sense of peace—and love and even joy. Certainly not fear. I’ve been O.K. And I know, I know, it’s only because of Christ and this living water he offers. That’s what I want each of you to have. Amen?
 Peyton Manning and Archie Manning with John Underwood, Manning (New York: Harper Entertainment, 2001), 362.