3Jesus left Judea and started back to Galilee.4But he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 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.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 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.”
I recently heard the story of a man who was raised in a small Presbyterian church in the farm country outside the city of Atlanta. When you drew out the family map of everyone who worshiped there, there was only about 5 different families really. They were called a congregation, but they were more so a clan or a tribe. One day, something rather remarkable happened in worship. In the middle of the worship service, the door of the church opened and a man no one had ever seen entered the sanctuary. He moved up the aisle, staring at everyone. The people stared at him and he stared back. Who was this guy? What did he want? Their church was located near the railroad tracks, and back then, it wasn’t unusual for vagrants to ride on the rods underneath the boxcars. Maybe this man had come on the train. They were also near a highway, so maybe he had hitchhiked. Who was this guy, what did he want?
But they never found out. Something alarming crossed his face and his dashed back down the aisle of the church and out the door and they never saw him again. But for weeks after that, the grownups in the congregation, after every service, would gather under the oaks trees in the church yard and talk about what had happened. They finally arrived at a Georgia Red-Clay Farmers theological consensus. It was not that divine worship had been invaded by a vagrant. But rather that Jesus had come to them in a stranger and they did not recognize him. They had not responded with the hospitality of Christ. After that, this event entered into the story of that congregation and began to define their congregational life.
What none of them knew was that this very situation had already been raised in a church document written 1500 years earlier. It said, What would you do, O Church, if you were gathered for worship and were at the Lord’s table and a stranger enters your assembly and there is not enough food and there is not enough room at the table? What would you do? Answer: You, O (pastor), sit on the floor, that there might be room for the stranger. The logic was that we ourselves were once strangers and God in Jesus welcomed us. Therefore, we should do the same. That congregation began to understand that event as God shattering their understanding of the call of Jesus and transforming them into a community more open and hospitable.
Sometimes Jesus Christ comes to us in the stranger. But not only does Jesus come as the stranger, Jesus comes to welcome the stranger.
We are given witness to this in our gospel story for today. Did you notice that the woman in the story didn’t recognize Jesus right away. Jesus is sitting on the lip of Jacob’s well when she arrives to get some water, and when Jesus asks her for a drink, she does not drop her bucket in astonishment that she is standing in the presence of God, but rather she first notices that which divides them. His complexion, his accent, his gender. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” The first thing she notices is that he is a stranger. He is not like her. He is a Jew; she is a Samaritan. You see, Jews and Samaritans do not get along. And the primary reason is they disagree on where to worship. Jews said you must worship God in Jerusalem; Samaritans said you must worship God on a mountain. And so for that very reason, Jew and Samaritans were not to interact. But that’s not the only difference between Jesus and this Samaritan by the well. He is male; she is female. Another cultural barrier between them. So often, that is the first thing we notice in people. Our differences. Are you one of us or are you not one of us? Are you part of our clan or did you ride in on the train? And that is who Jesus is to this woman. A stranger. An outsider. He comes as the tired, and thirsty somebody, who is in need. It takes the entire conversation before this woman even begins to wonder, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Jesus comes to this woman like the stranger who entered that rural church, and just like that congregation, it took time and conversation before she realized that perhaps it was Jesus who was standing in front of her.
When you ask a group of people who they would want to meet if they could meet anyone in the world, dead or alive, someone will inevitably say Jesus. But today’s story begs the question of whether we would recognize him if that wish came true.
It is a scary and challenging thought, because one of first things we learn about Jesus in our gospel story today is that Jesus can come to us in the stranger. Sometimes, it is hard to see Jesus in your life. It takes time to recognize the presence of Christ. It takes conversation. For some people I know, that conversation is life long. So if you have a child or a spouse or a family member who struggles with Jesus, support them in that rather than condemn them. Because it can take time, the gospel of John says.
But this isn’t the only thing we learn. What also become apparent in our reading is that Jesus comes to welcome the stranger. Notice what it says at the very beginning of our gospel. It said, 3Jesus left Judea and started back to Galilee.4But he had to go through Samaria. But here is the thing, in order to get to Galilee, Jesus did not have to go through Samaria. There is no geographical reason why he would have had to go there. Sure, it was the quickest and shortest way, but most Jews went around Samaria because, well, they hated each other. So it wasn’t a geographical reason for why Jesus had to go through Samaria, but rather it was a theological reason. John is trying to say something about God. God enters into all places. All territories. Even the ones we would rather not enter.
And when Jesus this enemy territory, he encounters a woman who is very familiar with being on the outside. She is the on the outside of the outsiders. We first notice that she doesn’t even have a name. She is the woman with no name. And she is a Samaritan woman. Therefore she is known only by what she is – a foreigner and a woman. And it is this woman whom comes to the well at noon, the hottest time of day, when no one else is likely around. Which tells us she is a lonely somebody. She either doesn’t know many people or she has been cast out of her primary circle of people. She is the woman the rest of the town is talking about. And over the years, Biblical interpreters have done a disservice to this woman because they have assumed she was a prostitute. That she was a promiscuous woman, who had gone through five husbands and now is with another man who is not even her husband.
But the text doesn’t say that. The text mentions nothing of her being sinful or immoral. But rather, it is more likely that this is a nameless woman who has been chewed up and spit out of the mouth of a social system that gives little respect and authority to women. It is more likely that this woman was divorced five times, abandoned five times, widowed five times, or a combination of all three. And now she is dependent on another for survival. We don’t’ know. But this isn’t a scandalous story. It is a tragic one.
And when Jesus calls out this woman’s past – her five husbands and the man she is now living with, he doesn’t do it in order to shame her, but rather to say, “I know you. I know who you are. I know what you’ve been through.” The rejection, the loss, the vulnerability and instability. He sees her for who she really is and he knows her. Jesus says, “I know you, but I know you without condemnation. Without judgment. I know you with mercy and grace and compassion.” Jesus has come as the stranger to welcome the stranger.
Jesus had to go through Samaria, to this stranger. Why? Because of John 3:16 – For God so loved the world. Jesus comes as a stranger for the stranger because Jesus is the savior of the world. And notice that at the end of the story, that is exactly what the Samaritans proclaim. Jesus as the savior of the world. They do not say Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior. Or even our savior. But rather, Jesus is the savior of the world.
This is the only time the word savior is used in the gospel of John. And it is on the lips of the outsider. The stranger. Can we proclaim Jesus not as our savior, as if we own him. As if he is privatized to us? But that Jesus belongs to the world.
As some of you may know, this past week, Fred Phelps died. Fred Phelps was the founding pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church. This is the church that has been known to protest the funeral of fallen soldiers because they believe God has killed these American soldiers as punishment for America’s views on abortion and homosexuality. In fact, they even threatened to protest the funeral of Caleb Erickson, last week over in Waseca. Few people have a good word to say about this church. As news leaked out that Fred Phelps was in the dying process, the headline on CNN’s website said, “Most Hated Man in America Nears Death.” And there was a debate going on – ought people to protest his funeral? Give him a taste of his own medicine? One group had another idea. When the Westboro Baptist Church protested at a music concert in Kansas this weekend, a counter-protest group showed up with a sign that read, “We’re sorry for your loss.” Those counter-protestors give witness to the promise that Jesus is the Savior not just of me or of you, but of the world. Jesus comes as the stranger for the stranger. Even Fred Phelps.
Finally, it is significant that Jesus and this woman meet around a water well. A place where the whole community gathers. The whole community needs water and everyone needs the water well. We don’t have many places like that any more. Most of us have our own water sources in our homes. If I need a book, I don’t even have to go to a bookstore, I can just go online. There are few places where we need to gather anymore as a community. And I find it interesting that as our lives become more and more privatized, where we aren’t depend upon each other anymore, church attendance declines. I think it is because it is harder and harder to believe in God when we spend less and less time together. As some of you know, one of our goals this year is for us to get to know each other better. And the reason is because the more we know each other. Really know each other, the easier it will be to recognize the face of God in one another.
Jesus comes as the stranger for the stranger, so that we might no longer be strangers. And so if you want that wish to come true, if you want to meet Jesus, you can. He’s wherever the community gathers together. You will find him there. In the stranger. It may take some time. Some conversation with the people there, but that is where he will be. AMEN
 Tom Long, sermon preached at Luther Seminary, October 9th, 2013.