Jesus came to a Samaritan city...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.) 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.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 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.” 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.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”
This is a very familiar Lenten text from the Gospels. But one aspect of the story I have never heard lifted up in a sermon concerns the way in which this text is a Holy Conversation. Karoline Lewis, Associate Professor of Preaching and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in a blog devoted to the craft of preaching, sees the conversation between the Samaritan woman and Jesus as Holy.
Jesus suggests that conversation matters for theology. That conversation is essential for faith. Lest we assume such claims, observe how religious dialogue happens today -- “I’m right. You’re wrong. So there.” We are living in a time when conversation needs to be cultivated and valued. Practiced and pursued. Longed for and lived. Without real conversation, we lack intimacy and understanding; connection and empathy. Without real conversation, we risk detachment and distance. No wonder Jesus engages in and insists on conversation when it comes to believing, since believing in John’s Gospel is synonymous with relationship. It matters that Jesus’ revelation of who he is to her and her realization of who he can be for her happens in conversation. Their conversation is emblematic of what true relationship looks like -- mutuality, reciprocity, and regard. The church can be the place that shows society what theological conversation can sound like. The church can be the place that demonstrates how dialogue about faith and the Bible might result in religious respect and tolerance. With this mandate, what does faithful conversation, theological conversation look like? The dialogue between the Samaritan woman at the well and Jesus provides an outline that not only offers features so as to model conversive speech but also points to the very nature of God.
First, note that the conversation begins with mutual vulnerability. Jesus is thirsty and she needs the water that only Jesus can provide. That is where truthful conversations must start -- from a place of reciprocal vulnerability, from a space that recognizes that each party risks being known and being seen. I suspect that very few conversations begin with the expectation of vulnerability, yet theological conversations have to start there because this is a fundamental characteristic of God.
Second, questions are critical to conversation. Not questions that have already decided on the right answers. Not questions that are asked only to feign manners. No, questions that communicate curiosity, an interest in the other, a longing for information and understanding. The woman at the well is full of questions, thoughtful questions, questions that matter and lead Jesus to reveal to her who he really is. Jesus affirms questions, even invites them. God wants us to ask questions because it is questions that strengthen relationship.
Third, conversations for the sake of intentional and genuine interest in the other take time. They take time because there will likely be moments of misunderstanding. The Samaritan woman is first confused by Jesus’ offer, but unlike Nicodemus, she does not let that halt the conversation. This means that reading this text on Sunday cannot happen as a monologue. Orchestrate a dialogue, a reader’s theatre perhaps, so that your congregation can experience its length. It seems that God is willing to hang in there. To keep on listening. To keep on exposing God’s heart so that it can be seen for the abundant love it holds.
Fourth, when it comes to having a conversation with Jesus or about Jesus, expect to be surprised. Expect God to reveal something about God’s self that you have never seen before. The unnamed woman at the well is the first one to whom Jesus reveals his true identity -- I AM, the first absolute I AM in the Gospel of John -- not to the Jewish leaders or to the disciples, but to her, a religious, social, political outsider. This is whom God is for because God loves the world.
Fifth, anticipate being changed in the process. The woman at the well goes from shamed to witness. From dismissed to disciple. From alone to being a sheep of Jesus’ own fold. Let’s start talking.