The Woman at the Well

The Rev. William C. Redfield
Emmanuel Episcopal Church Rockford, IL
III Lent – Year A – March 23, 2014


John 4:5-42

     So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 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!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 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. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 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.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

     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?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him. Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 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. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. 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.”


This story has such rich meaning and its layers raise so many provocative and disquieting issues.  This was true in Jesus’ time and, of course, by implication, it may well be true in ours as well.  We can follow the fault line back then, and then we can raise some questions for our own present time.

Much of the power of this story seems to lie in its contrast with the story that precedes it—the story of Nicodemus that we heard last week.  Consider these contrast points:

1. Nicodemus is a highly respected Pharisee—a member of the ruling class in that culture. The woman at the well, on the other hand, not only has the inferior status of being a woman, but she is also a Samaritan.  That Jesus transgressed the social, political, and religious boundaries of that time and place by engaging her in lengthy conversation can be heard in the astonishment of the disciples when they discover that Jesus has had this encounter.

2. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, teacher of the law, and the epitome of strict morality.  Already there are two strikes against this woman—that she is a woman for one and that she is a Samaritan for another; but the third strike is that she is living with a man who is not her husband—a serious moral transgression in that place and time.

3. The encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus occurs at night and is initiated by Nicodemus. The encounter between the Samaritan woman and Jesus occurs at noon, in broad daylight, and is initiated by Jesus.  Of course, this woman may not be welcome to meet with the other women as they draw water in the early morning when it is cooler.  Perhaps because she is shunned by the other women, she must come when the heat is unbearable.

4. Nicodemus responds to Jesus with uncertainty, misunderstanding and caution.  And at the end of the story we are not sure how Nicodemus actually responded to Jesus. While this woman is touched with some initial uncertainty and skepticism, she ends up being an active and influential disciple of Jesus with her kinsmen.  Actually, in John’s Gospel she is the first disciple to bring others to faith.  (Not bad for one with three strikes against her!)

Could it be that the Gospel juxtaposes these two, the woman at the well and Nicodemus, to show that Jesus is turning conventional wisdom upside down?  We would assume that it would be the religious one who would follow Jesus enthusiastically, while it would be the outsider who would keep her distance and ultimately reject him.  While Jesus broke with significant convention back then, could it be that he is inviting us to move beyond the conventions with which we have gotten so comfortable and in which we may currently be bound?


I don’t exactly know how it is here in the Midwest, but in the Northeast the Church is facing a challenging crisis.  Over the past twenty years in my diocese of Central New York we have gone from about 100 parishes down to about 85.  And two decades ago, while most every parish was led by a full-time ordained rector, we now have less than twenty full-time priests who are leading individual parishes.  Currently, the Church is largely peopled by those of us with white hair, and it is becoming more and more irrelevant for our younger generations.  The direction, in other words, is downward.

Meanwhile, we who have grown up in the Church and who have derived great meaning from its liturgical life and its moral teachings find ourselves lamenting the present situation, as we idealize the past.   Our responses have generally been in the direction of circling our wagons and simply doing what we have always done—even if now we are doing it with a certain defensiveness and sense of futility.

But I wonder…  I wonder if we in this day and age might be being called beyond the conventions of our own time to a new depth and vitality of faith.  The difficulty and great challenge are that what it is we are being called to might not look anything like what we are used to.  It may be that some of our old customs and conventions—while not necessarily being replaced—need to be added to and revitalized so that new forms and new understandings may emerge.

Actually, I don’t just wonder this; I myself am actually banking on it.

Like most of you, I grew up with the understanding that faith is a mental assent to a body of beliefs.  I was told that, if I would just believe all that the church taught, I would receive the reward of entrance into the next life in heaven with God.  But more and more I have come to see this as a very shallow caricature of the Christian faith.  And that caricature can no longer sustain vital life in the Church.  I see that our present crisis—more than as an occasion to fear our uncertain future—actually may be an opportunity to deepen our faith experience in line with the actual teachings and intentions of Jesus.

But this will require that we move beyond thinking about faith as the mere mental assent to certain beliefs about Jesus; it will demand that by engaging in spiritual practice we can actually follow Jesus and live out of the place inside that he lived out of and where he can continue to meet us.  This will mean that our faith will be based on lived experience.  And rather than a new development, I actually see this as a return to a truer and more ancient form of our Christian faith and heritage.


I served a parish outside of Syracuse, New York, for nearly twenty years.  I retired there less than a year ago in order to do consulting and retreat work—activities I call “Wisdom Work.”  Over the course of my time there in the parish I gradually (but relentlessly) introduced spiritual practices to those who were open and interested, so that—more than just gaining academic learning about the tradition and more than just being told the content of beliefs to which they were supposed to assent—an increasing number of parishioners actually began to take up some form of spiritual practice in order that they might encounter the faith experience more deeply.

But what about the more conventional understanding of the faith, and what about traditional worship?  Well, I continued to honor and uphold these as essential aspects of our spiritual legacy—even while I supported experimentation with new more contemplative and more intimate forms of worship.  So for those who were hungry for something more or something deeper, I tried to provide avenues and opportunities that utilized spiritual practice.

But let me say more about what I mean by “spiritual practice” and why I believe it is so necessary.

We start with an honest assessment of where we presently are.  I am talking here about how our minds are structured and how we ordinarily think.  Most every moment of every day we are under the influence of the incessant spinning of the flywheels of our small but overly active minds.  Our minds are in constant motion—evaluating everything in terms of our likes and dislikes, approval and disapproval—anxiously scanning the future and thinking about the past in terms of worry and regret.  This is life trapped on the horizontal level of existence—completely dominated and controlled by the events happening around us and our emotional reactions to them.  Actually, in this way our minds are pretty much all over the map except for being right here in the present moment.  And it is powerfully here in the present moment where real life—real meaningful life—can be found.

And that’s where and how Jesus lived his life when he walked the face of the earth.  While he was completely at home on the horizontal level of existence and fully engaged in the events in which he was a part, he also lived fully from the vertical dimension of life—drawing coherence and meaning from the Source from which all life flows.  This Source he called “Father.”

This is the deeper life to which Jesus called those whom he encountered.  This is the Living Water he offered the woman at the well.  This is also the deeper life to which he calls us.  But he knows that for us to experience and grasp what he experienced, we need to change the way we think—not what we think, not the contents of our mental beliefs—but how we think.

This is because our ordinary minds cannot apprehend the vertical dimension.  The best we can do from our ordinary minds is just to believe that there may be this other dimension.  But it is not enough just to know about this dimension or to believe in it, for its power does not lie in it’s being theological concept or a belief.  It is a Living Reality that, through experience, can only be apprehended on the deepest levels of our being.  When experienced in this way, it has the power both to inform and transform human life.  And that is why this Gospel of Jesus is a path of transformation.

You see, I think from our ordinary minds we’ve misunderstood and misinterpreted the Christian Gospel—or we read it only on the most superficial of levels.  We’ve assumed that transformation was all about being good.  But actually it’s much more about seeing life rightly and seeing life fully.  It’s about experiencing the coherence that can only come from the vertical axis and tapping into its unstinting wellspring of abundance that wells up from the center of life.  It’s about actually experiencing that our hearts resonate to the very frequency of God’s heart.

And when we see rightly, we act rightly.  We realize that we are not separate and isolated beings apart from God and in competition with one another.  Instead, from the vantage point of this deeper experience and more accurate seeing, it is evident that all things hang together in a vast and complex system of interconnectedness.  And we are integral to this wholeness.  From this deeper perspective, when we regard others as our brothers and sisters, we honor them—all of them, no matter how different from us they may appear to be—and we treat them with compassionate understanding.

So then here’s where spiritual practices come in.  Such practices as meditation, attention practices, body awareness practices, and practices of spiritual reading and reflection—are all designed to take us beneath our more superficial relations with reality—the limited mechanics of our ordinary minds—and deliver us to a fullness that includes both the vertical and the horizontal.  Indeed, it is this that delivers us more fully to the present moment.  These spiritual practices give us a glimpse of the spaciousness between our thoughts and open us to the vertical dimension—that which lies beyond space and time.  “Mindfulness” is the current buzzword that accurately describes this deeper awareness.


Could this deeper perspective and experience—this way of seeing that Jesus is inviting us to—could this save the Church?  Actually, I’m not sure that this is the right question.  I say this because I’m not really sure if we know what the Church really could be or will be—for all we know is what the Church has been.  But if the question were rather: Could a renewed appreciation of the fundamental importance of spiritual practice and experiential knowing deepen our ability to follow the path of Jesus?—to that question I would answer a resounding, “Yes.”  And that, surely, would have implications for the life and vitality of the Church.

I have committed myself to this deeper vision of the Christian faith—both through my own ongoing spiritual practice and through my Wisdom work with others.  I am ready to meet the future that lies ahead.  And even though I am with you only for this very brief time, I would like to invite you to this journey as well.