Preacher: Jenn Hosler
Scripture: John 4:5-42
Date: March 12, 2023
Audio can be found here:
It is a hard time for many in the LGBTQ community right now. Drag shows, which have long been an important cultural piece in the LGBTQ community, are getting misunderstood and banned. Two weeks ago, a drag queen story hour here in Capitol Hill was on the radar for a Proud Boys protest but a group of 200 counter-protestors showed up with rainbow umbrellas and the Proud Boys didn’t show. Beyond the drag shows, another pressing issue are the numerous transgender focused bills across the country. Because of one new Florida bill, transgender children are no longer able to get the gender-affirming medical care they need, plus they may soon be at risk of getting removed from their supportive families in Florida. For a population of humans that is already at extremely high risk of suicidal ideation and suicide, this is alarming and distressing, putting lives at risk.
As most of our attendees know, our congregation is going through a series of conversations and discernment processes about formally labeling ourselves a congregation that is open and affirming, inclusive of LGBTQ individuals in all aspects of the life and ministry of our church. If you missed the announcements, our next two conversations are March 26th and April 2nd. Today is not one of the formal conversations but I’ve decided to take this time to do some of the digging into scripture in support of our process. I have chosen this because today’s lectionary gospel passage is one where cultural and religious mores about “acceptability” are shattered through the ministry of Jesus. As a community of faith following Jesus, it is crucial that we center on scriptures during this process, because our faith centers on the revelation of God through Jesus. Many of us may have trauma or uncertainty about the Bible and it can be easy to angle our conversations through a present-day cultural or human rights lens. Yet this does a disservice both to our faith and to our testimony to the broader church.
I’ve heard the argument time and again from some conservative churches, “Those progressive churches don’t believe the Bible. We believe in Biblical authority, but they do not.” There are different approaches by different progressive churches to the Bible, of course. But the fallacy of this argument is that there is no biblical basis for LGBTQ inclusion, just because some conservative folks don’t see it, or they get persuaded by a few select passages. There is a biblical basis for inclusion. You can be a queer inclusive Christian and be deeply committed to scripture, to being shaped by it, formed by it, to being obedient to it, to having scripture as an authority in your life. I’m not saying I know all of the answers or all of the interpretations (I have much study to do myself), but I want to walk us through one scripture today in order to get a sense of how we do this work of inclusive interpretation together in community, guided by the Holy Spirit.
Our text for today comes from the gospel of John and it is this long and beautiful narrative. To give some slightly fuller context to the literary setting, I want to paint a very brief picture of the first 3 chapters of John. John 1 starts out with the famous prologue: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being… The Word became flesh and lived among us.”
After the prologue, John pivots and uses narratives to depict how the Word of God was manifested in the world. The “Johannine style” is that of a seemingly simple exchange between Jesus and another person, but that exchange has spiritual implications. We see Jesus calling disciples and then it zeros in on one of specific person, Nathanael, who scoffs after Philip says, “Come see this person the prophets spoke about, Jesus of Nazareth.” Nathanael says, “Nazareth, what good can come from there?” Jesus appears and surprises Nathanael with information that Jesus couldn’t have known because they hadn’t met before. This leads Nathanael to marvel, believe, and follow Jesus. (Fun fact: Bartholomew and Nathanael are the same person)
The next few chapters of John include the Wedding of Cana (a miracle of water and wine, with Mary playing a key role), the clearing of the temple, the story of Nicodemus visiting Jesus in secret, and John the Baptist’s testimony (again) about Jesus. Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus at night, also has themes of water, spirit, and truth, with Jesus describing how everyone who enters the Kingdom of God must be born again, born of water and spirit. [This is an aside to encourage you and myself to read through the gospel of John this Lent. John has 21 chapters, so you could read a chapter a day between now and Palm Sunday, or between now and Good Friday].
Up until this point, I see Jesus as being compelling and cautious (demurs at first at Cana), drawing people to himself as disciples and also engaging people like Nicodemus seeking truth about God. People around Jesus have been saying that Jesus is the One told about in the prophets, but up until chapter 4, Jesus hasn’t said that about himself.
We get to chapter 4 and, apparently, the Pharisees in the Judean area (near Jerusalem) have heard that Jesus is making more disciples and baptizing more people than John (though it is the disciples, not Jesus, baptizing). Jesus is not interested in this being framed as a competition, so he heads back up north to Galilee. The text says that Jesus “had to go through Samaria,” which is interesting because this was one of 3 routes that Jesus could have taken. It was the quickest but also the least safe, and the route that most Jewish persons of Jesus’ era tried to avoid because Samaritans and Jews did not get along. We don’t know exactly why Jesus has to take this route, but he does. Now we get to our scene.
Jesus walks and arrives at a Samaritan city called Sychar, “near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well [is] there.” Jesus, tired out by his journey, sits down by the well. It is about noon, so the sun is probably very hot overhead.
A Samaritan woman comes over to the well to get water, a tedious and time consuming but essential task in a place and era without running water. Jesus says to her, “Please give me a drink.” The text parenthetically says that Jesus’ disciples had gone into the city to buy food, so he is alone. The Samaritan woman is flabbergasted that Jesus would talk to her at all and, much more so, that he would be willing to drink from something of hers. Sharing cups or plates or eating with non-Jews was not something Jewish people did in Jesus’ day. The Samaritan woman is basically like, “hey Jewish man alone by himself. How in the world are you asking me, a Samaritan and a woman, for this?” Not only is the Jewish-Samaritan divide here real, but there is also the fact that men were not supposed to talk to or be alone with women, not solely for purity reasons but also because women were also not considered worthy conversation partners at that time.
Jesus answers, “If you knew about God’s gift and who is asking you, you’d actually be asking me, and I would give you living water.” The Samaritan woman (I wish she was named) takes this at face value in some ways, but I also can’t help but hear a little modern sarcasm in there, “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 replies, “Everyone who drinks from this water will keep being thirsty. Those who drink 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 Jesus, “Please give me this water.”
Jesus replies to this, “Go, call your husband and come back.” The Samaritan woman replies, “I have no husband.” Jesus says, “Yes, I know—you’ve had 5 and the present one is not your husband.”
If you’ve heard this text preached before, you may have heard it mentioned in the context of divorce, or the woman being unfaithful, or sleeping around, or this and that—the woman as a harlot and sinner is definitely the overtones that I have heard. These interpretations are culturally inaccurate and sexist—women could not initiate divorce in Jesus’ day. There is a plausible way that this woman’s husbands could have died, and the next closest male relative been obligated to marry her, with one potentially being unwilling from doing so. Nevertheless, the point here is not that Jesus is like, “Aha, sinner!” He does not actually frame it negatively. The point here, like earlier in the gospel of John with Nathanael, is that Jesus surprises the woman by knowing all about her. Later in our passage, she says, “This man told me everything I ever did!”
Jesus reveals he has supernatural knowledge of this woman’s past, and she gets it, replying, “Oh, I see you are a prophet!” She launches into a spiritual debate, getting Jesus’ thoughts on the religious differences between Samaritans and Jews. Importantly, Jesus doesn’t blow her off (remember, men and women didn’t converse like this!) but engages her in conversation. He explains that liberation and salvation are revealed by God through Jews, but that a new era of inclusion was coming when God the Father would welcome all who “worship in spirit and in truth.” The Samaritan Woman is tracking with Jesus and she makes the connection. She said, “I believe the Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus says, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Sisters and brothers, siblings in Christ, this is earth shattering here. This is Jesus’ first-time self-proclaiming himself as Messiah in the Gospel of John—and he’s telling a woman. A Samaritan woman. A married multiple times woman. Women could not be witnesses in court. Women were not to have conversations with men, let alone theological debates. This is actually the longest conversation Jesus is recorded to have with anyone in the gospels! Samaritans and Jews didn’t get along. Jesus puts aside the religious-, ethnic-, and gender-based taboos and barriers of his day and shares the living water at this ancient well.
Jesus is the one coming to set the world free, so that everyone can worship God in spirit and in truth. A Jewish itinerant rabbi talking and sharing God’s redeeming truth with people across the ethnic and religious lines of division, across gender taboos and prejudices (!). This is the One who sets us free.
Enter from stage left are the disciples. Their gender prejudices are intact. Their mouths are agape. But their diligence to hierarchy is also intact. The disciples are shook that Jesus is talking to a woman alone… but no one feels like they can say anything about it. The text says, “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?” In their awkward silence, the Samaritan woman leaves her water jar behind and goes back to the city. She starts testifying about Jesus to people around the city, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! Could he really be the Messiah” More Samaritans make their way back to Jesus.
The disciples, in the interlude while the woman is back in town, say, “Rabbi, you should eat something…” Jesus says a little cryptically, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” The disciples don’t get it and ask each other, “Wait, did someone bring him FOOD?” In my head, Jesus facepalms. Just kidding, Jesus might patiently and lovingly sigh and explain, “I get my nourishment from doing the will of the one who sent me and to complete his work.” And then Jesus tells an odd little illustration about harvesting and reaping. The saying goes, “Four months more and we will harvest.” Jesus says, “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.”
I hear Jesus saying, “Look how this Samaritan woman was so eager to hear my message. You all have not done any work here—Jews and Samaritans have hated each other, there is no love there. YET there is a harvest here from work that others have done, so you will reap what you did not labor for.” Despite the history and even the ongoing animosity and exclusion, faith is still being kindled. Jesus says, “the Spirit of God is at work, even if you thought this ground was barren and did not do any labor. God did the labor.”
The Samaritan woman comes back with others and many Samaritans from that city believe in Jesus because of her testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” The Samaritans in that city ask Jesus to stay and teach them. He stays two days; more people believe because of what Jesus teaches. Then the city folk 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 am struck by the notion of “reaping for that which you did not labor.” Time after time, people deny the faith of LGBTQ Christians, assuming that sexual orientation or gender identity are not only barriers to inclusion in the church but are simply barriers to faith. I’ve had people tell me, “You can’t really love or believe in Jesus and be gay.”
The church has not labored for the gifts of our queer siblings and has wounded so many. And yet, I know there is faith, joy, testimony, and commitment. I see queer siblings in Christ seeking the living water. Their faith in Jesus will grow the church in ways that we cannot expect or imagine, because they are empowered by the Holy Spirit. So today, as I think of the reception Jesus gets after he chooses inclusion over exclusion, I am also mindful of the giftedness, the faith, the love, the commitment of my Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer sisters, brothers, and siblings in Jesus. Thanks be to God.
Benediction: “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 God must worship in spirit and truth.” AMEN.