In the scriptural lead-up to today’s reading, Jesus, tired and thirsty from his journey, is sitting alone by a well. Someone comes to the well, and she’s not only female, she’s a Samaritan. Instead of immediately getting up and leaving as a woman should do, she engages in conversation with Jesus.
When he asks her for a drink – “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” – he replies by offering her living water. Confused, but curious, she asks about this miraculous water. He eventually invites her to call her husband, and when she replies that she has no husband, he agrees: “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” She is astounded that he knows this about her. Then he declares to her that he is the Messiah.
And so the story continues here:
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 for 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.”
We have entered into very new, strange and uncharted territory in our world. In the coming weeks and months, the patterns of “church” that we’re so familiar with are going to be changing dramatically. As we limit our physical interactions with one another, we’ll need to adapt and discover new ways to gather virtually, to share, to communicate – including communicating the Gospel message. Sharing the Gospel – it’s what we call evangelism, and it’s as important in a coronavirus-infected world as it was in Jesus’ time. Perhaps even more so today.
Today’s passage is about one way that God uses unlikely sources as evangelists, witnesses to God’s presence and movement in the world. Here we find a woman who’s only just encountered Jesus, who’s living with a man outside of marriage, who has no theological training, and who’s never taken a course on how to share her faith. And still, she evangelizes her entire village for Christ.
When Jesus tells her that he’s the Messiah, she gets so excited that she leaves her water jar, goes back to her village, and tells the men, who probably would normally have laughed at anything she said, “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?” All it takes are her words, and people stream out of the village to meet Jesus. He spends the following two days with them, during which time many more Samaritans come to believe in him.
It’s really an extraordinary story.
First of all, Jesus is interacting with a woman. We read that the disciples “were amazed that he had been speaking with a woman.” At that time, some Jewish leaders actually taught that it was a waste of time to talk with a woman. To speak with a woman in public, even with your own wife, could lead to gossip and should be avoided. Samaritan women in particular were considered perpetually unclean. Yet it’s this despised woman who is so excited that she abruptly leaves her water jar and runs into the village to tell others about this amazing man.
The Gospel writer doesn’t tell us exactly why she left her water jar, but her excitement was probably part of it – she couldn’t wait to tell the people of her village about Jesus, and carrying a heavy container would have slowed her down. Maybe she didn’t want him to slip away before others could meet him. She tells them, “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done.”
“All the things that I have done.” Now that may have been a bit of an exaggeration – he actually only told her he knew about her marital history – but that exaggeration was a reflection of her excitement. Because somehow the encounter with Jesus had changed her, in so dramatic a fashion that she couldn’t contain herself. Again, remember in that culture how little the testimony of a woman meant. And yet everyone listened to her and responded to her pleas to go and see whether Jesus might be the Messiah.
With so much against her, why was her message so effective? I think it was because she was so passionate about Jesus that those who knew her could see a change in her. Before, she wouldn’t have spoken to any of them – in her outcast state, she was alone at the well at that time of day. Yet there she was among her fellow villagers, spilling her guts, declaring that Jesus knew everything about her past, exuberantly telling them about him. The change in her and her excitement about Jesus were overwhelmingly evident.
This may be a bit of a crude analogy, but I think there are some parallels between evangelism and being a salesperson. A common feature of successful salespeople is their excitement about their product. If they think what they’re selling can solve your problems or change your life, their enthusiasm comes across. If someone is apathetic about their product, most likely it won’t sell. But if someone tells you how a product has changed their life and wants you to experience the same thing, your interest is probably higher.
As followers of Christ, do we exude that same enthusiasm? Do we radiate our experience of what God has done for our lives? Do we drop what we’re doing to go and share with others our faith and our personal transformation?
We are called to be like the woman at the well. You and I are called to bear witness. We’re called to go out and share our excitement and enthusiasm for what we’ve experienced.
I realize that sometimes we don’t feel like we’re the best vessels for the proclamation of the Good News. Often we’re just trying to get through our daily routines, doing our best day-to-day, more often swearing under our breath than offering up glorious prayers to God.
The woman at the well was certainly an unlikely prospect for evangelism. She didn’t seem to be interested in spiritual things when Jesus turned the conversation in that direction. She was an outsider, a foreigner, perceived as an unclean woman. Yet Jesus reached out to her and changed her life, and she in turn changed others’ lives. The disciples themselves questioned and kept their distance from this Samaritan woman, but she proved to be the key to reaching an entire village.
Today’s story is about having an encounter with God, and then sharing that experience. It’s about reaching across boundaries, bridging differences, and making connections that initially didn’t seem possible — and then as a result, being changed through that encounter with Jesus, with Christ, the living God.
Evangelism isn’t about telling other people what principles or beliefs we adhere to. It’s not about what we know, but about who we know. Evangelism – sharing the Good News – isn’t about having answers to questions. It’s about sharing what we’ve experienced. It’s about having an encounter, experiencing the light that Christ shines in our lives, and then having the courage to drop our defenses and share our experience with others.
So go and share your experience. Share the ways God has changed your life. Tell others about times you’ve been transformed. Share stories of when you’ve felt like an outsider, a reject, someone feeling despised, and then have been embraced by God’s unconditional love. Celebrate the times that you’ve been accepted for who you are, welcomed as a part of Christ’s church – and spread the word. Share your experience, whether in person or on-line, whether through a phone call or an old-fashioned card.
Whatever it takes in the challenging days that lie before us, do all you can to share God’s love, which transforms us all. Amen.