A message drawn from the narrative of Jesus and the woman at the well in John 4. Enjoy!
Do you like a good love story? Boy, my wife sure does. For as long as we’ve known each other she has been a huge fan of love stories. Whether it’s reading a good romance novel, watching a good love interest movie, or listening to a favorite podcast, my wife just loves a good love story.
And me? Well, less so. I’m more of an action adventure type when it comes to storytelling, give me a plot line where life and death hang in the balance, where the fate of the world is in play and tie it together with cutting-edge technological cinematronics and well, I’m in heaven. Our preferences likely aren’t too uncommon; girls typically go for the love, guys for the adventure, right? Perhaps there’s some truth to that age old gender stereotype. Perhaps my wife and I are a bit boring, a bit normal in that way.
As I age tho, I’m finding I enjoy a good love story more than I used to. Maybe I’m softening some. And more than only reading, watching or listening to them, I find, on occasion, I enjoy telling these stories too. And that’s what we’ll do for the next fifteen minutes or so, I’d like to share three of my personal favorite love stories with you.
The first love story begins in 1993, in a college town not too far from here, in Northwest Indiana, at Valparaiso University, home of the Fighting Crusaders. This story involves two college freshmen, a boy and a girl that met the first day of band practice; she played the trumpet, he the trombone. They noticed each other that first day, had a good conversation, and parted ways. At the time she was still dating someone else from high school. And the guy? He had some wild oats to sow.
But eighteen months later her high school beau was no more, and his interest in sowing those oats had waned. While this girl and this boy were still friends they began to look at each other a little differently. And one evening, after talking for hours and hours they found themselves in her car, driving past unnamed Indiana cornfields, excitedly wondering where these conversations might lead. That night they led to a local park, and a gazebo, where they drew close and embraced for their first kiss. In that moment, a gentle mist of raindrops fell ever-so-slightly from the sky. It was magical. The love story, for these college sweethearts had begun.
When they married, six years later, they made sure to return to that same gazebo on their wedding day for the taking of pictures. And, to the surprise of those gathered that day, they accompanied the jazz trio at their own wedding reception; she still played the trumpet, and he the trombone. They brought these moments, of first meetings during band, a shared love of music, and first gazebo kisses into their wedding day for a reason. They wanted to make sure those special moments were brought into their marriage as well.
I tell you this story not just because it is a personal favorite, but because it is my own. Since that time my wife Kathi and I have brought two dogs and two children into this love story, including our seven year old Hannah, and three year old son Graham. And since then we’ve travelled around the sun together more times than either of us would care to admit. We hope to continue travelling around the sun, together, for many, many more years to come.
Now in English we have just one word for love, and that is kind of limiting. Strong, positive feelings for a spouse, a sibling, God or even a sports team all gets lumped into that one word, love. But in ancient Greek there are multiple words for love. The story you just heard was about Eros, that’s the romantic kind.
Philia love is more about affectionate friendship, and is typically between family and friends. This next story is about that, and comes from the 2003 movie Love Actually. That movie, Love Actually, is actually about eight love stories, masterfully woven together into one film. Today we’ll focus on the best of that batch, in my opinion at least, the story of Daniel and Sam.
Daniel, a middle aged man, is played by a favorite actor of mine, Liam Neeson. Early in the film he loses his wife, she’d been suffering from a terminal illness, and had finally succumbed to it. Besides being a fairly young widower he also needs to learn how to be a single father for Sam, that’s his wife’s eleven year old son. Sam responds to losing his mother by locking himself in his room and crying. As you can imagine this worries stepfather Daniel immensely.
But it turns out this sadness isn’t just about losing his mom, Sam is in love with a girl at school. And he doesn’t know what to do about it. Even worse, Sam soon learns that this girl will be moving from England back to America. Sam is devastated.
To get Sam noticed by this girl the father and son come up with a plan, Sam will learn to play the drums and perform at the big school Christmas concert; perhaps that will do the trick. So Sam practices, the day of the concert arrives, and the girl actually smiles at Sam. Dad thinks to himself mission accomplished.
Unfortunately Sam is still miserable, for the girl is going straight from the concert to the airport, heading back to America. Dad convinces Sam that he must tell her he loves her, and drives quickly to the airport, hoping to arrive before she departs. So what happens next? Hold tight, we’ll get back to that in a little bit.
While this love story also contains a girl and a boy and the potential for a kiss, what draws me to it is the relationship between father and son. Both still grieve; Daniel lost his wife, Sam his mother. But they find a way forward, through this grief, towards a deeper relationship with each other. Their story, in a way, is a shared quest for love. This is the kind of deep connection any father would want with their son.
I’d like to suggest that the gospel reading from today, of Jesus speaking to the woman at the well, is also a love story. Unlike our previous two stories this is not a romantic eros or friendship philia kind of love. This is an agape love story. That’s the love of God for humanity. And also the love of humanity for God. Arguably today’s scripture passage has all the trappings of a very good love story. So let’s talk a bit about what makes this such a good tale.
A good love story is rarely convenient. Our gospel reading this week begins with Jesus leaving Judea and heading back to Galilee. But he didn’t take shortest route. Instead, he chose to go through Samaria, requiring extra time, energy and effort for everyone he traveled with. After arriving Jesus sat down and was tired from the journey. Why did Christ take this scenic route? We’ll find out the answer to this plot twist later on.
In a good love story location and setting matter. The setting for this story is a well, a place where water is drawn from the ground. At face value there isn’t anything horribly exciting about a well. But this well was, well, different. It wasn’t just any well. This is Jacob’s well, and the location of several notable Old Testament engagements. Jacob and Rachel were engaged here, so were Moses and Zipporah, Isaac and Rebekah were too. Now those love stories involve the very human institution of marriage. The love story unfolding here does not involve tying the knot, tho, similar to an engagement, the location suggests that a deep, life-long relationship, and perhaps even longer than that, was about to be forged.
A good love story almost always involves, at some point in the narrative, conflict. The conversation between these two people at the well begins with a request; Jesus asks for some water. This immediately piques the woman’s curiosity. Why, she wonders, would a Jewish man ask something of me? Here we have a Jewish Rabbi speaking with a Samaritan woman. And worse, the two are alone. It’s almost scandalous.
We’re told rather plainly in John 4:9 that Jews and Samaritans don’t associate with each other. Theologian Karoline Lewis suggests this is perhaps the greatest understatement in the entire Bible. Jews and Samaritans, culturally at that time, did not share much of anything in common. And they definitely didn’t come in contact with each other. For if they did tradition would require that Jesus return to Jerusalem to undergo a ritual cleansing. Yet here Jesus sits, at the well, asking for water from this Samaritan woman. The tension, in this moment, is palpable.
In a good love story both people need something. After three days of travel, and sitting there in the midday sun, Jesus must have been pretty thirsty. In a very real way he needs this water from the woman. His response tho suggests that this conversation may be about more than getting a sip to drink. He replies, “if you recognized God’s gift, and who is asking for water, you would be asking him instead. And he would give you living water.” The woman, still not grasping Jesus also has something to offer her, comments that he doesn’t have a bucket. And that well is deep. Where would you get this living water? You aren’t greater than our Father Jacob are you?” she wonders. Can you hear the sarcasm in her voice?
Jesus responds by making a distinction between the well water, and the water that he offers. That well water? Drink from it and you’ll be thirsty again. But the water that I offer, Jesus says? Whoever drinks that will never thirst. And even better, he says, that water bubbles up into eternal life. The woman, now sensing the conversation is more than idle chatter, and that Jesus does have something to offer her he responds, “then give me this water!” That way I’ll never be thirsty, and never need to come back to this well!
A good love story also reveals characters for who they truly are. The identity of Jesus is slowly being revealed in this story, but so far we know next to nothing about this Samaritan woman. And that is about to change. Jesus asks this woman, oddly, to get her husband, and to come back. To which she replies, “I don’t have a husband.” Jesus answers, why yes, that’s right, you do not have a husband. You’ve had five.
Now we don’t know the nature of these former relationships, and to speculate on them would be unfair to the woman. We do know that having all those husbands would have probably ostracized her; she most likely wouldn’t have too many friends. In this culture women did the water fetching, typically going twice a day, in the morning and the evening. And they’d often go together, it was a social gathering. Yet this woman appears at the well at noon, the hottest part of the day. And worse she’s alone. I think it’s fair to say she wasn’t too well connected, or well-liked, in this community.
The woman, whose identity has just been revealed, then calls Jesus a prophet. And in this role of prophet she ask him a theological question. Our ancestors worship God on one mount, she says, and your people say God should be worshipped elsewhere. Which place is correct? Where can God be found? This is no small question, and is at the core of the conflict between Samaritans and Jews.
Jesus responds that God is not confined to either spot, and that the time of salvation is coming. The woman, who seems to be catching on says, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called Christ.” Sensing she is now ready to hear, and understand his true identity Jesus replies simply, “I am. The one who speaks with you. I am.” The grand reveal, for both main characters in this love story, is now complete.
Often, in a good love story your close friends are surprised. After this grand reveal look who arrives from stage left, why it’s the disciples, back from the city, with lunch in hand. When they see Jesus, talking with the woman, they express shock. They are so shocked they are silent, leaving their questions unspoken. They wonder, scripture says, what Jesus seeks. Of course we the audience know the answer to this unspoken question: Jesus has come to meet this woman. He has gone out of his way, in time, distance, and in breaking cultural norms, to meet this woman.
And in a really, really, really good love story, one where you’re just tickled pink about this new relationship status, you want to tell everyone you know. And that’s exactly what happens. Upon learning that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the woman puts down her water jar and goes to the city. She literally leaves her water jar, which is live-giving in an earthly sense. She then runs to tell others about the living water, the eternal water, that she has now found.
The woman doesn’t just tell everyone she knows about this new love, she invites them to meet Christ too, saying, “come!” This man has told me everything I’ve ever done! And he still accepts me! If that’s not love, truly unconditional love, then I don’t know what is.
God So Loved The World
You see, this love story isn’t just between one man and one woman. It’s broader. And it isn’t only between one man and a town. It’s much, much more. We get a clue to how broad it is in the last verse of today’s gospel; those believing that day conclude Christ is truly the savior of the world. If you go back just one chapter, to John 3, verse 16 – a verse I can almost guarantee you know by heart – we remember that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. There, right there, begins the love story.
For when you’re Christ, on a mission from God, who so loved the world, you have to go to that world. You go out of your way, to meet that world in the flesh. You travel to lands you’re told you shouldn’t travel. You have conversations with people your faith tradition typically shuns. When you’re Christ, you love and accept people for who they are, no matter what. No matter how many husbands or wives they’ve had. No matter their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, creed, nationality, immigration status, ability, disability, income or lack of. When you’re Christ your love knows no boundaries. And when you’re Christ you implore others to go, and do the same.
Before we close I’d like to show you a brief video clip from the movie we spoke about earlier, Love Actually. We’ll pick up where we left off; Daniel and Sam have arrived at Heathrow airport in the hopes Sam can tell the love of his life how he feels. But of course, as with any good love story, sometimes that’s easier said than done. Let’s watch what happens next.
That scene, of the father and son embracing, it hits me every time, just beautiful.
Do you like a good love story? Not just the romantic or friendship kind, but a good agape love story, a love story between you and your Creator. If so, be like Sam at the airport. Make bold moves, break some rules, and chase after this love. Make it your mission in life. Give it everything you’ve got.
And definitely be like the woman at the well. Drop that jar of water, or that bottle of water, or your spring water, or whatever earthly vessel you use. Drop it and run. Run and tell everyone you know. Amen.