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Lent 3 A ~ John 4:5-42 Exegesis, Homiletic Reflection & Strategies ~ Rev. Richard Eslinger


This profound and detailed story follows upon a sequence of events that function in differing ways to shape the reader’s expectations as the Samaritan journey is undertaken. Jesus’ first sign in Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11) is followed by three Judean-based events: the Incident in the Temple (2:13-22), the visit by Nicodemus (3:1-21), and a brief narrative relating the ministries of the Baptist and Jesus at the Jordan (3:22-36). Thus, as the Fourth Evangelist brings us along as Jesus enters Samaria, we bring with us questions regarding the sign of water become wine, the Temple cult, new birth, baptism, and, underlying all of these, the identity and work of Jesus. The Samaritan journey’s motivation is somewhat vague, although the Evangelist implies that there is some connection with baptismal activity at the Jordan—“although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized....”(4:2) Perhaps the impending arrest of the Baptist was a factor (in

1:24, we are told that “John, of course, had not been thrown into prison.”). At any rate, Jesus now was leaving Jerusalem and Judea and returning to Galilee.


Regarding this return trip, a certain tension is introduced as John mentions that Jesus “had to” (dei) go through Samaria on the way down to Galilee. Some commentators interpret the force of the term to indicate that Samaria lay between Judea and Galilee and that the narrator is telling us of a geographical necessity. Other interpreters refer to pious Jews who “must not” go through

Samaria on such a journey, crossing and recrossing the Jordan in order to avoid the hated Samaritans. However, these arguments speak only to an “earthly” aspect of the issue. A “heavenly” meaning of dei stresses that this course is of Divine intent; Jesus “had to” go through Samaria for purposes related to his mission. Something of great import for God’s reign is about to come to light. Immediately, the plot thickens. Coming to the Samaritan city of Sychar, 1 Jesus

sits by the well Jacob had given to his son Joseph. He is tired from the journey and it is about noon. And there, in the heat of the day, a Samaritan woman comes to draw water. Jesus asks the woman for a drink. Now under “normal” circumstances, such an encounter with the woman at the well triggers all of our type-scene memories as a biblical people. Whether in the case of Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, or Moses and Zipporah, the dynamics are remarkable

similar: A man comes to a well, finds a maiden there, asks her for a drink; they converse; she runs home to tell her people what has happened; they return with her to the well and approve the man; he returns to their home and marries the maiden. 2 Also added to the list, we might suggest to Howard Brook, is one final item: in every case, the resulting marriage alters the course of history for the covenant people!


Of course, such a possibility is subverted by all of the social and religious barriers that have preceded Jesus and the woman to the well. These are well known by now within the college of preachers and were well known to the woman of Samaria as well. “How is it that you, a Jew ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”(4:9b) In case any of John’s readers were not equally in the know, he adds: (“Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”).(4:9c) By the mid-

60’s of the first century, this custom had become Jewish regulation; Samaritan women were ritually unclean and nothing could be shared in common. However, the force of the ritual impurity was clear enough to the woman. If Jesus drank from her water jar, he would impose on himself a status of outcast even more severe than that she experienced coming in the noonday heat to draw water instead of with the other women either early or late in the day. But the situation is turned upside down as Jesus speaks of a knowledge she lacks about his identity and about the gift of God he can provide. If she had asked, Jesus continues, “you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”(hydōr zon) Responding at an earthly level, the woman asks where Jesus obtains such living water, adding most ironically, “Are you greater than our ancestor Jocob,…?”(4:12) Jesus’ response contrasts all earthly water—which only temporarily quenches thirst—with the water he will provide, “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”(4:14) Remaining quite terrestrial, the woman asks politely that she have this water in order to avoid the daily trip to Jacob’s well!


We are surprised by the shift in the conversation; this living water has been offered and the woman does request it, though on an “earthly level.” Jesus now directs her: “Go call her husband, and come back.”(4:16) Her response is to deny she has a husband, whereupon Jesus notes that she has had five husbands and the one she is living with now is not her husband. At this point, interpreters beg to differ. Some, including Raymond Brown, believe the interchange to “need have more than the obvious import.” 3 Others see Johannine double-meaning at work in the exchange. Howard Brook speaks for this camp by first casting doubt on the clear literal meaning. The issue cannot be that of marital infidelity; “nowhere else in the fourth gospel is there expressed a concern for this kind of moralizing.” 4 What the latter interpreter holds is a more symbolic expression of the matter. The five previous “husbands,” it is argued, pertain to the five foreign peoples that intermarried with the Samaritans, the latter also “marrying” their gods as well. And as for the one who “is not your husband,”(4:18a) it is suggested that the

Roman occupation is being implied here. Once again, the most wholesome approach to John may be the most holistic. On one hand, the woman announces to her townspeople later that she has encountered “a man who told me everything I have ever done!”(4:29) The response of the woman is one of growing insight; she sees that Jesus is a prophet (prophetēs).


The issue now turns to theological geography. The woman speaks of the holy sites that stand in opposition between Samaritans and Jews—an issue that follows easily from both sides of the “husband” coin. Certainly the “five husbands” allusion to her people could evoke this comment. Moreover, it would be quite human to deflect the issue of her personal life by distancing Jesus with this question related to a very old family feud. Jesus’ reply serves to render the ancient opposition obsolete. Neither location! Yet, there is more weight given to the Jerusalem option

by Jesus. After all, “salvation is from the Jews.”(4:23) 5


Jesus now presents the woman and the readers of the Gospel with that distinctive present-future quality of his “hour.” It both “now is here” and “is coming,” in this case regarding true worship of the Father “in spirit and in truth.”(4:23) The mystery of Jesus’ hour will finally be revealed as he is lifted up on the Cross and in glory. However, another perspective is needed, one which takes seriously John’s role as spokesperson for his community. When Jesus comments that in comparison to the Samaritans, “we worship what we know,”(4:22) the alternative community of true worship may be that of John’s own community. In such a case, worship “in spirit and in truth” is both present in the Word made flesh and in the community that eats his flesh and drinks his blood. John formulates the common faith of the community of the Beloved Disciple. 6 The Dominical pronouncement continues with the reference to worship of God “in spirit and in truth.”(4:23) This doublet affirmation—closely linked in Johannine theology—renders null and void the old contest between Jerusalem and Gerizim and has replaced nationalist location with Spirit-filled true worship. Brown has suggested that the two terms are so closely related in the Fourth Gospel that they could be rendered as one phrase:

“Spirit of truth.” 7 Far from a vague “spiritualized” modern and liberal ideology of liturgical pluralism, the Evangelist rejects any geographical particularity to true worship while at the same time insisting upon a Trinitarian location. The children of God will worship the Father (ho patēr), and “must (dei) worship in spirit and truth.”(4:24) The woman’s response is to affirm that she knows that the Messiah is coming, the One called Christ. Jesus’ response to this partial faith is to bring it to full bloom; “Egō eimi,” he proclaims—“I am he.”(4:26)


Now, with these words of self-disclosure echoing near Jacob’s well, the scene’s cast of characters undergoes a dramatic shift. Abiding with “the rule of twos,” the Evangelist notes the woman’s departure to evangelize her kinsfolk in the town while also bringing the disciples back on stage from their trip into the city to secure provisions. The former leaves her now obsolete water jar by the well while the latter, the disciples, are astonished that Jesus has been speaking to

a woman. John traces the two narrative trajectories in sequence. First, he invites us to follow the woman on her mission. “Come and see,” she invites, beckoning the townsfolk with a question she now knows has been answered. “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”(4:29) Her words have fallen on good soil; the townspeople leave the city and come toward Christ. Meanwhile, out at Jacob’s well, the dialogue between Jesus and the disciples continues. They urge Jesus to eat

which evokes a response from the Lord concerning “food to eat that you do not know about.”(4:32) The disciples verify our suspicions that they follow Jesus only on an “earthly” level. They ponder whether some others have brought food for their rabbi. This evokes a response from Jesus that is entirely on the “heavenly” level: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.”(4:34) What ensues is a pair of sayings, both related to sowing and harvesting. In the first, the prophetic vision is being fulfilled in this hour in Samaria.


The seasons of the sowing and of reaping are being drawn together in a time of eschatological joy. Moreover, in the second image, another prophecy is being transformed. One sows while another reaps, not in Exilic despair, but in fulfillment-time rejoicing. 8 “Look around you,” Jesus says to his disciples, “and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.”(4:35) The harvest is begun by the woman—one of those who reaps having not sown. Many citizens of Zychar come to believe “because the woman’s testimony (marturountes).”(4:39a) Here is a startling and sudden reversal. Just prior to Jesus’ Samaritan journey, the Baptist witnessed to

some detractors that he is not the Messiah. The “one from above” has testified to what he has seen and has heard, “yet no one accepts his testimony (marturei).”(3:32) However, through the word of the woman’s testimony, many Samaritans have come to believe. These are now certified days of eschatological harvest! Moreover, the Samaritans extend unexpected hospitality to the Christ. They ask Jesus to stay with them (lit., “abide”), and Jesus “abided” with them for

two days. Now, they do not need the testimony of the woman, although her witness was critical to this harvest. These new children of God “have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”(4:42)


Homiletical Strategies


We will sketch three approaches to shaping a homily based on Woman at the Well for the Third Sunday of Lent, Year A. Each will keep in mind the catechetical purposes of the season and the liturgical and pastoral context in particular. The three approaches share several qualities in common: (1) all will retain the movement and intention of this extended lesson, (2) all will shape a sermonic plot that will be episodic (a “this” that leads to a “that”), and (3) none will distill some thematic out of the text to organize into an outlined series of sub-points. With these guidelines in mind, a number of strategies remain living options in homiletic method. 9


“Running the Story”


A number of homiletic voices have joined with the narrative tradition of African American preaching in the conviction that the best way to preach a biblical story is to let its plot--with its distinctive movement, sequence, and intention—shape the plot of the sermon. “Running the story,” then, invites the assembly to journey through the biblical narrative with some real immediacy. This approach deals in what Henry Mitchell calls the “eyewitness” quality of preaching in the Black church. 10 Rather than talking about the text, a narrative sermon invites the

listeners to become part of the world of the text. However, the converse also obtains: as the story is run, inviting the listeners into its world, the preacher will also employ strategies for opening the biblical story out into the lived experience of the congregation. Among the various strategies available, we will focus on the identification of a number of locations within the narrative text where we discern that an analogy exists with the contemporary congregation. We will identify

these locations, putting the forward movement of the story on hold, and develop an excursus that invites the listeners to see how it is with them at this crucial place within the narrative. Most biblical narratives offer more possible locations than can be fully exploited. However, the congregational and worldly context will assist in deciding which locations will appropriately be developed into an excursus within this sermon (the choice of these narrative locations may vary as the preacher returns to the text). Clearly, the Woman at the Well story offers numerous potential locations for the development of such excursi. With an imagined congregation in mind, we will identify the following places and explore means by which we may contemporize them.


Following the excursus, of course, it is the preacher’s task to reenter the biblical story and again invite the congregation to journey within its world. One caution: we will exert a certain restrain with regard to the size of a story illustration deployed within an excursus. If the contemporary illustration becomes too extensive and involved, the listeners may have difficulty returning to the

biblical story; they will remain stranded in the illustration!


Excursus 1: Journeying through Samaria. Although this location appears quite early in the text, there are powerful contemporary analogies to such a passage through alien territory. It is perhaps too early in this narrative sermon to employ a story-illustration. However, one or more examples (a more retrained reference out of the lived experience of the congregation) may well be offered for the listeners to grasp this experience of going through Samaria. For a suburban congregation, there may be a boundary to a part of the city that is rarely entered by choice. Sometimes the boundary even has a local name: “west of the river” or “east of the five”(I-5), etc. Sometimes, an entire community can be named that is a “Samaria” for the congregation. The example or examples should be selected with a clear analogy to the narrative’s significance of “Samaria” for the first century Jewish community in Galilee and Judea. We may also gesture toward some compelling motivation that makes it necessary (dei) for us to go through our Samaria.


Excursus 2: The oddity of the woman coming to the well at noon. Here, many

preachers pause to provide the congregation with a brief scenario of the more “normal” times for women to gather at a well. They would come either very early in the morning or toward dusk, avoiding the heat of the day. They would gather to share in friendship and share any news. Contemporary analogy: in a farming community, for example, the early gathering at a favorite coffee shop before work begins in the fields. The preacher is cautioned not to develop this excursus too extensively. The congregation will need to move on as the plot thickens.


Excursus 3: Jesus violates the customs—speaks to a Samaritan woman! At this

point, it is most appropriate to pause and explore some contemporary analogies to Jesus' violation of these deeply-held norms. We could shape a small rhetorical system as follows: So John tells us that “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” I expect, then, that John would understand that in New York City, strangers do not talk to each other in an elevator.. Or that most people in a city don’t look toward a homeless person sitting alongside an alley. Or that a bank executive doesn’t often stop to chat with a teller. John might reply, “Well, it’s something like those things, only it goes much deeper. Most Jews and Samaritans really believed that God ordained this enmity and distance between the two peoples.”


Excursus 4: The offer of living water. One of the challenges in preaching is that

negative examples come to us so easily, while images of grace are difficult to imagine. However, we are called to preach the gospel, and our images of grace will need to be as vivid as and even more powerful than those of darkness and sin. 11 One possible option is to depict for the congregation the baptism scene in “O Brother, Where Art Thou.” The white-robed people move through the woods on the way to the river singing, “O brother, let’s go down,…O sister, let’s go down, down to the river and pray.” One of the three escaped cons watching the scene, Delmer, is suddenly moved to dash down the bank and he splashes out to the preacher. He is baptized, going down into the water and coming up gulping and laughing. Child-like, he’s filled with joy. Delmer has heard this offer of living water, he responded, and has drunk deeply of its life-giving power. The reference will function well for congregations somewhat familiar with the film. If that is not the case, perhaps the preacher will want to depict a baptism within the life of

the congregation. Since we are anticipating the Easter Vigil here at the Third Sunday in Lent, the baptismal service from last year’s Vigil could be deployed. In any case, Hilkert’s caution is that this scene of grace be named with concrete and imagistic speech.


Excursus 5: “You have had five husbands.” In this excursus, the personal morality

dimension of Jesus’ declaration will be briefly discussed and the issue rapidly expanded to deal with the social and theological issues of having “five husbands.” After developing the latter aspect adequately, we will gesture toward the kinds of “husbands” to whom we are wedded in North American culture. All of these can descend to the status of idolatry. Some examples may include:

a. The “husband” of our career.

b. The “husband” of addiction.

c. The “husband” of consuming.

d. The “husband” of nationalism.

e. The “husband” of ideological certainties (liberal, evangelical, etc.)


The list will not need to include a specific total of five examples. However, in order to provide a sense of multiple problem “husbands,” we should perhaps offer three or more. Congregational, denominational, and regional context will shape the example system for the astute preacher. 12


Excursus 6: Worship of God in spirit and in truth. Informed by the pericope, one

understands this “worship in spirit and in truth” to include a community that transcends the most intractable human boundaries. Moreover, such worship will embody the truth of the Word made flesh and will be enlivened by the Spirit. The challenge for the preacher, though, is that one cannot speak of these qualities without concretely imaging them (otherwise, they fade from congregational consciousness). Related to the congregation’s experience, for example, was there

a recent ecumenical service of worship that did cross boundaries, and was filled with truth and Holy Spirit? Did representatives of the parish return from a mission trip celebrating the Spirit- filled worship of another people? Was a distinctive liturgy such as the “Celebration of the Rite of Election of Catechumens” an examplar of such worship in spirit and in truth? One or more examples will serve to shape the assembly’s understanding of Jesus’ words about such worship.


1 Raymond Brown argues for an alternative location of the site near Jacob’s well, the town of Shechem, adding that “Jacob’s well is only 250 ft. from Shechem.” Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John. Vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966), 169.

2 Wes Howard Brook, Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 113.

3 Brown, Vol. 1, 171.

4 Howard Brook, 106.

5 Wes Howard Brook consistently translates the Johannine term “Ioudaioi” as “Judeans” rather than “Jews.” The latter translation, as we know, has led to much anti-Semitism and persecution in the past, using the Fourth Gospel as

a justification. Alternatively, most Johannine scholars would argue for a case by case approach to the various meanings of the term based upon context. Howard Brook rejects this move, arguing that the negative depiction of the Ioudaioi relates to their representing the Judean ideology of dominance and economic exploitation. “The gospel is not anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish but anti-Judean, where “Judean” is a symbol for those whose allegiance is to the ‘world’.”(Ibid., 43) In most instances, this writer agrees with such an assessment. However, there are a few times in the Gospel when the context does argue for the use of “Jews” rather than “Judeans.” This occasion is one of those exceptions, I would argue. If the Evangelist only intends an anti-Judean usage of Ioudaioi, than this statement is most confusing. Besides, salvation would not come only from “Judeans,” given the Fourth Gospel’s use of the Hebrew Scriptures, it comes from “the Jews” in a most positive sense.

6 See Paul S. Minear, John: The Martyr’s Gospel (New`York: The Pilgrim Press, 1984), 10-13. Also see Raymond Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple (New York: Paulist Press, 1979).

7 Brown, John, Vol. 1, 187.

8 See Howard Brook, 111-12 for a discussion of the interplay of prophetic allusions in the Hebrew Scriptures with these two Dominical sayings related to harvest and the reign of God.

9 See my The Web of Preaching: New Options in Homiletic Method (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002).

10 See Henry Mitchell, Black Preaching (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1979).

11 See Mary Catherine Hilkert, Naming Grace: Preaching and the Sacramental Imagination (New York: Continuum, 1999).

12 The ability of congregations to retain these kinds of examples is undergoing a shift at present. If the example or example system is to provide concretion within some single meaning in the sermon—such as an excursus in a narrative sermon—it is increasingly the case that some brief perceptual element be added to the general statement of the example. Put simply, examples will not be heard if all we do is name them in some general way. In our present cultural context with its deepening imagistic and visual orientation, some imagery is now needed for examples to form in congregational hearing. So, for example, we will not only state the “husband” of consumer culture, but will invite the listeners to see the appeals for consumption in TV commercials.

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