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Lenten sermon series


Lent III -  2008


The Woman of Samaria: Millennium goals, 1,3,& 7


St. John the Evangelist, had he lived in another time, could have been a great play-right or screenwriter. Any number of biblical commentators have written about the rich scenes, dialogue, speeches and characters that give life to his telling of the good news.


History sets the stage for the meeting between Jesus and the woman of Samaria. Centuries before the birth of Christ the Assyrians conquered ancient Northern Israel. A large portion of the population was deported. Some Israelites were allowed to remain behind. The Assyrians imported colonists into the captured territory from Bablyonia. Some colonists and Israelites intermarried. Their descendants were the Samaritans. A troubled history of suspicion and hostility characterized the relationship between Samaritans and Jews of Jesus day.


Jesus enters Samaria and sits down by a well in the noonday heat. When a Samaritan woman comes to draw water from the well, Jesus says to her 'Give me a drink'. His terse demand sets the tone for the conversation that follows. The woman replies "How is that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" Her question, about her being both a Samaritan and a woman, is underscored when the disciples return. They are astonished that Jesus is found talking publicly with her. Social norms should prevent Jesus from addressing the woman in public. Did she think him disrespectful? If she were of his own kind, would he be so bold as to address her like this? Was it because she is a Samaritan that he felt he could ask a woman for a drink? She sees he has no cup. Where is the religious sensitivity she has heard about? Surely, he is not going to break the rules of his religion and share her drinking vessel. What is this about? Then the ground of the conversation shifts. Jesus is now offering her water, water that will quench thirst forever. The woman's reply is sardonic. Perhaps there is a roll of the eyes with the sense of 'right, by all means, give me this water, save me the daily trip to this well"


Maybe now she is feeling less threatened. Perhaps this is just a person begging for water, or some sort of preacher, or both. She offers up the information that she has no husband. How do like that situation Mr. preacher of living water! The conversation turns. Her revelation, about the lack of a husband, is a bit risky but factual. Jesus responds with a revelation of his own. A religious conversation ensues, one that overtakes their differences as Jew and Samaritan, male and female. The woman sets down her bucket, perhaps sits on the well, postures relax, history and the Torah are dragged out. It's a long conversation in the heat of the day-long enough for the disciples to return from their errand in town. The end result is the Woman taking a message about Jesus to her community. As biblical scholars Pheme Perkins (1) and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (2) each point out, the Samaritan woman has become a missionary. The woman departs the stage to go into the village and broker her experience and understanding of Jesus to others. The disciples return. The conversation shifts from water to food. Living water welling up with ease and abundance is joined to the image of a harvest that is bountiful beyond imagination. The difficult and back breaking work of sowing and reaping is replaced by the joy and ease of abundance-just as the daily chore of walking to draw water is ended with water that quenches thirst forever. "The reaper has overtaken the sower; it is the promised age of fulfillment." (3) Food and water here are images for the will of God generously made known in the form of Word, Wisdom and Torah. Now God's will is poured out and lavished abundantly on the whole earth in the person of Jesus the Christ.


The power of water as a symbol here comes from the story's context. A secure supply of available drinkable water is crucial for life in an arid land. As such, it's a powerful symbol in the sense in which Jesus uses it --water "gushing up to eternal" life. May we not rediscover water as a powerful symbol for the sustainability of life? Water plays a key role as an indicator in global warming, pollution, and in the viability of life in the oceans. We in our time are immediately connected (as the people in first century Palestine were) to the crucial importance of water in its relationship to life. Millennium Goal seven is environmental sustainability. Surely those of us who are baptized with water and the Spirit can see the relationship between this goal and a life of discipleship.


Jesus continues the abundance theme moving directly from water to food. Food and feeding are deeply rooted biblical images. What Jesus talks about briefly with his disciples at the well he will expand upon later in John's Gospel. Indeed, he will describe himself as "the bread of life." Yet the lack of abundance of food, often the sharp end of the stick of poverty, is as persistent a challenge now as it was in first century Palestine. Along side the divine value of abundance, is the reality of want in the lives of so many. Millennium Goal one is the eradication of poverty and extreme hunger. An estimated 850 million people a day go hungry. Currently 1.1 billion people around the world live on less than a dollar a day.


At the well Jesus invites the Samaritan woman into conversation with his terse plea, "Give me a drink". The cutting edge of this conversation is traced along the lines of gender. The woman of Samaria warily responds to this foreign man and opens to up a conversation that results in her becoming a storyteller about Christ. Those who hear her come to know Christ as the saviour of the world. The title "saviour of the world" was often assigned to the emperor. (4) Here a community has listened to the testimony of this woman and assigns the title to Christ. She is the first of several women in John's Gospel (Mary the sister of Lazarus and Mary Magdalene are others) that have good news to tell. Millennium Goal three is Promote gender equality and empower women. We don't have to look at some distant social setting on the far side of the world to think about the challenge goal three presents. The Samaritan woman nurtures faith. During Epiphany season, I asked members of the congregation to recall those who influenced their faith development. I'm willing to bet that in the majority of cases one of the central influences on your faith was a woman. Sadly, the church has sometimes taken the significant role that women have played in shaping and nurturing the faith of others very much for granted. Michael Valpy, writing in The Globe and Mail recently reported on the decline of the churches in Canada. (I've placed a copy his article on the Millennium Goals display table).


Valpy outlines the connection that some sociologists of religion make between the decline in the churches in Canada and the inability of the churches two generations ago to adapt to the evolving roles of women in Canadian society. It would be a fascinating to have a conversation about this issue-a conversation that involves both women who have stayed with the church and those who have left.


Also on the Millennium Goals display table is the mission statement of the International Anglican Women's Network.


The Network reports to the Anglican Consultative Council. The Network is making a very distinctive and insightful contribution to The Anglican Communion. Perhaps, over time, it will grab as much press and as much influence as the gathering of (the mostly male) Primates. Also found there, is material from Anglican Women's Empowerment. Anglican Women's empowerment is being highlighted this Sunday in The Episcopal Church.


The roles and experiences of women around the world are something of a lynch pin with regard to the Millennium Goals. Poverty for example can affect anyone; but poverty remains disproportionately a problem for women and their children. Education access, child mortality, the fight against HIV/AIDS and development partnerships all have special challenges for women. In order to successfully understand and meet the challenges represented by The Millennium Goals, it is necessary to hear about the experiences of women.


The Millennium Goals seek to identify problems facing the Earth and her people with a view to providing the many resources that will be required to resolve them. According to John, in the hottest part of the day, at a well by the side of a roadway, Jesus and the Woman of Samaria encounter one another. They enter into a conversation that culminates in an awareness of Jesus Christ as the savior of the world. Throughout their conversation neither Jesus nor The Samaritan woman sets aside who they are as persons. However, during the course of their conversation Jesus and this unnamed woman transcend ethnicity, religious barriers, and gender in order to understand together the grace and the abundance of God. What happens there is not incidental to the gospel. At so many levels, this is the gospel.



1. Pheme Perkins The New Jerome Biblical Commentary: Article 61 The Gospel According to John. Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1990. # 49.

2. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. In Memory of Her. Crossroad, New York, 1994. P.138

3. A.M. Hunter. According to John. SCM Press, Ltd., 1968 p. 80

4. Perkins. Ibid. #65