A Story Worth Telling: Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well

John 4:5-42

Every story worth telling begins with something being out of place.  Every story worth re-telling begins with a conflict.  Every story told over and over again is about obstacles overcome — or not.  Otherwise there is no story.

Think it through with me and you will know this is so.

For instance, I caught up with our middle school youth for a while this morning. They are an hour away at a week-end retreat in a large suburban hotel.  Bleary eyed, this morning they were all telling the same story.  Someone had set off the fire alarms in the night not once but eight times.  Fire alarms being activated intentionally and without cause are ‘out of place.’   It stirred up all kinds of things in this group of young people (and their adult chaperones.)  And it led to things happening that would not have otherwise.  At 1:30 a.m., after having been awakened yet again, one room decided to have a pillow fight — turning their frustration into laughter.  And now they have a story to tell.

And here’s another: A couple of weeks ago I officiated at the funeral of a 91 year old World War II Veteran.  He had been a bomber pilot in the South Pacific.  All of his life and on the day of his funeral, too, the story was told of his having to land his plane in an emergency on a different aircraft carrier than the one they had taken off from earlier.  He did this in the dark. When he and his crew woke up the next morning, others looked at him and shook their heads and pointed at his plane and said,  “That plane is too big to land on this carrier.”  And yet, it had.  This young airman had already overcome the usual obstacles and this was just one more.  And he had a story to tell. His children and grandchildren, neighbors and friends do, too.

Every story worth telling begins with something out of place, with some kind of conflict, with obstacles to overcome.  The story before us today in John’s Gospel bears this out.  Indeed, we hear this from the start when we are told that Jesus is in Samaria — out of his usual territory.  He’s out of place.  And then he is met by a woman from the town of  Sychar and we sense that something is afoot because the woman is alone and at the well in the middle of the day: apparently not the usual time for going to draw water.  And once the conversation begins between them, the woman points out that Jesus is, in fact, ‘out of place’ — speaking then of the long standing conflict between Jews and Samaritans.  And then we know something more is going on as we listen in to the exchange between the two: recognizing this woman from Samaria is more theologically articulate than the learned Nicodemus was just a few verses before.  And yes, the content of their conversations leads us to conclude that there has been struggle and most likely, pain, for this woman for some time.  For while we are not privy to the details, we do hear that she has had five husbands.  Whatever else this may have meant, it meant that her life had to have been hard.

Can’t you see why this is a story worth re-telling? All sorts of things are out of place, conflict is brewing under the surface — and right out in the open when the ‘astonished’ disciples return a few verses later and we recognize that the obstacles between Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the well would seem almost insurmountable. But which were overcome.

Indeed, the fact that this is a story worth telling comes through in the story itself for the woman at the center of it all can’t keep it to herself.  Now it is only our very human speculation which brings any kind of understanding to why that woman traveled to the well alone in the middle of the day.  With many of you, I grew up believing that she was somehow especially sinful and that perhaps she was not welcome with the other women when they traveled together to draw water.  Notice, though, that the story does not tell us that.  It could well have been that all five of her husbands had died.  (And do remember she lived in a time and place when divorce was not hers to grant.  Legally, she could only have been on the receiving end of such as that.) And if five times she had gone through such heartbreak perhaps she, herself, had isolated herself from her fellow townswomen: unable to look upon their carefree joy without it stirring up her own losses all over again. 

We don’t know why the woman traveled to the well alone.  We do know that she couldn’t keep this story to herself and we do know that when she went and told the story of Jesus she had enough standing in that town to be heard and believed enough so that the rest of her community wanted to see for themselves. 

It’s a story worth telling. And it is a story we all tell in one way or another as we share with those we know the power of Jesus in our own lives. Your story and mine many look and sound nothing at all like the woman whose story is told today.  Except that Jesus meets us, too, in the middle of the day or in the middle of the night when we find ourselves outcast or we have isolated ourselves in our misery and our grief.  Jesus meets us, too, and offers us gifts which do not end.  Jesus meets us, too, and sees us and knows us and invites us, too.  And so we tell our stories and as we do we also recall the conflicts experienced and the obstacles overcome that amazingly led us to know the very same powerful love and acceptance the Samaritan woman at the well experienced so long ago.

  • What do you make of my premise that any story worth telling begins with something out of place, a conflict, or an obstacle to be overcome?  Can you see how that is so in this story in John’s Gospel?  Can you offer some other examples?
  • What is your story worth telling and telling again?  What obstacles did Jesus overcome in you or in your world to get close enough for you to experience his love?  How have you put that story into words and shared it so that others might hear it and then come and see for themselves?  If you have not, where and with whom might you be called to do so?