john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    He told me everything I have ever done!

    Bridestowe, Lydford Communion Service

    John 4.5-42

    'He told me everything I have ever done!'

    The testimony of the woman who Jesus met at Jacob's well.

    'He told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?'

    Well, he could be the Messiah; and many in that village in Samaria became followers of that Jesus of Nazareth, after witnessing the most unlikely events which unfolded that day.

    Unlikely - first of all because it was highly unusual for a Jew like Jesus to even visit a place like Sychar. Jews hated Samaritans, and vice versa. Rather like in our time, in which the Jews and Arabs have such a hard time getting along. They each have their own towns and villages, and they just don't mix. It was the same for the Samaritans when it came to the Jews. So surprise number one was that Jesus and his disciples would even bother to come to that region and 'give the time of day,' to someone there. Ok, he was tired and needed something to eat and drink. But he could have satisfied those needs without mixing with anyone else. But he didn't choose to avoid Samaria, and he didn't choose to keep himself to himself.

    But that was just the first surprise. The next unexpected turn was who Jesus chose to make contact with. It begins with the fact that this person was a woman. In that culture, men did not speak to strange women. This was especially true of great teachers with a reputation like Jesus'. Great rabbis were to reserve their words for men, since women weren't allowed to learn from rabbis - only from their own fathers and husbands. There were also customs and expectations that went with speaking at a well. For a man to go to a well and meet women there was a bit like a young man going to a singles bar today: for obvious reasons.

    Many people in Israel's history had met at wells: Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Zipporah all met at wells. For a man to go to a well and strike up a conversation with a woman was a bit like going out to find a wife - to put it nicely. There are cruder ways to put it that you might think of!

    So Jesus wasn't supposed to be in Samaritan territory, but he was. He wasn't supposed to talk to Samaritans when he did encounter them, but he did. Etiquette, especially for a respected rabbi, dictated that men shouldn't talk to women, especially at wells, but that's just what Jesus did. And the biggest shock of all was this: which woman did Jesus choose to talk to? Only the one with the worst reputation in town! To be frank about it, this woman had the biggest reputation for sleeping around. She had been married and divorced several times. She was currently living with a man she wasn't even married to.

    I don't know; would you want a woman like that in your church? The people of Sychar didn't want her around them, and she knew it. That's why she came to the well at noon, at the hottest time of the day! All the other women came at daybreak when it was cool. She was least likely to bump into anyone else at noon. Her reputation in the community was so bad that she had to try to sneak to the well to get her water. This woman, of all people, was the person that Jesus chose to speak to. And not just to have any old conversation with her - at the well, in the wilderness, Jesus offered her the gift of salvation, no less. Can you believe that?

    And Jesus wasn't just being naive. He wasn't just being nice. He knew exactly what he was doing. He understood why this woman was coming for water at midday. In fact, he seemed to know everything about her. That's why the people listened to her when she came running into town afterwards to tell them what had happened. Most of the time they just ignored her. But she was so excited, not her usual self, slinking around town trying to go unnoticed. No, she was changed! Somehow alive again!

    This woman who had been dead to them, buried under a load of shame the community had heaped on her, she boldly ran into the middle of the city with a spark of life in her eyes once again. And she announced to everyone there, "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He can't be the Messiah, the Christ, can he?" The Messiah! Before they even thought about it, the people found themselves running to meet this person, too. If they had thought about it, they might have wondered why she was so excited about someone telling her about her miserable life. But her enthusiasm and her testimony sparked something in the people; they went to see and hear for themselves and came to believe that this Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

    So what was so striking about what Jesus did for that woman?

    It was that in just a short time Jesus got to the very heart of her character. Jesus met her where she was, and in what he did and said to her Jesus met that woman's most fundamental needs - to be listened to; to be known; to be understood.

    That's all she wanted, all she needed. It's all that any of us want, deep down. To be listened to; to be known; to be understood.

    Up to that point the woman's life had been a relentless search for satisfaction.
    Her longing to be loved, her deep desire to be accepted, listened to, known, understood, led her into so many dead-end relationships that could never satisfy her thirst. She was an addict. Addiction is the process of getting hooked on things that will never satisfy us. They only get us hungering and thirsting for more until we have a famished craving, until our spirits die of thirst. Addiction is the exact opposite of what Jesus came to give that woman at the well. He came to give her a living water that would forever satisfy her longings and desires.

    'He told me everything I have ever done!' - finally, a man who knew her fully, understood her entirely, loved her wholly. No wonder she was so transformed that day. No wonder that her story made such an impression on those who heard it; because she may have been the most notorious addict for love in the city of Sychar; but everyone else in that place had just the same desires and longings, deep down, too.

    And the message is that just as he came to them, Jesus comes to give us something that will finally quench our thirst, satisfy our hunger, here and now.

    How we relate to this woman's story: for we too most deeply desire to be known; to be listened to; to be understood. We are filled with a longing to be loved, a deep desire to be accepted.

    We like it when someone takes an interest in us. The Census is an example - it's a bit of a bind filling out all those pages but we are pleased to see that for once the government seems to be taking an interest in us and our lives. And so we take a little time and a little care filling it in. [2]

    But the Census doesn't fully satisfy our need to be listened to and understood, because it is only interested in taking a snapshot of our lives, it only lets us tell a little about ourselves, it can't get anywhere near the heart of who we are.

    A recent survey among young people who don't go to church revealed that they 'longed to be loved, to have authentic relationships, to experience meaningful community'. [3]

    Our churches should be places where people are listened to; understood, loved and accepted. Sadly many give up on the church because their needs are not met, they find that they aren't taken seriously. Only this week I was talking to someone who as a young man with genuine questions about the Christian faith, found that those questions just weren't being answered by people in the churches, who showed him quite clearly that they had no time or no interest in listening to a young man and his questions about God. It was only after decades of searching that he found a church which took seriously the questions he was asking, a community which listened to him and dialogued with him. And he has been with the Jehovah's Witnesses ever since.

    Yet we of all people should know how deeply Christ knows us and accepts us. That should be food and drink to us - and that should strengthen us in his service, that should help us to be people who will want to bring the living water to others.

    Jesus said: 'My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.' God desires us, God loves us, and it is as we accept that and respond to that, that our thirst is quenched and our hunger satisfied. This is what Jesus offered to the Samaritan woman. It is what he offered to the people of Sychar through the Samaritan woman. It is what he offers you and me today. And it is what he can offer through us to those who hunger and thirst in our community. To be listened to; to be understood; to be loved and accepted.

    [1] This sermon is a rewrite of Paul J. Nuechterlein, A Shocking Revelation, delivered at Emmaus Lutheran, Racine, WI, March 6-7, 1999.
    [2] I gave this talk on the day in which UK citiozens were required to fill in their Census forms.
    [3] Quoted in Nicola David, Developing the Community Habit, Church Times, 25 March 2011.