When the Church becomes the Well

[On March 12, 2023 I had the honour of preaching at St. Margaret’s New Toronto Anglican Church. This is a church that became something of a community hub during the pandemic, in partnership with a coalition of social service agencies. The text for the day was the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, from John 4.]

Much depends on the tone of voice.

We all know that.

It isn’t just the words, but the way that they are spoken
that conveys meaning.

I mean, even one word, just a name, can have different meanings
depending on the tone of voice.

I could call out to Reverend Jacqueline
with an excited tone of voice to convey
that I’m happy to see her,
or a surprised and questioning voice asking
is that really you?
Or my tone could convey anger,
or a shout of warning,
or shock.

Much depends on the tone of voice.

So what was the tone of voice when the Samaritan woman
replied to Jesus asking for some water?

“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me,
a woman of Samaria?”

Does she deliver these lines with a sense of:
“Are you really sure you want to be talking to me?”

“Who do you think you are, talking to me!”
“What’s going on, why are you talking to me?”
Or perhaps,
“What, you can’t get your own water?”

Or what was the tone of voice when Jesus says,
“You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’:
for you have had five husbands,
and the one you have now is not your husband.
What you have said is true.”

Is this a “gotcha” moment?
Does he say this in an accusing voice?

Or is there a shared sorrow here,
a moment in which Jesus acknowledges
that this is a woman who has been bounced from man to man,
married, divorced, married, divorced, over and over again,
and she has had no say in the matter.

Here is a woman who has been used and abused,
exploited and discarded,

and that is why she is at this well alone
in the heat of the scorching noonday sun.

At first it seems that, regardless of tone,
she is taken aback.

So rather than acknowledging what Jesus has said,
and certainly not going any deeper into the tragic story of her life,
she seems to change the subject.

Noting that Jesus must be a prophet to be able to discern
so deeply into her life,
she asks what was to her and her people,
a burning question.

Let’s not talk further about my deepest sorrow,
let’s not dwell on how I have been discarded
by one man after another,
rather, let’s talk about whether the appropriate place to worship
is in Jerusalem like you Jews say,
or here on Mt. Gerizim, as Moses had instructed so long ago,
which we Samaritans believe.

Is this a diversionary tactic?

Let’s talk about the old debate that separates
our people rather than more about me?

Or is this, perhaps getting to the heart of the issue.

What space is sacred, asks this woman
who is at the well midday because she is

deemed unclean, unholy, by her community.

What is holy, asks this Samaritan woman,
who Jews viewed as perpetually unclean.

Where is the correct place of worship,
asks this woman,
who has come to this well alone,
without the fellowship of the other women,

and is probably excluded from worship in her community.

Where do we go to sing praise, asks this woman,
whose voice is silenced by the shame of her abuse.

So, Jesus answers the question that is really being asked,
not the age old question of Mt. Gerizim or Jerusalem.

You see where you worship is irrelevant.

“Neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem,” he replies

That’s the wrong question
and it misses the point of what God is doing in our midst.

It isn’t the place that matters, he insists,
it’s whether the worship is in spirit and in truth.
In spirit and in truth.

But which spirit? Which truth?

What’s he talking about?

Where there is a spiritual welcome,
where there is a spiritual solidarity with folks in their pain,

where there is a spirit of healing and restoration,
where there is a spirit of hospitality and love,
where there is the healing, life-giving,
creating and redeeming Spirit of God –
that is where worship happens.

And where there is truth,
where there is an honest naming of the pain;
where there is no cover-up, but things are out in the open;
where we abandon all the pretence,
and stop hiding the death and rot behind the so-called
traditions of the church;
where we come together as beloved children of God
in all of our brokenness, confusion and shame;
there the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life
will appear and real worship will happen.

Where is holy ground?

Right here at this well
with the one who offers living water.

Right here at this well
in a conversation between a Jew and a Samaritan.

Right here at this well
where this woman has come

to quench her most immediate need for water,
but has found an offer for
a living, loving, lasting, water that will
quench her deepest thirst.

You see, this “profane” woman,
this woman of shame,
dismissed as unclean, as unholy,
asks Jesus about worship,
and he invites her,
into a worship in spirit and in truth.

And that makes her raise the question of the Messiah.

There is something about this Jew at a Samaritan well,
there is something about this man who offers her living water,

there is something about the way in which he is speaking to her,
and there is something about what he just said,
that wells up in her a thirst for the Messiah.

“I know that the Messiah is coming,” she replies.
“When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”

And Jesus looks her in the eye and says,
“I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

This is breathtaking, my friends.

In this private conversation,
with a woman who he should not be talking to at all,
in the dangerous context of a man and a woman alone at a well,
having named her tragic loneliness and betrayal,
touching her deepest vulnerability,
and in the face of her anguished longing for a restoration
that can only happen when Messiah comes,
Jesus, names himself as nothing less than that Messiah.

The disciples return from town,
shocked to see their Master
in such a compromising position
talking to the woman alone at the well,
and she figures that being alone with Jesus was one thing,
but a whole group of men
is way too dangerous,
so she heads back into town

She doesn’t have the well water that she went to collect,
she doesn’t even have her jug anymore,

but she’s got something much more valuable.

She’s just had a tentative sip of living water,
and she goes to the community that has excluded her
with good news,
with the amazing possibility that she has met the Messiah.

And her testimony answers the question
of Jesus’s tone that I asked earlier.

With an inviting enthusiasm she bears witness:
“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.”

And it is clear, that she was not burdened with shame
at what Jesus had said.

His accurate observation did not
weigh her down in silence.
Rather, it was liberating.

She had found her voice,
she had found the courage to speak into her community,
she had good news to share,
even if she was such an unlikely source of any good news.

Now remember, all that Jesus had said
was that she’d had five husbands,
and the man she was now with was not her husband.

And yet, that description of this oppressed woman,
got to the heart of who she is.

The tone was not one of accusation,
but of loving and sorrowful acknowledgement.

In naming the repetitive betrayals of her marital history,
Jesus told her that he understood,

he knew that
she had been discarded and used;
she had been an object of desire,
and an object of shame;
she had been excluded, marginalized,
and deeply, deeply lonely.

This man at the well,
saw all of that and named it
in such a way that she began to experience healing.

This man who told her about worshipping
in spirit and in truth,
demonstrated a spiritual discernment
that could get to the truth,
while manifesting a spirit of welcome and invitation
that could begin to uncover
an even deeper truth about herself,
that she was a beloved daughter of God,
and the Messiah was offering her living waters.

And as if to make sure that we don’t miss the point,
John repeats the words of this woman’s testimony,
“He told me everything that I have ever done.”

With one simple observation about the repetitive brokenness
of her relationships with men,
Jesus got to the heart of this woman’s life.

I wonder, friends, what would that be for you?
What one thing could be said about you

that would lead you to have a sense of being
deeply and profoundly known?

For me it is pretty simple.
Devastatingly simple.

It would be like me meeting Jesus
at the local pub,
and he asks me to buy him a drink.

I don’t know this guy, so I ask him why
I would buy a total stranger a drink.


And he replies,
“I’ll tell you what buddy, all you have to do is ask,
and I’ll give you a drink that will end all drinks,
a drink that will soak into your soul so deeply,
that you’ll never need to buy another drink in your life.”

So I say,

“You must be some bootlegger, man, but bring it on.
I want that drink.”

Then Jesus says, “go home and bring your father.”
And I answer, “I have no father.”

To which Jesus replies,

“That’s true, you have no father.
And the man who was your father
wasn’t really a father to you either,
since he abandoned your family when you were young,
lost as he was in alcoholism, PTSD
and his own abandonment as a child.”

Yep, that pretty much sums it up.

Once you know that about me,
the rest is just kind of filling in the blanks.

My life is profoundly shaped and stamped
by an absent father.

And truth be known, my coming to Christian faith
as a teenager was in many ways a matter of finding a father
who would not betray me,
a father who would love me
and stay by my side.

Come and see the man who told me everything
I had ever done.

Come and see the man who knows me,
and loves me nonetheless.

Come and see the man who has quenched my deepest thirst,
creating a spring of living water at my very core.

Come and see the man who can name my deepest sorrow,
and fill me with an overflowing joy.

And I tell you, friends, that I totally know why
this woman became an evangelist.

I get it that she gained the courage to invite
her neighbours to come out to Jacob’s well to meet Jesus.

I mean, if you had found living water,
wouldn’t you want to share the good news?

Let me tell you a story.

My youngest child, Finn, goes to the Church of the Redeemer.

One day Finn was
in the local Tim Horton’s
grabbing a bite to eat and
nodded to a man who is a regular
at the Common Table
– Redeemer’s food ministry.

A few minutes later a homeless guy walks in
and starts going table to table,
asking for money.

He gets to the Common Table guest,
who says that he doesn’t have any money,
but pointed to Finn and said,

“Go ask that person, they are part of the
church down the street that feeds people.”

The church that feeds people.

That’s how Redeemer is known,
at least amongst some of the street folks in the area.

The homeless brother came over to Finn,
and Finn basically gave him all the cash
they had.

Now what’s interesting here is that
one homeless guy tells another homeless guy
where to go for help.

This didn’t happen at a well.

And it didn’t have all of the fraught social dynamics
of Jesus and the Samaritan woman.

But it did happen where people get
certain kinds of basic needs met in our society.

Even the guy without money for a donut and a double double,
still figures that a Timmy’s on Bloor Street
might be a place to get some money to meet some of his needs.

So the question is,
where do folks go in New Toronto

to meet their needs?

It might be the mall, or McDonald’s,
or the food bank, or Tim Horton’s.

And, from what I’ve been hearing,
it might be St. Margaret’s,

to grab a meal, get a shower,
find some help navigating the social service systems,
or just a place to be warm and dry,
and maybe have a friendly conversation.

You see, I’ve always known that St. Margaret’s
is a place with great food.

But it seems that this place is becoming
something of the local well in New Toronto.

People come here throughout the week
to get basic sustenance,
to be fed, clothed, washed, and supported.

The coalition of community groups
that gather in this place is remarkable.

Rather than the church being
a strange place
of alienation and judgement,

St. Margaret’s has become
a place of welcome,

a place for shared grief during
community remembrance events,

a place of harm reduction
and health care,

a place of neighbourliness.

And just like the woman at the well,
and just like the homeless fellow
talking about another church
being a place that feeds people,
folks in New Toronto
are coming to identify this place
as a safe gathering place,
a place of sustenance, of welcome, of healing.

You see, dear friends,
when Jesus talked to a Samaritan woman at a well
he crossed pretty much every social boundary of the day,
and he broke pretty much all of the social rules.

A man talking to a woman.
A Jew talking to a Samaritan.
A holy man talking to a so-called unclean woman.

The old divisions of gender, ethnicity and religion
are all crossed in this encounter at the well.

The old debates about what places are sacred
in contrast to other places that are profane or secular,
are dismissed.

The old dividing walls the separated us by a contrast between
good and respectable people,

and those of a lower moral standing,
all come crashing down when Jesus is at the well.

My friends, God has never abandoned St. Margaret’s.

But, like Jesus moving from Judea to Galilee by going through Samaria,
our God is always on the move.

And I perceive, dear sisters and brothers,
I discern, beloved siblings in Christ,

that our God is on the move in New Toronto,
and St. Margaret’s is one of the wells
where folks are invited to be embraced in love,
to be known in their deepest pain,
and to be offered living water.

So I invite you to drink the living water of Jesus.

And as that water becomes a spring of life within you,
don’t hold it in,
don’t keep that water for yourself,
but keep going back to the well with your neighbours,
embrace your calling in this community,
and allow God to refashion St. Margaret’s
into a community well of living waters.

Can I get an amen?

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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