Meeting at the Well

The text of the sermon, based on John 4.5-42, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 3rd Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2023.


Last Sunday, we met Nicodemus; a religious insider who came to Jesus at night.[1] Today, a Samaritan woman; a religious outsider, who comes to Jesus in daylight.

This irony illustrates, I believe, what God values. Not outward, worldly respectability, but rather inward hunger and thirst for the Spirit. Therefore, in God’s sight, Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, both who came to Jesus, whatever the hour, are equals.

And, in the spirit of equality, let us call the anonymous Samaritan woman by her name from Eastern Orthodox tradition. Photina. From the Greek phos, light. For, as the story is told, she became an evangelist, bearing the good news of Jesus with her fellow citizens of Sychar, bringing them to the Light.

Looking at this story, what an unlikely encounter!

Jesus is a man. Photina, a woman. Thus, in a male-dominated culture, she is the wrong sex.

And Jesus is a Jew; Photina, a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans shared a historic hatred. Thus, she is the wrong race.

And, as a Samaritan, worshiping on Mount Gerizim, not in Jerusalem. Thus, in the wrong place.

And she is a serial monogamist; a lifestyle, at best, unconventional, at worst, contemptible.

Nevertheless, Jesus and Photina, two most implausible dialogists, engage in conversation, which also is unlikely. They don’t share the same language. Jesus speaks of “living water.” Photina, seeing Jesus has no bucket and the well is deep, thinks purely on a physical plane.

Nevertheless, as Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about new birth, he speaks to Photina about new life. Life so new that it’s old. Eternal, as God’s breath at the dawn of creation.

Photina, beginning to think on a spiritual plane, asks about the proper place of worship. Jesus offers this revelation: “The hour of true worship is coming, indeed, it’s here!” Photina cautiously makes a connection: “I know the Messiah is coming!” Jesus honors her dawning recognition: “I am the Messiah.”

Looking at this story and, now, applying it to our lives, of all the observations we might make: Jesus, a Jewish male rabbi, and Photina, a Samaritan woman, each to the other, is a reflection of difference. Of absolute “otherness”. Nevertheless, in encountering, engaging each other, they demonstrate an all-inclusive love; one that crosses, that bridges ancient animosities.

Each of us – with our individual experiences, histories and memories, perceptions and opinions – always are “other” to every other person; no matter how bonded by blood or by choice or how long-lived our relationships.

If true, then how much more “other” is any one of us with another whose essential humanity is different in origin and orientation, in culture and creed, in philosophy and theology, in politics and economics? Greatly more.

If true, then, in this Lenten season of self-examination, how much more “other” is any one of us with parts of ourselves (personality, character) that we dislike? Deeply more…

Thinking of myself, my worst trait is my sometimes indifference to God and to the love and justice I frequently, freely profess to value. While this attitude and behavior are not constant, their root is a fundamental, abiding inner brokenness that produces the bitter fruit of my duplicity, my lack of integrity.

Here’s some good news! With all the people who differ from us, Jesus and Photina meet us at the well. With all the parts of ourselves that we dislike, Jesus and Photina meet us at the well. They call us to encounter, to engage with others, all others and with our deepest, truest selves.

Yes, this involves pain in acknowledging our separation from the “other” and from ourselves. And peril in attempting the miracle of dialogue with others and ourselves. And the problem of accepting others and ourselves.

Nevertheless, Jesus and Photina meet us at the well offering the gift of living water. The grace of new life. So, that we can walk away from the well as changed people. Free from fear. Free to love the “other.” Truly, free to love ourselves.

© 2023 PRA

Illustration: Jesus and the Samaritan woman by the well, James Tissot (1836-1902)

[1] See John 3.1-17

3 thoughts on “Meeting at the Well

  1. Dear Paul!!

    I wrote this long thoughtful response but of course it’s disappeared and I hadn’t copied it as I usually do.

    Sooooo here’s part of what I wrote. I read this story and was stunned – meeting at the well!! It reminded me of the conference I spoke at yesterday.

    I was at a table with people of four different ethnicities and we likely had nothing in common accept we were all over the age of 60! When I came back from speaking, the Asian man sitting across from me handed me a bottle of water and said “I knew you’d be thirsty after your speech so I got this for you!” I was soooo blown away and thrilled!! Two people from different backgrounds and yet we came together over water, something we all need! We met at the well in my mind! Cool right??



  2. “We met at the well in my mind! Cool right??”

    More than cool! Your example, aye, this experiential moment-in-time is a glorious revelation and realization of precisely what I sought to express! Wonderful! Wonder-full!



  3. “We met at the well in my mind! Cool right??”

    More than cool! Precisely what I sought to share!

    Bravo! Brava!



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