March 12, 2023
During my last year at seminary, I went on a mission trip to Haiti with a group of classmates. While we were there, we got used to a certain rhythm of things—getting up around sunrise, working with the Haitians to build a new church, playing with the kids, and games of marbles and dominos before bed. But every morning, there was a woman who would come by with her donkey, bearing two saddlebags of water to refill our water tanks that she brought up from a well.
On Sunday, after worship, we all decided our activity for the day would be to hike to this well where the woman got the water. It was a pretty long hike! And when we got there, it was one of those wells with a big long lever to pump the water. So, having nothing else to do, we decided to pump water for anyone that came by—which both entertained and confused the Haitians who got to laugh at these silly Americans who were acting like children.
But what was a novelty and an easy way to be helpful for us was a daily chore for millions upon millions of women and girls throughout history and up to the present day. And the scene for today’s gospel is set by that regular activity that the Samaritan woman would do every day. She would go to the well to pull up water for her daily chores—but normally that chore is reserved for the morning. We could spend a lot of time dwelling on why she didn’t want to be around the other women getting water, keeping out of the throng of friends and neighbors who, for whatever reason, aren’t welcome company to her—but the point is that she was used to going alone.
And then this man was at the well.
Now, imagine this woman, who has gotten into her routine so she can actively avoid running into anyone while getting water. She probably enjoys the quiet where she doesn’t have to deal with talking to anyone, spending the mental and emotional energy of deflecting gossip or intrusive questions or annoying small talk. She wanted to just go about her day—when this dude is elbowing in on her alone time. And it would be bad enough, but then he’s a Jew, which is a whole minefield she doesn’t have the patience for today. And then—and it just keeps getting worse—he starts talking to her! It makes perfect sense to me that there’s more than a touch of annoyance in her voice when she starts speaking to Jesus.
But that annoyance gives way to something really, truly remarkable. Jesus talks to a lot of people in the gospels. They come from all different walks of life. Some are genuine, some less so. Most of them know that Jesus is unusually insightful. But of all the people whose conversations were recorded in the gospels, the Samaritan woman who had every intention of avoiding people that day not only has the longest conversation with Jesus, but gets more words in than any of Jesus’s other conversation partners. She alone holds her own in a theological conversation with Jesus.
And still, with all that knowledge, as much as she can keep up with Jesus, what does she say to her neighbors in Sychar? Does she share all of her insight? Does she insist she’s got the access to all the answers they seek? Does she suddenly become a well of faithful aphorisms bubbling up to eternal sermonizing? No! She invites them to experience what she experienced: “Come and see the man who told me everything I’ve ever done!” But it’s more than just an invitation. She welcomes them into her own doubts and uncertainty: “He can’t be the Messiah, can he?”
Wow! One of the hardest parts about sharing our faith with others boils down to the fear that someone will ask us something and we won’t know the answer. We have images of Peter, standing up after Pentecost and declaring the truth of who Jesus is to the crowds. We have ideas of Paul, confidently answering the hard theological questions to his congregations. We even have Jesus saying not to prepare a defense, because the Spirit will guide you. Even suggesting doubt or uncertainty about our faith seems taboo in so many places. So what a witness that we have here, of the Samaritan woman whose way of sharing the gospel was to express her deepest uncertainties, and invite people to explore those uncertainties with her.
What if we led with that? What if, instead of thinking we had to confidently declare the gospel to others and the work was simply to convince them that we’re right, instead we approached sharing the gospel more like the Samaritan woman? We could name the places where we’re not certain, connecting with others who have those same uncertainties. We could express what we don’t know, confident that there are others who don’t know either, and instead of seeing that as a problem, we see it as an opportunity to explore together. And it wouldn’t just be a great way to invite others to explore faith with us who aren’t otherwise part of our Christian community. What could we gain by being honest about our doubts as a congregation too?
In the pandemic, didn’t we have doubts about carrying on as a congregation when we couldn’t meet in person for months on end? It forced us to ask the question of how God will hold us together—and we listened to one another and to the stirrings of the Spirit to worship and have fellowship and grow in faith. Our uncertainties about how we can pass our faith on to our children, and how we can give them the foundation of hope that we have, has opened up the conversation to explore radical new things that God might be doing. Any time we come face to face with some uncertainty or doubt, God invites us into it as an opportunity to grow, to come together, to deepen our own faithfulness. Just like the Samaritan woman, our “this can’t be, can it?” moments are windows into a harvest of faithfulness!
So I want to invite you to lean into your doubts. Lean into your uncertainties. Name the places where you’re not really sure. Invite others to explore it with you. Because doubt isn’t a bad thing; uncertainty isn’t some kind of sin we need to hide. Instead, like the Samaritan woman, when we lean into our doubts and cling to our hope, we’ll find that our faithful response deepens. God opens up new possibilities when we wade through the waters of doubt. The Spirit inspires us to ever more creative ministry when uncertainty leads us to explore.
Let’s deepen our faithfulness by expressing those doubts and uncertainties. Let’s allow God to grow a harvest through us by inviting others to go exploring for answers. Let’s give the Spirit room to expand our witness by welcoming questions, because he can’t be the Messiah, can he?
Thanks be to God. Amen.