Every three or four months, my wife Caryn and I travel the 100 miles from Northern Virginia to Charlottesville to strengthen and encourage the disciples there. We are tent-makers (aka, not full-time ministry) trying to serve God in the best way we can. We always enjoy our time with this small but growing fellowship, the Blue Ridge Church, led faithfully by Drew and Jenny Mines. Charlottesville is near and dear to my heart. I lived there for four years as a University of Virginia student back in the 1980s. Three other family members (siblings and spouses) attended UVA as well, and now my daughter is a part of the Blue Ridge ministry as a student at James Madison University.
We had “Charlottesville August 20” on the calendar for months. An outdoor service/family fun day was planned. Caryn would lead a Mothers-in-Training class before the service, and I would preach. Everything was set, all systems go. But when an army of white nationalists descended on the city, everything changed. Or did it?
First and foremost, I identify as a Christian. For this story, and for this life on earth, it's important to note that I am also a white male.
I remember reading something about a protest planned. A neo-Nazi group had convened in Charlottesville last month. And now another gathering. I felt disgusted by their presence in the city, but thought it would all just pass through like a summer storm. But then the streets erupted. Two images stuck to my mind. One, that awful video of a car being used as a weapon against a crowd of counter-demonstrators. The other, a video of white supremacists on a torch-lit march on the grounds of my beloved university. What century is this? I thought. I felt deeply disturbed.
We served in the full-time ministry for 20 years. I have preached countless sermons to groups all over the world. But for this one I felt so unprepared. On Saturday morning, I went to my monthly breakfast with brothers in my local ministry. Good food and good talk. At the end, I asked them to pray for me as I prepared for Charlottesville. The brother sitting next to me—a former naval officer, father of five (one adopted), house church leader, incredible servant, consummate joker, and all-around really good guy—started almost shaking. In a quiet voice, this brother, who is black, began to share his heart, his pain... not about the events themselves, but about how unsettled he feels trying to talk about it within his spiritual family. I asked him if he would please share more with me. We sat down and talked. For the most part he spoke and I just listened. I needed to learn.
But what to preach? I found myself going to Jesus and the woman at the well, a familiar story but one that opened up to me in new ways because of these events. When I revisited this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, I was struck by the similarities between our world today and the world of 2,000 years ago. This is what God put on my heart for Charlottesville, a message from John 4.
1. We All Need the Well
Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) – John 4:4-9
The well is the water source for the entire community. Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans...they were different in many ways, but all needed the well. Even Jesus—hot, thirsty, and tired from his journey—needed to go to the well. It may not seem remarkable that there would be a conversation here. But it was, and for us to get that we need a little back story. As we will see—history, geography, ethnicity, and monuments—all have a place in the John 4 story. And in ours.
Many Jews thought of Samaritans as impure and un-Jewish given their ancestry. This traces to when the Jews were exiled to Babylon. There were some who stayed behind, however, and many of them integrated with the local populations. These were the Samaritans. They retained many aspects of Jewish faith, but were not pure in their Jewishness or in their worship. They were considered by many to be an underclass. Of course, the Jews themselves were treated as an underclass by the Romans. There were many levels of discrimination, as there are today.
Now look at how Jesus engages the Samaritan woman. He comes from his own position of need. He asks for help. He begins a conversation. There they were, just the two of them. No sense of distance or difference. Strip away all the social and cultural constructions, and the ground at the well is level. That's what God created. That's what God sees. That's what Jesus shows here.
But that's not the world that the Samaritan woman experienced. She was used to being dismissed, marginalized, and treated as lesser than. What did that feel like for her? What does that feel like today for those who are treated like outsiders in our community? It's not something I have experienced, so I am not in a position to answer that. But many of our brothers and sisters have. It's time to hear their stories.
One black brother in Charlottesville shared with me how he and his family were about to drive from their home to a nearby coffee shop last weekend. Just before heading out, he turned on the TV to see that protests and counter-protests were happening right in his route. If they had gone out, he told me, they would have been caught in the middle of the worst of it. He couldn't help but think what might have happened to his family—his two-year-old little girl and his pregnant wife—had they been out there. For hours they stayed inside, prisoners in their own home. Now he is struggling to work through the dark feelings that overwhelmed his heart that morning. For those targeted by the white nationalists in Charlottesville—and for those who experience everyday prejudice and discrimination—this not just history, this is a part of their reality.
I asked the church to please consider how each of us might be experiencing this. It will be different depending on where we fit into the narrative and on other personal factors. We need to resist the temptation to try to shape the story into a generic form based on our own lens, whatever that might be. I suggested this is a good time for us all to exercise the Biblical teaching to “be quick to listen and slow to speak.” Let's ask questions. Let's explore deeper waters together. Let's try to avoid jumping to simplistic statements about God and Jesus working all this out. This isn't about our faith. This is about our hearts, our stories, our experiences in a troubled world. If we have the conversation well, I believe this can be a time for us to get to know each other in new ways and grow deeper in our love for one another. Let's have Jesus conversations!
Now back to John 4. What is interesting from here is how the woman and Jesus are talking to each other, but having different conversations. (Note: I think my wife would say that is not an unfamiliar experience for her!) Let's read on and see how this plays out.
2. Our Wells Run Dry
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” – John 4:10-14
Imagine her carrying the jar out to the well in the desert heat, walking perhaps for miles, pulling up bucket after bucket of water, slowly filling her jar, and then carrying it back to town. And then imagine her doing that day after day after day. That's how it is with wells. We need to keep going back, and they never really get to the core need.
I've noticed more and more disciples going to the well of politics. The waters in that well have become so bitter, and the debate so divisive. As disciples, I think we need to carefully consider how and where we place our voice. Social media is a terrible platform to have the conversations that we need to have. Political arguments will not get us to the right answer. If they did, we would have seen Jesus get involved in the political discourse of Rome. But he didn't, and we shouldn't—not on social media forums anyway. The political well always runs dry.
Jesus talked of a different well, one that fills us completely and never runs dry. The woman was excited to hear this, but of course did not yet understand the message. It's interesting to see where she is stuck in the conversation. Jesus is talking about living water, and she is talking about ancestry (“our father Jacob”) and monuments (“who gave us this well.”). It's more common than we think.
We are seeing it in our country—arguments centered on ancestry (aka: ethnicity) and monuments that somehow give certain people divine rights to certain places. We see this in the religious world as well—an appeal to lineage (“my grandfather was a pastor”), iconography (statues, symbols, etc.), or church affiliation as a means to claim our special place with God. And don't think that doesn't apply to us, fellow disciples! We are far removed from the first shots of spiritual revolution. For those like me who’ve been around a while, we are now the establishment. We need to recognize we may have our own monuments in areas of opinion and practice that have been built up over years. But I digress.
Let's follow Jesus to the well of living water.
3. The Way to the Well is Within
The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
“I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” – John 4:15-26
The Samaritan woman continues to fixate on matters of lineage (“Our ancestors...”) and monument (“...worshiped on this mountain.”). That's how sticky our mental models can be. They can exist in our thinking without us even knowing. Once formed, they can be so hard to break. But Jesus persists, as he always does. He takes a totally new path to get her to a new place. She is talking about her religion. He is talking about her life. The way to the well is within.
It's easy for me to talk about what others have done or should do, or how others have affected me. It's easy to talk about how I see things and how I do things. That conversation goes on around water coolers, in hallways, and on social media every day. But it's much harder for me to look within—to talk about what's really going on in my heart, in my mind, and in my life. That's the conversation Jesus wants us to have. If I want to get to the living water, I need to go there.
Jesus tells the Samaritan woman about a time when true religion is not dependent on ancestral, national, or physical markers. He talks of a time when any and all can access the living water. That time has come! The way to it, Jesus says, is Spirit and truth. There are not the names of ancestral lands. These are not the names of saints or priests. These are not types, colors, or classes of people. Jesus is showing her, and showing us, the way to the well is through our own hearts. Jesus is the living well. Only he will satisfy our deepest thirst—to be truly free, to be fully loved, to be with God. His promise—whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.
We all need the Well. Let us gather there together as one body. As we do, let us open up new conversations to more deeply understand the different experiences of our diverse brotherhood. We can start that with the prayer of the Psalmist: "Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." – Psalm 129:23-24
Our wells run dry. We will not find the deeply nourishing, rejuvenating, living water in any of the wells of our own construction. This world is not our home.
The way to the well is within. It’s the harder path to take, but it’s where we find the man sitting under the hot sun, leaning over the well, ready to talk...if we’ll only listen.