In the 2005 film Elizabethtown, Orlando Bloom plays Drew Baylor, a designer at a large shoe company whose cutting edge shoe design, “Spasmodica” is revolutionizing the entire shoe industry and making a huge fortune for his company. However, a major flaw is found in his design, and millions upon millions of the “Spasmodica” shoes are recalled, costing the company $937 million. As he is making his way to the CEO’s office to be fired he says this in a voice-over:
“There is a difference between a failure and a fiasco. A failure is simply the non-presence of success. Any fool can accomplish failure. But a fiasco…a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions. A fiasco is a folktale told to others that makes other people feel more alive because it didn’t happen to them.”
In today’s gospel passage, Jesus has an encounter with someone whose life has become a fiasco—the Samaritan woman at the well.
Jesus is travelling with his disciples from Jerusalem to Galilee, and the most direct way went through Samaria, an area often avoided by Jews because it was inhabited by Samaritans. Followers of Judaism hated the Samaritans and considered any contact with them at all to be defiling. This hatred of the Samaritans stretched back over seven centuries all the way back to 722 B.C. when Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. The Assyrians not only intermarried with the Israelites, but also brought in other foreigners they had conquered to inhabit Samaria—this in turn led to religious syncretism which the Israelites also abhorred.
And yet, not only does Jesus deliberately choose to walk through Samaria, he also chooses to talk with a Samaritan woman. Though both of these actions would “defile” him, he does so anyway.
It’s the middle of the day when Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman who had come to the well to draw water to take back to town. Normally women would go to the well early in the morning to gather and talk as they did so—but this Samaritan woman came alone at midday instead. Why?
Her life had become a fiasco and she was an outcast. She most likely came to the well at midday in order to avoid the judgmental glances, shaking heads and condescending whispers of the local busybodies and gossips.
Jesus and the Samaritan woman begin talking and Jesus speaks about “living water”—“The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
He then asks her to go get her husband and come back to the well. When she responds, “I have no husband,” Jesus reveals that he knows every detail about her fiasco of a life—that he knows she had been married five times and was currently with someone who wasn’t her husband… and unlike those she would have encountered had she come to the well early in the morning, Jesus does not judge her.
She responds, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet” and then starts talking with him about worship, wondering where true worship was to occur—on Mount Gerazim like the Samaritans believed or on Mount Zion like the Israelites believed. Jesus responds this way, “the hour is coming when you will worship neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…the hour is coming and is now here when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”
She responds in turn by talking about the coming Messiah, “I know that the Messiah is coming… when he comes he will proclaim all things to us.”
And then Jesus does something that he does not do again until the passion week: he reveals that he is the Messiah she is talking about—“I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” It was not unlike Superman revealing his identity to Lois Lane or Spiderman to Mary Jane—except of course this is not make-believe.
The Samaritan woman was so excited she left her water jar and went back to the very city where she was an outcast, and started proclaiming, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” and revealing that her joy was mixed with a little doubt, continues, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
The Samaritan woman was drawn to Jesus because while he indeed knew everything about her, he gave her grace and acceptance. She had experienced the truth of what Walker Percy wrote in his novel, Love in the Ruins—“We love those who know the worst of us and don’t turn their faces away” (p. 106).
In the eighteenth century, there was a gifted Anglican priest in his early thirties who was invited to Savannah, Georgia to establish a ministry for the English colonists as well as an outreach to Native Americans.
It was an unmitigated disaster, a fiasco. On top of that, he fell in love with a woman named Sophia but that relationship failed as well. Less than two years later, John Wesley returned to England, drowning in discouragement.
A few years later on Wednesday, May 24, 1738, Wesley, like the Samaritan woman, had an encounter with the Messiah, as he recorded in his journal:
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
As powerful as that moment was for Wesley, and as influential and fruitful as his ministry was, he still struggled with discouragement. Yet from time to time, Jesus would meet him at the well and minister grace to him anew. In 1751, thirteen years after Aldersgate, Wesley wrote the following in his journal:
“One Sunday morning I was just going to open my Bible when a voice seemed to say very loud, ‘God, for Christ’s sake, hath forgiven thee.’ I started up, took the candle, and searched all about to see if anyone was near, but there was none. I then sat down, with such peace and joy in my soul as cannot be described.”
I was ten years old the first time I had a “meeting Jesus at the well” experience. In the spring of 1979, my family started going to church regularly. Prior to that I remember only going to church once on Christmas Eve—the only thing I remember from that service was the collection, when ushers walked up and down the aisles carrying poles with baskets on the end of them. As the ushers held the poles in front of the pews, people would drop cash and checks in the baskets—and I remember thinking, “I need one of those!”
The church we began attending was an Episcopal Church that at the time was meeting in an elementary school cafeteria. Sunday school was held during the service but after I attended a few times I opted to remain in the service. I did not enjoy feeling like the dumb kid in class, plus I really enjoyed the sermons.
Several months later, on a crisp and sunny Saturday morning—November 19, 1979—I was baptized in an immersion tank at a Baptist Church that allowed our church to do baptisms there. When I was raised out of the water the third time, I remember being flooded with a sense of joy from the love and forgiveness of God—I felt totally clean on the inside and had a smile that wouldn’t go away.
In other words, I felt what the Samaritan woman felt and what John Wesley felt (“such peace and joy in my soul as cannot be described”)—that I was fully known, fully loved, fully forgiven by God. It wasn’t like I was exactly a notorious sinner by age ten—although a few years earlier I had stolen a Donald Duck Pez dispenser once and I had lied a couple times about being sick so I could stay home from school and watch reruns of the Brady Bunch because I had a crush on Marsha Brady—but I knew that I knew that I knew that God loved me.
Since then there have been plenty of failures in my life, and a couple fiascos thrown in for good measure (perhaps some of you can relate), but what the Samaritan woman experienced, and what John Wesley experienced, and what I experienced, is true—Jesus is exactly who the other Samaritans said he was at the end of today’s gospel lesson—“Truly the savior of the world”—and his love is more than enough.
John is silent as to whether Jesus and the Samaritan woman ever spoke to each other again during his earthly ministry, but when his hour had come Jesus went not to Mount Gerazim or Mount Zion, but to Calvary, to another place everyone else would have avoided if possible…the cross.
And although the Greeks in the days of the New Testament, like skeptics today, dismissed Jesus’ death on the cross as itself a failure, or fiasco, or a disaster of mythic proportions, the truth is that on the cross Jesus paid for all the failures and fiascos in your life—Jesus is “truly the Savior of the world.”
Later in his account of the gospel, John notes that he personally witnessed the soldier piercing Jesus’ side after his death, and that blood and water poured out—the blood that covers all our sins and the living water that gushes up to eternal life (19:34).
Perhaps some of you are dealing with failures and fiascos in your life today. Perhaps like John Wesley going to the meeting at Aldersgate, you have come to church today “very unwillingly.”
The good news of the gospel is that, as with John Wesley, Jesus has taken away your sins, even yours, and has saved you—and as with the Samaritan woman, Jesus knows everything you have ever done, and yet… he never has and never will turn his face from you.
And although our “meeting Jesus at the well” experiences may be episodic, one day it will be permanent—and forever you will know that you know that you know you are loved by God, and there you will experience “such peace and joy as cannot be described.”
- John 4:5 - 42