Rev. Rebecca Heilman-Campbell
(John 4) 

It’s been an interesting 72 hours for me. On Wednesday morning, we fully expected the Rev. Gad Mpoyo to join us on World Communion Sunday and to be your preacher. By Thursday, he and I agreed to postpone his visit because of the hurricane. By Friday, just when I sat down to write a sermon, watching the wind and rain outside my office window my power flickered and went out for a few minutes. At that point, I decided I wasn’t going to rush and write a mediocre sermon with the battery stored in my computer, instead I’ll edit, enhance and adjust an older sermon. The sermon you are about to hear is the second sermon I preached at Trinity in 2020. I’m hoping that the study that tells us that humans,  when actively listening, really only take in about 25% of a conversation or speech or sermon in our case, I’m hoping that study is true and you will still walk away with something new about the Samaritan woman and her conversation with Jesus around the well. And so with gratitude nestled in my heart because of your grace, let us open in prayer:

Humble us, Lord, humble our spirit as we listen for you in your story today. Amen.

In her book, Breathing Space, Heidi Neumark writes about her friend, Miss Ellie. Miss Ellie lives on John’s Island near Charleston, South Carolina on a small dirt road in a one-room wooden home. Neumark often visited Miss Ellie sharing stories as they drank a tall glass of sweet tea.[1] And Neumark was not Miss Ellie’s only friend. Miss Ellie would walked for miles around the stream, through the tall-dangerous-snake-filled grass in order to visit her good friend, Netta. But, as Neumark writes, “Netta’s home was not that far from Miss Ellie’s place.”[2] It was practically right across from her, right over the stream that divided them. Understandably, Neumark worried about Miss Ellie traveling through the tall-dangerous-snake-filled-grass. So Neumark, with the help of others, built a bridge for Miss Ellie for a more safe and quick travel to Netta’s place. When Neumark showed the bridge to Miss Ellie, Miss Ellie did not show the enthusiasm that Neumark expected. She writes, “There was no smile, no jumping in the sky.

Instead, for a long time, she looked puzzled, then shook her head and looked at me as though I were the one who needed pity…”[3] Miss Ellie said to her, “Child, I don’t need a shortcut.” You see, Miss Ellie would walk around the stream to stop

and visit with each of her neighbors. She would see Mr. Jenkins “whom she always swapped gossip.”[4] She would stop by Miss Hunter’s place, who always “looked forward to quilt scraps.”[5] She’d stop at one place for raison wine and another to exchange biscuits. She used that time, and that long walk around the stream to check in with each neighbor. Miss Ellie finally tells Neumark, “Child… can’t take shortcuts if you want a community in this world. Shortcuts don’t mix with love.”[6] How true this is. As we all know, it takes time, energy, intentionality, and to often go out of one’s way to build relationships and a community. Jesus knew this just as much as Miss Ellie.

In our story, Jesus left Judea and was heading north towards Galilee. Unlike Miss Ellie, Jesus took a geographical shortcut on his trip north, but as we just read through this long conversation he has with the woman at the well, Jesus did not take a shortcut in building intentional relationships. It was just as dangerous for Jesus to take that geographical shortcut, through Samaria, as it was for Miss Ellie to walk the long way around the stream. As we know from the Good Samaritan, Samaritans and Jews do not get along. They are enemies and avoided each other at all costs. And so often, when Jews were traveling north or south, they would NEVER take the shortcut through Samaria. They would instead walk the longer, safer road around. However, in this story, John emphasizes that Jesus HAD to go through Samaria. Another translation, it was absolutely necessary. And so they end up in the city of Sychar and it’s there that Jesus meets a Samaritan woman.  Jesus could have easily ignored the woman, as easily as we ignore folks in a line at the grocery store, but instead Jesus engages in an extended conversation with her. One of the longest back and forth conversations you will read in the Gospel. This is significant considering all that this woman carries with her. She is an outsider of all outsiders. Preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, writes, “The woman at the well was a triple outsider.”[7] Since Jesus was of Jewish dissent, a Samaritan would have been considered an outsider to his religion and culture.  But not only was she a Samaritan, with all of the baggage that comes with that, she is also, of course, a woman. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “In Jesus’ time, women were not what you would call liberated. They were not even allowed to worship with men, whose morning devotions included the prayer, “Thank God I am not a woman.” Women had no place in public life. They were not to be seen or heard, especially not by holy men, who did not speak to their own wives in public.”[8] Jesus is radical talking with a Samaritan, he is even more radical for talking with a Samaritan woman. And not only that, but there is one more thing that this woman carries as a triple outsider. She carries a history of husbands, five to be exact. Typically, women would draw water in the early mornings, when it was cool. Flocks of women would gather at the well where they would greet each other as their children played around them. It was a social time, as they waited in line to pull up water that would sustain their family for another day. As we read, the woman that Jesus is talking to, is at the well at about noon, when no one else is around and the sun is high and at its hottest. We can infer that this is a sure sign that she was not welcomed in the early morning social hours. She is an outsider to her own Samaritan community. 

We learn about her marital status about half through the story, when Jesus is the one who acknowledges her past life. The conversation could have ended here, but vulnerability is now in in the air and I’m sure there are a few awkward silences and a thought or two of turning and fleeing the scene. Imagine this woman, meeting a stranger, particularly a stranger she fundamentally disagrees with, and that stranger starting up a conversation, with her… a woman, then revealing a very intimate aspect of her life – something that I’m sure brings her pain and discomfort. But Jesus doesn’t shame her for it, he doesn’t say anything more about it, instead, he reveals something personal about himself.

I don’t think many of us would respond well to Jesus or anyone exposes our most personal past life. Let’s leave the past in the past. But somehow the past always catches up to us. The Samaritan woman is experiencing this with Jesus and yet, Jesus is picking up on something. He is dismantling the barriers that keep us from God and neighbor and he’s breaking those walls, thick brick walls that we build up, through vulnerability and a desire for a true relationship. With yes, a Samaritan women who has had five husbands. He’s tackling this barrier that has made her the outsider of all outsiders with conversation and vulnerability, instead of power and apathy. Brene Brown, a researcher who has dedicated her life’s work to studying vulnerability and shame writes, “vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love”[9]

When was the last time you had a conversation where you could truly, authentically be yourself and see the other person and all that weaves them together? Not just their political views from the signs in their front garden. Not just their perfect family photo after photo they post on Instagram. Not just the surface, “How are you?” “I’m good, how are you?” I’m talking about a conversation Where we see the other person’s pain bubbling in their eyes and care about it, asking to hear more. I’m talking about slowing down and giving the other person permission to be who they are because when we invite vulnerability into a conversation, we are giving the other permission to be who God has meant for them to be. And I’m also talking about receiving the invitation for vulnerability and accepting it so that we can lean into relationships with honesty, trust, and meaning. Our world is as divided as ever because we fail to see the other person beyond the social media screen and the political signs. It’s difficult to be vulnerable when we’re living in separation and fear, I see that. It’s often feels harder and harder to have conversations, to connect with others, to feel like we belong, and to truly be in relationship with one another and with God. Don’t you recognize how important it is for this Samaritan town and the woman to experience Jesus’ gift of vulnerability and authenticity? It broke down a barrier between Jews and Samaritans. It broke down a barrier between this outsider of a woman and her own community. It ultimately brought them closer to God and each other. For what we know about the story, just when the woman has an opportunity to run, she engages. Just when she could have stepped back, Jesus stepped in. Just when the conversation gets uncomfortable, they settled into the moment and continued to get to know each other. Just when Jesus identifies the woman for all that she is, not just a shamed wife of five, but a deep theological thinker and evangelist too, Jesus reveals himself and all of who he is. The Samaritan woman says, “I know the Messiah is coming” and Jesus replies, “I am he,” revealing himself as God for the first time in John. Jesus identifies the woman, and in so doing, Jesus identifies God’s self.  This is who Jesus is…this is who God is. When we least expect it, God reveals God’s self in the moment, in the conversation, in the person, in ourselves.

When we engage in conversation with others, especially those we disagree with, God is lined in their face. When we engage in vulnerable conversations,

especially those we disagree with, God is working within us. Today, on World Communion Sunday, we celebrate a meal together here at Trinity and with hundreds of thousands of churches all over the world, recognizing that the table stretches long and wide, as long as the range of our theological beliefs, and as wide as the range of our political ideas.  This table that we’re about to dive into, is a table with more just juice and bread, it’s a table that will nourish our exhausted minds, a table that welcomes conversation, entrusts vulnerability, encourages laughter, and hopes for shared stories. Communion is a ritual indeed, but more so, it’s a place of belonging. And isn’t that the truth of vulnerability? Of what Christ longed to give to the Samaritan women? Belonging? Brene Brown says, “vulnerability appears to be the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.” What would be born, created, shared in our community at Trinity if we sat at the communion table allowing vulnerability to take us, knowing the Spirit will lead us?

Pray with me. Loving God, we believe, help our unbelief. Amen. 


[1] Heidi Neumark, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South of Bronx, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), 17.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 18.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Neumark, Breathing Space, 18.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Identity Confirmation: John 4:5-42,” Christian Century, February 12, 2008,

[8] Taylor, Identity Confirmation,

[9] “Brené Brown: The Power of Vulnerability,” Ted Talks, June 2019,