Playing Games with God
Text: John 4:5-30, 39-42
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Humans love to play games. No matter what age of history or what culture, human beings have always found games to play. There are all sorts of reasons why, and all sorts of games, but no matter the reason, no matter the game, the fact that we play is universal. And this isn’t just limited to interactions with each other. We mortals even try to play our games with God. Whether it’s the people of Israel in a thirsty game of tug-of-war with God, or Jacob wrestling the Lord by the Jabbok River or Adam and Eve playing their game of hide and seek and then telephone with their Creator in the Garden of Eden, we all have our matches against the Almighty. But unlike our games with other humans, the stakes are much higher whenever we go toe-to-toe with God Himself. We try to win our own self-justification from Him. We try to claim eternity, power, and glory as our prize, taken out of His hands.
We have this in our Gospel reading today. Jesus arrives in the town of Sychar, a Samaritan town, and He encounters a Samaritan woman at the well around noon. And from the moment He speaks to her, there’s something of a verbal chess match between Jesus and this woman. And it’s no wonder—if we read between the lines, we can understand that this woman would have been on the defensive all the time. There’s a reason she isn’t coming to the well until noon. In that part of the world, water is collected in the morning, so that people have it ready through the whole hot day to refresh and quench, for all the daily tasks like cooking and cleaning that will require water. But she doesn’t arrive until noon, long after everyone else has already gotten their water and left. That means she’s a pariah, an outcast. As we heard from the reading, she’d already had five husbands and the man she was currently with was not her husband. This could mean a couple things: this woman could have gone from husband to husband for scandalous reasons, like adultery. Or she could have been barren—unable to conceive and then dismissed by all five in turn. And then after being thrown away by so many, she clung to whatever she could, even if it meant he would not commit to her.
So this is the woman at the well around noon, when Jesus finally gets a moment to rest and get some water. He sees this woman at the well. He knows she’s on the defensive. He knows all. So with His first words, Jesus goes on the offense: “Give me a drink.” Not a plea, not a request. Just a word of command, with full expectation that she’ll do it. But this has always been His strategy. In the Garden of Eden, He went on the offense and called out to Adam and Eve after they sinned. He called Moses to the burning bush to kick off their little match. He still does this with us. Jesus calls us with His Word, always touching a nerve from the start, whether we bristle or whether we glow. “Give me a drink,” He says to the woman at the well, and to us.
This woman has been through the wringer. She’s been bounced from husband to husband. She’s been the talk of the town, and not in a good way. She’s always going to be on defense, trying to justify herself. So she deflects: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” She’s hoping to put Him off the trail by reminding Him that His people simply don’t talk to Samaritans, let alone drink with them. And don’t we do that too? Our Lord tells us something directly and we deflect: “Well, I had a good reason.” “That doesn’t apply to me, or to this time anymore.” “It’s not like it’s that bad.” “What you’re saying is too hard to do or understand.” We try to put God off by deflecting, trying to divert Him with reasons and excuses.
But Jesus won’t fall for the gambit. He presses on. “If you knew the gift of God,” He says, “and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” He stays on course, driving toward her defenses, pushing her excuses out of the way. And it’s the same with us. Our Lord is not distracted by our attempts to nudge Him off course when He speaks to us, to focus on our little objections or ideas. He keeps the attack going, pushing toward us.
The woman at the well sees that Jesus won’t be distracted, so she attacks back: “Sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? Who do you think you are?” This silly man can’t give her anything. No man has ever been able to give her anything, nothing that lasts anyway. He’s either ridiculous or arrogant, and she’s going to let Him know it. And that counterattack still happen in our little matches with God. It’s still a tactic to say that things in His Word are ridiculous or silly or presumptuous. We live in an age that loves this counteroffensive, to pick apart things about God and His Word that don’t have the sophistication we assume the ideas of our age have.
But again, Jesus won’t be denied. It’s full court press now. He brushes aside her little critique and returns to what He’s offering: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. The water I give will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Now the first wall of her defense crumbles. It would be nice to not have to come back to this well, a daily reminder of who she is in this town. But if He can do it, He’s got to prove it. “Sir, give me this water,” she says. Without her knowing it, He’s pulled her in. And that’s what Jesus ultimately does with us too. He dismantles our defenses and objections. He absorbs our attacks and then sets them aside. And He continues to offer His gifts: water, Word, eternal life, Himself. And, we have to admit, in spite of ourselves, in spite of our fallen nature that resists Him, we’re drawn in.
At this point, the match between Jesus and the woman was in endgame. She tried a couple more weak excuses—for instance, the arguments found in religion and politics; again, a common counterattack in our own time—but Jesus keeps pressing. He keeps inviting her. Finally, when she has no more plays in her playbook, she’s ready to hear what He’s been wanting to tell her: “I AM is the one speaking to you.” He opens her eyes to see that He is God in human flesh, not there to defeat or crush her, but offering her eternity and every blessing.
We play our little games with God. We try to beat Him or catch Him on technicalities. We try to out-religion Him, saying that if we do this, then He has to do that. But none of those tactics worked for the woman at the well. None of them work for us. That’s because Jesus’ goal is not to beat us. His goal wasn’t to defeat the woman at the well in a series of arguments to destroy or publicly embarrass her. His goal was to draw her in, to welcome her and forgive her. So it is with us. Our Lord has zero interest in beating us, even when we want to play our little games against Him. He wants to bring us to His side, to heal us, to take away our guilt and shame. And as we’ve been focusing on this Lent, He’ll do that at His cross.
Jesus brings the Samaritan woman at the well back into a community. She’s been beaten up by the world and all of its games—used as a pawn, then cast out. But now in Jesus she’s brought to something much better: a community of faith. She goes and tells the people of the town—the very people who had sinned against her—that the Messiah was visiting them. And through His Word, through the healing and restoration He brings, they came to be a community of faith: “We have heard for ourselves,” they said, “And we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”
Lay down your arms this Lent. Stop playing games with God. You can’t beat Him. And blessedly, He’s not interested in beating you. He wants you to be with Him, not against Him; not on the other side of the table, but at His table, at His Communion rail, at His baptismal font of living water. So come to Him. Be forgiven. Be healed. Be restored. Know that this indeed is the Savior of the world. This indeed is your Savior. In the name of Jesus, the Crucified One. Amen.