On June 27, 1880, a baby girl was born to a prominent family in Tuscumbia, Alabama. For the first 18 months of her life she was healthy and happy, developing in all the ways that babies do in those early months of life.
But in her 19th month, she became deathly ill. No one is sure what the sickness was – maybe meningitis or maybe scarlet fever. For several days her parents were not sure if their precious daughter would live.
The illness receded and the baby girl recovered, but her life was forever changed. The illness had left her deaf and blind.
To be deaf and blind in rural Alabama could be a death sentence, but this girl’s parents had resources and they were determined to make the best life possible for their child. They went to doctors and schools in New England.
And finally, they hired a woman to come to Alabama to be their daughter’s full time teacher and companion.
And so Anne Sullivan traveled to Alabama from Massachusetts to take on the daunting task of educating seven-year-old Helen Keller.
The first months were difficult. Sullivan tried in vain to reach her young student. Nothing worked, and the frustration of both teacher and student grew.
Keller recounts what happened next.
“We walked down to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered.
“Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly.
“I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly, I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten – a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.
“I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.
“I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had been given to me.
“I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that mother, father, sister, teacher were among them – words that were to make the world blossom for me.”
Helen Keller went to the well that day a prisoner of a small and closed in world. Then the revelation of living water and living words came into her life and everything changed.
We heard the story today of another woman’s encounter at a well.
It is noon, the heat of the day, a time when most women avoided the hard, hot work of drawing and carrying heavy buckets and jars of water.
Early morning and evening, the cool hours of the day, were the busy times at the well. In fact, the well was the social gathering spot of the village, the place where news and gossip were exchanged, a place where women could relax and chat with their friends.
One can guess that a woman who comes to the well at noon is an outcast, someone who would rather avoid the stares and gossip of other women in the village. At noon, she could go to the well alone, and not have to see or talk to anyone.
But not this day. When she arrives at the well, she sees a Jewish man sitting there. Jews and Samarians were enemies, but the man speaks to her, asking her for a drink.
The conversation continues for a while. In fact, it is the longest recorded conversation we have between Jesus and another individual.
Soon we find out why the woman is an outcast – she has had five husbands and is now living out of wedlock, a history that would ostracize her from any respectable company.
It is to this person – a woman, a Samaritan, a social outcast – that Jesus first reveals his identity as the messiah.
The woman is so astonished at that revelation that she leaves behind her water jar, surely one of her most valuable possessions, and runs to tell others what she has experienced. The living water had awakened her soul, given her light, hope, and joy, and had set her free.
For both Helen Keller and the Samaritan woman, the encounters at the well, the revelation of living water, releases them from their prisons, opens their worlds, gives them new sight and new ways of connecting with the world around them.
Helen Keller became the first deaf and blind woman to receive a college degree. She was a tireless advocate for the disabled, and for women’s right to vote. She was a passionate pacifist and one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union, which to this day works to guarantee the civil rights of all people in this country.
She was also passionate in her faith. When with her new language she learned about Jesus, she said, “I always knew he was there, but I didn’t know his name.”
The Samaritan woman leaves the well to go and spread the news about Jesus. And many of the Samaritans, those people despised by the Jews, listen to the testimony of this woman they have scorned, and come to see Jesus for themselves.
“We know that he is truly the savior of the world,” they say.
The Samaritans knew what many Christians today have a hard time believing or accepting – that God’s grace offered through Jesus has no limits or boundaries. Everyone is included in the embrace of God’s abundant, amazing grace.
Jesus’ salvation has three main characteristics.
First, it is inclusive. Jesus in not limited or intimidated by the barriers that we humans erect among ourselves.
He overlooks race, religion, gender, and sexual history to see the Samaritan woman as a human being, a fellow child of God. He treats her with dignity and respect.
Second, the salvation Jesus offers is compassionate. Jesus knows the truth about the woman at the well, but he does not condemn or belittle her.
He does not try to scare her into belief with dire threats of judgment, nor does he wow her with miracles. He takes her seriously, listens to her, and gently leads her to faith.
As theologian Douglas John Hall says, “What serious Christians should remember is not so much the miracles of Jesus as his many conversations with people; his way of being with them.
“He did not command belief in them; where possible he evoked faith. Jesus was willing to trust language; he did people the great honor of discoursing with them reasonably; he did not want to thrust change upon them, but to help it happen within them.”
Jesus’ compassion and acceptance of the Samaritan woman allowed her to enter into true conversation with him, and when she did, her life was changed.
Finally, the salvation that Jesus proclaims is abundant. The well of living water does not run dry. There is more than enough for everyone. Sharing God’s grace only increases it.
One of the major heresies of our time is that God’s grace is scarce; that salvation is limited to only a few; that we must guard the doors of our world and build walls, being careful who we let in.
Jesus shows us the opposite – that grace is abundant, that he is the savior not just of the Jews, or Christians, or Americans, but of the world.
Inclusiveness, compassion, abundant grace.
These words remind us what the business of the church should be. Our goal should never be to construct barriers or boundaries, but to cross them, as Jesus did.
We should not try to scare or threaten people into faith, but should show Christ-like compassion to all we meet.
And finally, we should – like the Samaritan woman – share the story of our salvation with others, letting them know that they, too, are loved and forgiven, inviting them to experience the gift of God’s abundant grace, a gift that can transform lives.