Water Enough for All: A Sermon on Jesus & The Samaritan Woman

Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Boston

Tuesday March 7, 2023 5:15pm

On the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of A Woman Preacher Occupying this Pulpit

You can watch this sermon here beginning at the 19th minute, or read it below:

John 4: 5-42

“Fifteen minutes before the time of the service, the doors of the church were closed, although the portico was thronged with those who wished to enter, and more were coming. Within, every pew was occupied; the gallery was crowed; men and women were sitting in the seats usually reserved for the choir and were standing in the church anterooms and in every available space in the aisles.

“After a brief organ prelude, Miss Royden entered from the clergy room, walking beside Dean Rousmaniere after the choir and the members of the cathedral staff. A frail woman, slightly lame, with the barest trace of color in her cheeks, her slenderness was accentuated by her severely tailored black gown, its somber hue relieved only by a simple white collar. Her dark hair was almost concealed by a black cloth hat, in shape like a clerical biretta. Upon the bosom of her gown were pinned pince-nez glasses, and in her hand she carried a small book of notes, to which she referred only momentarily before beginning her address.

“Dean Rousmaniere read the Beatitudes and the Lord’s prayer, and introduced Miss Royden, welcoming her in the name of the Cathedral and the Diocese of Massachusetts. While the congregation was singing, Miss Royden mounted to the pulpit and plunged in the subject of her address immediately when the last note of the hymn had died away, without reference to the unusual nature of the occasion or to the purpose of her visit to America. She spoke slowly and clearly with a voice pitched a little below the middle register. Most of the time, she kept her hands clasped behind her, occasionally resting one gloved hand on the railing of the speaker’s stand and rarely resorting to a gesture. Her manner was serious, and only once did she smile, when she mentioned a little child whom she planned to adopt.” (from the Boston Transcript, January 30, 1923)

January 30, 1923, from the Boston Transcript

Let us pray…

Giving honor to those who have preached before, and gaining hope from those whose words will yet come, with the power of St. Photini and all the ancestors and saints,  may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer. Amen.


How is it?

For something to change, for the world to shift even the slightest amount, someone must first ask “how is it that?”

Jesus says, “Give me a drink,” and in verse 9, the Samaritan woman said to him “How is it that, you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”

And to underscore the point of just how improbable this entire exchange is, the Gospel writer John throws in a parenthetic aside that continues in verse 9 “(Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans).” We don’t need to know the whole history of when and how Jews and Samaritans grew apart and split in their understanding of the centers of worship, as being either in Jerusalem for the Jews and Mount Gerizim for the Samaritans. We just need to know that this shouldn’t be happening.   

Are we clear, the Gospel writer underlines? How is it that these two are talking?  How is it that the unmarried Jesus and the multiply married woman are left alone in a cultural context that makes this dangerous for both of them? How is it that their worlds cross?

For the world to shift, even the slightest amount, someone must first ask “how is it that?” We have to interrogate the status quo.  We cannot change what we cannot name. Someone must take initiative to begin…

How is it that Maude Royden stepped into the pulpit of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul’s in 1923? How is it that after thousands of Sundays, hundreds of men, legions of sermons only voiced by men alone, “slowly and clearly with a voice pitched a little below the middle register” the Gospel was officially preached and proclaimed by a woman?

As we approach the Gospel text this night, I want to suggest that there are three things that are necessary for us to shift enough to allow the Spirit to intercede. You’ve invited ecumenical preachers, and so I’m bringing you a classic Baptist three-point sermon. From where I sit, verses 5-15, give us three invitations, three movements that model the kind of practices of, the kind of how it is that guides us to the living water and way forward we long for:

  1. Meeting in a common place
  2. Embracing a prophetic imagination (and rejecting a pathetic imagination)
  3. Believing that there’s water enough for all

Hear that again, and if you want to be really Baptist today, you can write that down, and type it in the chat

  1. Meeting in a common place
  2. Embracing a prophetic imagination (and rejecting a pathetic imagination)
  3. Believing that there’s water enough for all


Scriptural geography always has something to tell. There is no accident of place in the Bible, so when the story of the encounter between Jesus and the Woman of Samaria happens in a Samaritan city, the place is telling us something. Jesus is out of pocket as a Jew. He has intentionally dislocated himself to teach and preach. And by chapter four, Brother Jesus has already done his fair share of disruption with the Jewish religious authorities under Roman control. He’s walking a fine line. But the proclamation to a wide diversity of people is greater than the risk. So as he starts back towards Galilee, he heads through Samaria.

Jesus is out of his usual space, and she has gone to a familiar space to refill her water-jar , but where they have ended up together is on common ground. How is it that this dialogue occurs? They are meeting in a common place.  

Look at verse 12, she asks “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well?” This is a theologically-educated woman! She knows that despite all the current divisions of their peoples, the debates, and the diatribes, that there is a common ancestor.

She knows that knows that the well is shared, their ancestor is shared, their history is shared.  As sure as the ground under their feet, it is this shared foundation that sets the context for everything that follows.

Maude had to move into a new space. And this cathedral had to offer up a sacred space for change to begin. To be clear, Miss Royden was not the first woman to preach the gospel in this cathedral. She was the first one to do so officially. And she did so because, in part, she did it from the sacred location of the pulpit. The headline of The Boston Post on January 31, 1923 proclaims “Maude Royden at St. Pauls: First woman preacher to occupy this pulpit.”

It is not lost on me, and I’m sure many of you who have tried to kick down more than a few doors yourselves that it was not an American woman who was the first preacher at St. Paul’s.  It was a foreigner who preaches first here. It was not a daughter of Boston who first entered this pulpit officially. Nor was Jesus speaking to a Jewish woman at length. No, he too was speaking to someone beyond his usual circles that holds the honor of the woman with whom he has the lengthiest theological dialogue.

And for some reason, this pattern seems to continue too, that we so often welcome someone outside our community to do things before we welcome those from within. We bring in the consultant, we invite the guest preacher, we host the visiting scholar. I know that I, as an ecumenical guest, have been granted far more privilege in churches that don’t ordain women or acknowledge the ecclesial legitimacy of equal marriage, than those women who are within their tradition. We need someone outside our community, outside ourselves to help us see ourselves more clearly what is possible.

What sets the context for everything that follows is meeting in a common space. Somewhere along the way, Cathedral chapter and staff and Dean Rousmaniere decided to step out of their own comfort and offer up the sacred pulpit to Maude Royden, and Miss Royden had the courage to say yes.  Jesus and the Samaritan woman both took risks to meet in the common space of their shared ancestor, to reach beyond their present division. When she asks “how is it that…” Jesus responds “If you knew…”

You watching online, type this in the chat with me “If you knew”. This is our second necessary condition. First we have to risk meeting one another on common ground. Then we have to imagine a future greater than the one we are currently in.

Church, look with me at verse 10 Jesus answered her “if you knew the gift of God, and who is it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”  Jesus is walking with the Samaritan woman into a future reality where their inherited animosity as Samaritans and Jews ceases, and the water never runs dry.

In 1978, the Hebrew Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann wrote the book, “Prophetic Imagination” which set down practices and patterns for how the Hebrew prophets envision God’s glorious future. The ancient prophets, though they “lived in a world that was propelled by money, power, wisdom, fear, and violence,” in Brueggemann’s words, they had the poetic “capacity to host a world other than the one that is in front of us.” This is no small thing! And this prophetic imagination gave hope to God’s people.

This prophetic imagination is throughout the songs and prayers and traditions that saturate Jesus of Nazareth’s life as a devout Jew.

Every time Jesus is quoting the psalms, the prophets the Jewish tradition that animate his life, this is the prophetic imagination that he is invoking. And what is most remarkable about this passage of scripture is how the Samaritan woman walks into this prophetic reality with Jesus “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” The prophetic future they envision together is one that meets both spiritual and physical needs for the life abundant, most particularly for those who society has deemed unworthy.

Church, the second necessary condition for the Spirit’s work is embracing a prophetic imagination.

But just this past month, Brueggemann was teaching and made a slip of the tongue. Instead of saying “prophetic imagination,” as he has for the past 40 years, he called it a “pathetic imagination.” And that slip of the tongue gave him something to think about. A pathetic imagination, “is incapable of hosting an alternative world and remains quite satisfied to have its sphere of possibility circumscribed to the small world in front of us.”

A pathetic imagination stays small. Only interact with those you know. Do not dare imagine a church different than the one you’ve got. Don’t envision a world where homelessness ends. Don’t dream of a Boston where all can afford a home. Don’t speak of a school system where all children can thrive. Only dream pathetic little dreams that fit inside the bucket you already carry.

For Brueggemann, those stuck with pathetic imagination “cannot host a world of God’s abundance when they are fixed on their own needs and deficiencies.”

What Maude Royden actually preached about when she was here, spoke to that pathetic imagination that so many of us get stuck in, especially when we have been ground down by violence and despair. In 1923, after the utter destruction of the first world war, Royden is speaking across the globe about the rights of women, and the rebuilding of Europe. To be sure, Royden was in part stuck in her own pathetic imagination, a vision of liberation limited only to some women.  When she arrives in Boston on a global preaching tour, she was trying to help a war-weary world imagine another reality. The Boston Herald quotes her as saying “I beseech you, to make the world one that makes love easier, and hatred harder.” (Jan 30, 1923)

The Boston Post quotes her sermon at length:

“No art could be created save by those who love art. Could Beethoven have written a symphony if he hated it? Could Raphael have painted a picture if he hated it? If God created the world, He must love it. And if you can’t believe that love is creative, at least you can believe that hatred is destructive.”

“If it is true that you can’t make even a successful business, that you can’t make anything without love, what does it mean to you? It means that if we desire to create a new world, it must be created in love.”

Maude Royden’s Sermon in the Boston Transcript, January 30, 1923

When Jesus and the Samaritan woman meet together, this is the prophetic future they point to together. The rest of the passage repeats, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming” in verse 21, “But the hour is coming and is now here” in verse 23, and her response in verse 25, “I know the Messiah is coming.” To which Jesus responds, “I am he.” They are imagining this prophetic future together, one where their historic divisions are one, one that is coming, one where there is enough water for all.

Church finally, the third necessary condition for the Spirit to intercede and actually change us is believing that there is water enough for all. How is it that the world changes? By believing that there is water enough for all. Someone type that in the chat or write it on your bulletin, “Believing there is water enough for all.”

We save this for last because as hard as all these other conditions are, this might be the hardest. And it is especially hard for those of us who have been deprived of what we need to flourish. Those who have been marginalized, minimized, shut down and left out, for those of us to believe that there is enough for all is a radical act of devotion to a God of abundance. When you’re scraping by and scrounging through, to believe there is enough for all takes a huge leap of faith. But this is the only way to freedom, for all of us to get free. Because if we’re not all free, it isn’t freedom. And if there isn’t water for all, it isn’t living water.

Look. This woman’s labor is heavy. She’s coming day in and day out to get water. Jesus is promising her that the water he will give will never run dry. And she gets it. This promise is not just some high-flying theological vision of the heavenly future when all shall be without thirst. No, it’s the prophetic imagination of the here and now, and the kindom to come. She said to him “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw this water.” She is advocating for her real needs: her spiritual and practical needs.

This is the prophetic imagination at work- envisioning a future where needs are met, and there is enough for all. And what is so remarkable about this prophetic vision is that she shares it. She could have kept this never-ending water to herself. But instead, she goes back to her people in verse 28. She leaves her water jar and goes back to the city. She goes to her people, tells them this good news, and brings them to the living water.

For anyone who has been denied water, denied resources, denied the basic necessities of life, it is an entirely reasonable response to horde resources when you find them. What is the Gospel work is to believe that there is enough when we share. She believed there was water enough for all. And instead of operating out of a mindset of scarcity, which she would have had every logical right to do, she decided to share. She found the well and told a thirsty people where the water was.

Beloved, it is a spiritual discipline to believe there is enough water for all. Everything in this world sets us up to believe otherwise. When we act as if there is water enough for all, many will say “How is it that?” How is it that there’s money enough for all the repairs? How is it that there’s time enough for everyone? How is it that there’s love enough to go around? The good news is that we don’t have to be infinite, but we need to trust in God’s provisions that are.

It is a massively counter-cultural witness to believe that there is enough water for all. And when you do so, not everyone will be happy about it. God knows, the disciples weren’t. They were busy trying to protect what they thought was a limited resource. But the gospel vision is pushed forward through the Samaritan woman. She is the bearer of this good news to a new people. “She said to her people, Come and see a man who told be everything I have every done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Even with that little bit of doubt, that little bit of wondering, she pushes ahead into a future where living water is possible for all.

I wonder what those early conversations where like when this cathedral decided to officially invite Maude Royden to preach. I suspect there was a fair amount of doubt. But they took a risk anyway, and what was started then, this cathedral continues. How is it that you start having women preachers? You invite just one woman to preach. That crack in the ceiling that prevented the fullness of the voices of God’s beloved from preaching was opened just a bit further when she officially spoke. We may not know all the names of those who came before her unofficially. But what we do together is proclaim living water that never runs out.

Maude Royden in the Boston Daily Advertiser, January 30, 1923.
Might as well have said “Dog Tap Dances”

In the Orthodox Christian traditions, often those that Protestants think of as the least inclusive of women, the Samaritan woman has a name. Or as one writer put it, “Eastern Orthodox Christians have done her a service that the western church has not, she is given a name.” As the story goes, she is baptized by the disciples and given the name Photini, meaning “the enlightened one” for her theological acumen in conversation with Jesus. Saint Photini is regarded as “the mother of evangelists,” and “a holy martyr and equal to the apostles.”  

Later on in her life, Saint Photini would be targeted by the Emperor Nero in the escalating persecution of Christians, and she would be martyred along with her two sons Joses and Victor and five sisters, Anatola, Phota, Photis, Paraskeva and Kyriake. Every time Nero would attempt to torture her, an angel of the Lord would intervene, or Photini would heal her torturers. Finally, after refusing to renounce Christ, she spit in the emperor’s face, Nero had had enough of her and she was martyred by being thrown down a well.  For we who believe death is not the final end, for the woman at the well to return to the living water is the most appropriate entry into life eternal with Christ.

Beloved, this is my hope for you this day: With the confidence of Miss Maude Royden, Saint Photini and all those who seek living water, that you:

– seek out common ground

– embrace a prophetic imagination (and reject a pathetic imagination)

And believe that there is enough water for all.



Published by RevEverett

I'm a pastor in the United Church of Christ here in Boston. I serve as the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Cycliss, seamstress, my book is "Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels." NJ by birth, MA by choice. Opinions are my own. Love abounds.

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