|There are many venues and vessels, but one Living Water.|
March 27, 2011
“She is not a prostitute. She doesn’t have a shady past.”
Yet, if you have ever heard this story of “The Woman at the Well” you have probably heard this woman described as a prostitute, a woman of ill repute, a multi-married harlot. If you talk to your friends and relatives who heard sermons on this woman today, you will hear her described as shameless, shameful, and sinful.
And yes, she was an outcast. She is all alone at the well in the heat of the day. In the middle eastern desert culture, all of the other women in her town would have come in a group to draw water from the well in the cool of the morning or the evening. The woman who encounters Jesus at the town well is alone there at noon with her bucket. She was outside the circle of “us” women. She is a “them” – the “other” – obviously the outcast.
There is no doubt that this woman was different. She was probably a lot different from the other women who gathered at that well who were married to their first husbands. When Jesus invites this woman to call her husband, she replies that she has no husband. Jesus agrees: “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” (4:18). She is an outcast — a THEM, not one of the US crowd.
She is not just different from the other women, she and Jesus are very different from each other, the conditions perfect for an US-THEM fiasco. Jesus is male and she’s female, and that alone foreshadows the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus understanding gap. In that culture, a man and a woman would not be even that much alone together or to talk to each other directly. What’s more, Jesus is a Jew; the woman is a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans the text tells us “do not share things in common,” another way of saying they avoid each other to keep from being tainted by the other and to keep from killing each other. The woman is known, perhaps even famous, for her lifestyle; Jesus is the stranger in this town.
The beginning of the conversation foreshadows a major misunderstanding. She is there to get the cool wet well water that Jesus is thirsty for but has no way to reach. So, Jesus asks her for well water, and then he provokes her by saying that she should be asking him for something called living water that she doesn’t even know she’s thirsty for. Water! Sitting at a well, they can’t even talk about water and understand each other.
This doesn’t look like the setting for a life-giving situation. The rules of the day would keep them apart in the first place. Men and women can’t be in the same place and don’t talk to each other. Jews and Samaritans have nothing to do with each other. That’s one way to prevent misunderstandings and even war: Just don’t have anything to do with each other when “US” know how “THEM” can be.
And still today, we hold THEM at arm’s length. Like the Jews and the Samaritans of old, like ancient men and women, we have our reasons for not getting mixed up with whoever the “THEM” is to “US” — for “everyone” already knows how they are, all of those we label THEM:
- THEM Muslims don’t get freedom to freely build worship spaces.
- THEM people of color are still not welcome in every neighborhood.
- THEM gay people don’t get the same rights as others to marry.
- THEM unemployed people don’t deserve adequate health care.
Listen to the news, pay attention to conversations. See how often the THEM are labeled and dismissed as not like US and worse, against US, a threat to US. Instead of walking through these, our unfamiliar Samarias to meet up with suspicious Samaritans, we walk around THEM, we keep THEM at a safe distance.
My own experience: In El Paso, THEM were Mexicans. In Baton Rouge, THEM were black people. In Dayton, THEM were the people from Appalachia. In Bradford County, PA, THEM were the Amish. In this area, well … you know …
Sometimes THEM is the new person in town who looks familiar, but is harder to get to know.
When I lived in Dallas, northerners who moved in there with their fast talking ways sounded to us very angry and not very nice.
THEM … simply put … are THEM who aren’t US — the HER or the HIM who is not ME. It’s understandable and seems even desirable to label people because it takes time to get to know who that particular HER or HIM or THEM really is and even to see that some of THEM are not like the others of THEM. Such real encounters require effort and energy and precious time. We will need to take a risk, a leap of faith, we might say.
Jesus’ meeting with the woman at the well is complex, and rich, and deep and takes a chunk of time. Indeed, this is the lengthiest story of Jesus with anyone in all of scripture. You would think we would at least know her by name. Instead, she gets from us a label — “Samaritan woman” or “Woman at the Well.” Let us not also label her sinful, shameful, prostitute or attach to her a shady past.
Jesus did not label her. Jesus merely named who she was and what he saw:
When she tells Jesus that has no husband. Jesus agrees: “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” (4:18).
That just sounds bad, doesn’t it? One conservative preacher is typical. His sermon describes this woman as “a worldly, sensually-minded, nonspiritual harlot from Samaria” and later calls her something worse that I will not say. Where does this so-called interpretation come from? John, the narrator of the story, never says this. Jesus, the main character of the story, never calls her a sinner, never names a sin, never calls for repentance.
This is more likely a tragic story rather than a scandalous one. In each of these marriages, she might have been widowed or abandoned or divorced. Likely she was not the one taking command of any of these situations, as men in those days had legal and religious power that women simply did not have. It is very possible that the man she was living with might have been the brother of her last husband. If that husband had died, the brother was supposed to marry her. Perhaps it was this current “man who was not her husband” who didn’t do right by her. There are a number of very likely scenarios where this woman is the victim not a harlot, which makes her story sad and painful rather than making the woman sinful and deserving of scorn. [I have taken this view before, but today was also influenced by David Lose’s blog at Huffington Post.]
Jesus could have walked around Samaria that day. Some would say there were many reasons he should have avoided that foreign place.
Yet, think of all that would have been missed if Jesus had walked around Samaria:
- The woman wouldn’t have met Jesus the Messiah.
- She wouldn’t have been introduced to this thing called living water with her name on it.
- Jesus wouldn’t have gotten to have this theological conversation with her, the likes of which he frankly never had with any of the twelve male disciples.
- Jesus wouldn’t have seen more in her than anyone before had seen — she was wise, smart, articulate, courageous, and generous — at least that.
- She wouldn’t have become a good news missionary for Jesus.
- Many other lives would have remained unchanged, untouched by good news, unhealed by living water.
So … Jesus walked through Samaria. And not just a walk through, but he made an important stop at the well. For to see who this woman really is, is to listen to her and look her in the eyes. To get beyond the label “sinful woman” is to be courageous enough to sit with her for awhile even if it makes your knees shake and your voice quake. For us western 21st century Christians, hearing her story means taking the time to understand an ancient foreign culture that is very different from ours today. We then get to celebrate that this woman’s story is fulfilled in Jesus Christ who sends her to become the first evangelist, the first missionary Jesus sends to “foreigners” to both of them — Samaritan men!
That’s how “THEM” becomes a compelling word of life. For God is already among THEM, just as God is already speaking to US. God’s grace can transform our avoidance — even our wars — into holy encounters. There’s no strange formula for such holy encounters. In this congregation, we have a congregational covenant to guide our own relationships toward sacred bonds.
- Take the time to value the process of relationships
- Risk face-to-face communication especially when that seems impossible
- Be persistent in clarifying communication and making relationships
- Hear what is being said and receive that as a gift
- Be ready to grow and change together
- Expect that God is able to create good outcomes and even amazing ones
So, when our journey takes us to foreign places, let us never hesitate to walk through Samaria and let’s take our sweet time. There’s great good news at that strange well when God brings unlikely THEM’s together. And there’s living water enough for all. Amen.