We have been working our way through the senses this Lenten season. Two weeks ago, we began with taste. Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread. He was so hungry he could almost taste it. Last week, we met Nicodemus in the middle of the night. He struggled with wanting to see Jesus without being noticed himself. He was still shortsighted. Today, we meet a woman, who after meeting Jesus, shared her story with all those who had ears to hear.
The writer of John is often referred to as the Evangelist. He writes his gospel in such a way as to share the Christian message that his readers would become believers and doers of the Word. He was a gifted storyteller, and he knew what he was doing when he put today’s passage right after Nicodemus. The situation and the Samaritan woman couldn’t be much more different.
Nicodemus was a well-respected member of society. He was a religious scholar, a Pharisee. He could walk around town with his head held high. It was Nicodemus who came to Jesus with a request. And he had a name.
The Samaritan woman, like so many other female figures in the Bible, is unnamed. She is only identified by her gender, her ethnicity, and her place in society. As a woman, she is already less-than. Samaritans were known to be in opposition to Jews. There are several reasons for this, and some of it may have to do with what happened in exile. They intermarried and were no longer a pure race. They also worshipped in different ways than the Jews, as we hear in this passage. The other thing we know right off about this Samaritan woman is that she is outcast even from the other women in the area. See, gathering water at the well was women’s work. It still is in many parts of the world. While men had “more important” things to do, like discussing politics in the city square, women traveled together with their jars to gather water for cooking, cleaning, and the family. They would go when the weather was kindest, most likely in the early evening, when the heat was not so great. However, this woman, is traveling by herself, at noon, in the heat of the day. Something in her life has prevented her from being part of the in-crowd. Jesus gives us a clue to why this woman walks alone.
Oh, and she doesn’t come seeking Jesus. He requests something from her. She is so not Nicodemus.
But she sure is special. This is the longest recorded conversation Jesus has with anybody. And it’s with someone who is the wrong gender, from the wrong place, and has lived the wrong life.
I love Jesus.
I especially love Jesus when he exposes his humanity. He was out in the hot sun, traveling by foot, and had no provisions. He was parched. He needed a drink, but he didn’t even have a cup to draw water from a well. So, this person walks up, with a jar, and he asks for a drink. He didn’t care that the person was woman who didn’t have any girlfriends. Even after she acknowledged that she was a Samaritan, Jesus continued the conversation.
This encounter not only shows Jesus true humanity, but his full divinity, as well. I can picture how the woman reacted when Jesus asked her for a drink. She was hard, probably used to people either making fun of her, guys yelling catcalls as she walked the road alone, or she was ignored. She had her defenses up. She wasn’t gonna take any crap from this guy at the well. She wasn’t stupid, and she talked back to Jesus.
But he had mercy. And as soon as he offered her living water, she softened. There was a spring nearby?! (That’s one definition of living water.) She wouldn’t have to go to the well anymore?! That would be great!
No, Jesus was using play on words, pretty common for Jesus in John’s gospel.
Then Jesus gets personal. He starts in on the woman’s love life. She had really come to trust that this guy had the stuff that would quench her thirst, and now he was asking about her husbands. Geez. But surprisingly (or not), he isn’t judgmental. He just knows that she has had several husbands and now lives with someone. We don’t know why. She could have buried her first husband and having no son, had to marry his brother which was the law. She could have been like the late great Liz Taylor and married and divorced over and over. If the queen of Hollywood was the butt of many late night jokes, then surely this lady of Samaria would have been the subject of much gossip.
The woman could have loved and lost so many times, and her heart was continuously broken.
Or there could be another reason entirely.
The thing is, it doesn’t matter. It didn’t matter to John or else he would have included it, and most importantly, it didn’t matter to Jesus. He just knew. He knew her history, he knew her soul, and he had mercy.
Whoa. Now she was taken aback again. Jesus was not just a random thirsty guy. He was a prophet. This was cool, so she engaged him in a theological discussion. Jesus couldn’t just say things about her past and get away with it. She needed to talk about worship styles and such.
It reminds me of times in my younger, single, seminary days, when I might have visited a restaurant that served adult beverages. I may have gone up to a bar-type thing wanting to order a drink to take to my “friends.” But there I was, alone at the bar. It was not uncommon for some dude to be like, “Hey, how’s it going?” I try to be polite, so I say “Fine. How are you? . . . yadda, yadda.” With my luck, the service would be a little slow, so I am stuck talking to this guy. The small talk gets to, “So what do you do?” A dreaded question for a single minister. But I never lied. “I’m a minister.”
Oh! Now, that did it! Either the guy would turn around and ignore me (Yes!), or, more likely, it would begin a whole new level of theology on tap. I heard about folks who grew up Catholic and haven’t been to church in years. They’d confess to me years of sins. Or, we discussed the “I’m spiritual, but not religious” thing. Anyway, one can’t say churchy things and expect to evade churchy convos.
Especially not Jesus . . . the prophet.
And the woman recognizes that this is a pretty special person, who is saying amazing things. Could he be? Yes, Jesus said. I AM.
These are the same words God spoke to Moses through the burning bush. The thrice-outcast woman just had an encounter with the Divine, a non-judgmental, non-threatening, non-arrogant Divine. Holy watering hole!
She had news to share! So she spoke. She told her people what had happened. This lonesome woman confronted the men, all comfortable in the square, the women who didn’t allow her to be part of the their inner circle, and she sounded the call. Come and see! She didn’t even demand that they take her word for it. They heard her voice, as she spoke the Word. She witnessed out of her experience, her questions, and her possible belief. This is how the great preacher Fred Craddock puts it:
She is a witness, but not a likely witness and not even a thorough witness. "A man who told me all that I ever did" is not exactly a recitation of the Apostles Creed. She is not even a convinced witness: "Can this be the Christ?" is literally "This cannot he the Christ, can it?" Even so, her witness is enough: it is invitational (come and see), not judgmental; it is within the range permitted by her experience; it is honest with its own uncertainty; it is for everyone who will hear. How refreshing. Her witness avoids triumphalism, hawking someone else’s conclusions, packaged answers to unasked questions, thinly veiled ultimatums and threats of hell, and assumptions of certainty on theological matters. She does convey, however, her willingness to let her hearers arrive at their own affirmations about Jesus, and they do: "This is indeed the Savior of the world."
How often do we come across as witnesses who know it all? We have all the answers, and if you don’t believe like me, then your beliefs are wrong? How often do we let the thrice-outcast persons in our midst leave without sharing the Good News of Jesus?
We like to invite the loners and the poor and the hungry to our tables, but I don’t know if we empower them to witness to divine mercy. We might give money to refugees, or even walk to fight AIDS, and pray for children. But how often do we sit down with immigrants and invite them to church? Have you hugged someone with AIDS recently? When our children want to lead in church, do we encourage them to do so?
Jesus shared himself with the woman at the well. She left the well with a tale to tell. May all who have ears to hear listen and respond to her call.