Sunday, March 27, 2011
The Woman at the Well
Last weekend's gospel reading focused on an encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus from the third chapter of John’s Gospel. Today, in the fourth chapter of that same gospel, we see Jesus with an unnamed Samaritan woman. John has juxtaposed these two in a way that is meant to get our attention, in a way that makes it clear that God really does so love the world. We are meant to notice these polarities: male and female, Jew and Samaritan, community leader and socially marginalized. Nicodemus came to Jesus in the middle of the night; this Samaritan woman comes to the well in the middle of the day
And yet even as we notice these differences, I think that John means for us to see that Jesus meets each of them where they are, and takes their questions seriously, and engages each of them in serious theological conversation. The disciples’ astonishment is a clue to us of just how shocking it was for Jesus to be talking to a divorced, Samaritan woman in the middle of the day. In first-century Palestine the rules of the game were clear: men are not supposed to speak with women to whom they are not married in public. And as John whispers to us parenthetically, “Jews do not share cups with Samaritans.”
While we have basically picked up today from where we left off last week in John’s gospel, the lectionary omitted this important transitional verse: “Jesus had to pass through Samaria.” The thing is, while that’s the shortest way to where he is headed, he didn’t have to do that at all. Most faithful Jews would have gone around Samaria, refusing to step foot in that land. So “had to” here doesn’t mean that he had no alternative routes he could have taken. Rather, it’s John’s code-language for “God’s plan.” Jesus just had to do this—because God so loved the world. He just had to do it because it is who he is.
It’s interesting to me that this encounter at Jacob’s well begins with Jesus asking the woman for a drink. I can’t help but to hear those words from Matthew’s Gospel about the sheep and the goats echoing in my head whenever I hear this gospel reading: when did we see you Lord? When did we not see you? Jesus responds by saying that whenever you visited those in prison, or clothed the naked, or fed the hungry, or gave a drink of water to one of these little ones in my name, you did it to me. And whenever you didn’t do those things, you didn’t do it to me.
So before the conversation gets deep—before it turns to theological talk about “living water” that quenches a thirsty soul—Jesus is just a stranger in a foreign land asking for a drink of water. And while it’s true that Jews and Samaritans don’t share cups in common, and while it’s true that men aren’t supposed to be talking to women they aren’t related to in public, it is also true that this stranger is thirsty and far from home and this local woman has access to the well. Whatever deep theological insights emerge beyond this we should not miss the way it all begins: with an act of human kindness. It’s like that verse from Brian Wren’s great Eucharistic hymn, “I Come With Joy,” that says, “as Christ breaks bread and bids us share, each proud division ends/ That love that made us, makes us one, and strangers now are friends.”
Someone needs to take a risk, for a stranger to become a friend. Before we get to profound metaphysical interpretations I think we are invited to simply watch Jesus and this woman sitting at Jacob’s well, having a normal conversation in a world where they aren’t supposed to have any contact with each other. Yet strangers become friends, and the energy that is released invites transformation and healing. Instead of walls being reinforced, bridges are being built. Such encounters are only ever considered “dangerous” or “radical” because we have been taught to hate, and fear, and have become so accustomed to the barriers.
“He has told me everything about myself,” the woman declares to her friends. He has known me for who I am, and He loves me for who I am. What amazing grace!
This encounter between Jesus and this Samaritan woman has everything to do with us, because I think Jesus just has to seek us out too: all of us—male and female, young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight. Jesus cares about our stories, about our lives, about the stuff everyone in town, or our church, or our family may know about us even if it is never said out loud.
Jesus keeps finding people like us in the middle of Lent, in the middle of the day or in the middle of the night - sometimes at our favorite watering hole. He just has to, in order to call us to something much deeper, in order to cut through all the shame and fear and guilt to tell us everything about ourselves including the truth that we are loved, and to offer us living water that quenches the deep thirst of our souls. When water like that is offered, you don’t take little sips. You drink as deeply as you possibly can.