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John 4:1-42 (CEB)
I will confess to you that I am suspicious of this story from the get-go. Just about every time the Bible features a woman, named or not, usually not-named, I get nervous. It’s the same way I get nervous when I see a woman placed in a position of leadership because this is a misogynistic world we live in. It always makes me wonder, is this a setup? It’s a misogynistic world in which the Bible was written, where women were property, and the source of men’s sinful temptation. Are we being prepared to heap all of the world’s sins on a woman’s back again? Hi, Eve, how you doing?
I don’t trust it.
In the wake of an International Women’s Day that still witnesses the inequalities visited upon women all over the world, not to mention the campaign for President in our country – now featuring exactly zerowomen, not to mention the endless legislation and trials that are all different kinds of assaults on women’s bodies, very public events where we continue to question the moral agency of women…why would we trust this story at face value?
Well, the first thing we ought to do is try not to read a 1st century test with 21st century eyes, though certainly drawing this story back into it’s original context, as best we can, won’t make us feel any better about the status of women.
We should notice that this story comes right after the story we heard last week – Jesus meeting Nicodemus and talking about being “born from above.” And John is very intentional that we go from Nicodemus to this story of the Samaritan woman. The intentionality is even woven into the story, for the first few lines indicate to us that Jesus is traveling back to Galilee from Judea and, the text says, “Jesus had to go through Samaria.” Well, that’s not true. He didn’t have to go through Samaria, in fact most Jews making that same trip would have taken the longer road to avoid Samaria altogether because Samaria is where Samaritans live, of course, and Samaritans are no good. Everyone knows that. To this day, we humans are very good at dividing ourselves up into clans and making sure that our clan knows which clan is good-for-nothing jerks. Other Jews would have taken the long road, but Jesus had to go through Samaria…not because the road demanded it, or he was short on time, or he left his wallet in Samaria, but for some other reason.
He goes, as Dr. Karoline Lewis points out in her great commentary on this passage, because it is a theological necessity. It is a theological necessity because of what we heard last week – For God so loved the world, that God gave God’s son…” Samaria, Jesus must emphasize, is part of the world. Might seem like you don’t need to do that, but, as we just mentioned, we often need help understanding the difference between our conditional love and God’s love that is without exceptions. Samaria today is what we call the west bank, I don’t need to remind us of the ways that we are not expressing God’s equal love there. And to bring it closer to home, we have kids in cages, selective medical treatment, unequal justice, housing, education, access, etc. to remind us that we have a hierarchy of worthiness, which seems to stand quite in contrast to Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus intentionally goes to Samaria. And not only that, he meets there in this “chance” encounter, a woman at a well, in the midday. And so that we might hear this story like we were a first century Judean – the worstperson you could meet with if you were a rabbi is a Samaritan, for lots of religious and political reasons. The second worst person you could meet with, especially alone, is a woman. The third person it would be problematic to be seen with is a woman who has some kind of tarnished reputation. AND the story takes place at a well, which is ALSO a big deal, because that is the place where people meet. It’s the watering hole, literally and figuratively, the bar, the nightclub, the social setting where matches are made. In the ancient world, the setup of this story would have been incredibly scandalous, like me telling you that Jesus, before he went back to Galilee, had swiped right on Tinder, or that he was expecting that what happened in Samaria would stay in Samaria. This story is loaded with sexual innuendo that we don’t necessarily pick up on, and maybe for good reason because they story plays against all of that typecasting, it goes against the grain, ignoring this woman’s atypical marital situation and the innuendo because that’s not really the point. The point is that John’s Jesus, all the way up to three strikes at this point, does not flinch for a moment, nor does he this person to be anything other than who she is.
The Samaritan woman doesn’t really pick up on this right away, likely not used to being treated with compassion. She calls out the social mores immediately – “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” The subtext that we don’t hear is – this ain’t how this works, dude. Your disciples have left to get you food, and men don’t open up conversations with women here at the well. It’s not how we do things. Then, when Jesus asks for water, she goes all Nicodemus on him, taking everything literally. She asks, where is your bucket? How are you going to get water without a bucket?
This setup, just like the setup with Nicodemus, is a chance for Jesus to say – yes, I know this is how you do things, but it isn’t how God does things. And in John’s Gospel, where Jesus is the most god-like, he asserts to her – I’m not here for the everyday stuff, for what you’re worried about. I’m here to quench a different thirst, to give you living water. To GIVE you living water. And the question that a first century audience would have immediately had is – why would he give her anything? She’s not worthy, she hasn’t earned it, she’s not even clean, or approved, or worthwhile. That’s how we do things…
And here’s this Jesus, welcoming a person who is so marginalized, so discounted in her culture…a person who is doubly, if not triply, shamed…a person who likely never thinks about anything but the water she needs for the day, for she is constantly told in hundreds of ways that she barely counts enough to survive. She has come to the well in the midday heat, avoiding the crowds for fear of the shaming interactions she has likely had so many times before. Going to the well was a necessity for her, something she had to do, not something she wanted to do, and to see this strange man standing there as she approached must surely have filled her not with comfort, but with dread. She came not not with a feeling of stability or confidence, but because she was thirsty and had to get the water to merely survive.
But then something unexpected happens. Jesus meets her at her vulnerability, going deeper with her instead of dealing her the rejection she is used to, telling her all the things that people use to shame and reject her and standing firm, with the same welcome, the same acceptance he would have for anyone else. He knowsher, the text says, he knows everything about her and offers her this acceptance, this gift of living water anyway. He does not treat her with the social customs of the day, he does not respond to the, “this is the way we do things” model. He treats her as a person, a person in need of more than just a drink…a person in need of the truth.
In John’s metaphorical language where Jesus is God enfleshed, we see a God of radical inclusiveness, a God who invites this woman, in the midst of her pain, just as God invites us…because God knows all of our wounds, all of our struggle. God meets us in that hot and dry place and gives us the cool water of God’s love – living water that quenches a thirst we sometimes don’t even know we have.
As we settle into new territory, uncertain about what things will look like tomorrow, much less next week, may we all trust in the God who meets us in our unstable places, giving us what we need beyond our material needs, filling our hearts with the hope of community and the peace of presence, reminding us that while “the way we do things” brings decisions that don’t always take into account the needs of all people, while we invite an atmosphere where a simple cough might bring stigma and rejection, while we deal with a healthcare system that has been driven more by profit than by people, there is something bigger than all of that, something that does not arrive because of a vote, or by the force of a declaration…something that does not operate the way that we have long operated, but calls us to a different path, ALL of us, reminding us of what lies at our very foundations, rooting us in the Love that will not let us go.
May God’s grace AND God’s peace be with us all…and may we be with one another in this time of trial.