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I broke down and got some jelly beans for my almost always empty candy jar on my desk. I think my kids imagine it sits there as some sort of cruel joke, mocking them with possibilities. But no more! It is filled with Easter jelly beans, which was known instantly by the church secretary, because of the telltale sound of those sweet little beans ricocheting around the glass jar as you pour them in. “Gimmie one!”, the cry came almost instantly from Deana, “Unless they are those Harry Potter jelly beans, that look like lemon but taste like snot.” They aren’t. Just for the record, I don’t buy snot flavored jelly beans…least not on purpose. With jelly beans, however, looks can be deceiving. Take a red jelly bean…is it cherry, or strawberry? Wait, it could be red apple, or cinnamon, or now something more exotic like plum or raspberry. You don’t know until it’s too late. The outer shell doesn’t tell you. Oh, it might get you in the ballpark…you can be pretty sure that red one isn’t lemon, or banana, but not much help beyond that.
When Jesus encounter this woman at the well, it seems to be on purpose. After all, chapter 4, right before the cut read this morning, says, “So, Jesus left the Judean countryside and went back to Galilee.
To get there, he had to pass through Samaria.” Only he doesn’t have to…most Jews would have gone around Samaria, taking a couple extra days so they might avoid the potential shame of encountering a Samaritan, the lowest of the low, the ancient enemies of the Judeans. Though they came from the same roots, siblings at one time, and practitioners of many of the same customs and religious rites, because of an old part of history, a slight, a betrayal of one people by another, The Judeans considered the Samaritans mongrels and half-breeds, unclean and unworthy. So much so that in the time of Jesus, Judeans, if traveling from Judea to Galilee, might cross all the way over to the other side of the Jordan River in order not to set foot in Samaria. But Jesus doesn’t. In fact, he goes directly into Samaria.
Not only that, he places himself right by a well in the heat of the noonday sun when this Samaritan woman comes along. If this were a jar of jelly beans, she’d be the licorice one…or the snot-flavored trick jelly bean. How would you know? She looks like a Samaritan. It’s the same twisted, fallacious logic that makes people think they can spot an illegal immigrant amongst a sea of people – it’s the brown guy, right? Or a transgendered person in a bathroom. The shell tells us everything we need to know.
So Jesus plays off this a bit. He acknowledges the elephant in the room…or at the well. He strikes up a conversation that crosses several lines – Judean speaking to Samaritan, man speaking to woman, and all at the watering hole, so to speak, which was kind of the singles club of first century Palestine. So many inappropriate things, Jesus. Tsk-tsk.
Then begins this back-and-forth, where the woman talks at one level and Jesus at another. Like his conversation with Nicodemus just before this encounter where Jesus speaks of being “born again” and Nicodemus is trying to make sense of the biology, Jesus speaks in parable, in poetry. John’s Gospel often has Jesus speaking in poetry– not in the sense of iambic pentameter or metered rhyming verse, but rather the way that poetry tells us truth at an angle, never laying it out in easily digestible form, but rather making us work for it. And if you don’t come from the culture the writer comes from, you have to work harder. So, too is Jesus in this passage…I mean, do you want a drink or not? Living water? What in the world are you talking about? I’m still trying to get my head around the fact that you are talking to this person at all! Don’t you know any better, Jesus?
In one fell swoop, John’s story gives us a Jesus who sees past the outer shell and claims a new world at work. It is amazing how our labels define us, and how they shape not only the way that we see the world around us, but also how that world starts to be – because we make it so, based on those labels. It is, as has been said by many, the danger of a single story, where your glimpse of reality becomes the glimpse of reality. This is not how the kin-dom works, Jesus asserts…for God does not see like we see.
I heard an interview recently with a pair of people working through the arts with refugees and immigrants. As they were describing the kind of work they do and how challenging things like language and culture can be, the interviewer asked about their motivation and one of the artists said, “It’s all John Waters.” This seemed a real sharp turn from the subject matter to this point, bringing into the fold the acclaimed/maligned director of such cult classics as Pink Flamingos and Hairspray, but the interviewer was intrigued. “See, when I saw my first John Waters movie,” the artist said, “I felt like I was seen…I felt like someone knew me beyond my surface, deeper than just my label and honored me as I was, which is the first step of being accepted or even loved.”
Sure, we could talk about the metaphorical examples in this story, what the Samaritan woman represents, how this is a commentary on history, on long standing cultural feuds, but what this demonstrates even more vitally is that the action of Jesus, yet again, teaches us of a God who loves us all deeply – as we are – and longs for us to do the same. This is a story of Jesus reaching out to the person his audience would have seen as most unreachable, most properly rejected, to say not only, “I see you”, but also, “God loves you” AND that the time has come when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. For God, Jesus says, God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who honor God must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, as an act of adoration. And that means first being your true self.
That is a wonderful liberating principle when we apply it to ourselves, but, like lots of things Jesus teaches, an absolute bear when it comes to applying it to other people. If love, the kind of love that Jesus preaches, is about knowing everything that someone has ever done and loving them anyway – yikes! That’s a tall order. We all know that there are some people that it is easy to love, the light of God seems to shine on them. There are others we have to work a bit to love, and squint at times to see God’s image in their face. And then there are some for whom love seems an impossible goal, no matter how many layers of God’s image lacquer we slather on them.
Yet this is precisely what Jesus teaches, the very thing that seems to label him as the messiah. I want us to note that in the gospels, Jesus most often refutes this label – messiah – and tells people to keep quiet about saying that about him. But in this story, he embraces it. He responds to this woman’s claim that the messiah will come with the announcement that he is here – right in front of her. Jesus say “I am” he –ego eimi. Ego eimi–“I am”–is the name of God revealed to Moses in the book of Exodus at the burning bush. In John’s Gospel, this is the only time that Jesus directly acknowledges that he is the Messiah – and this acknowledgement is not expressed to a Judean, or Galilean, not to a disciple or even the “beloved disciple” from John’s Gospel, who seems to know so much more than the others, but instead to a Samaritan, and not to a man, but a woman! The first people in John’s Gospel to declare Jesus as “Savior” are half-breed foreigners, and the first among them a woman!
Anytime we label someone “other”, whether it be because of social, political, racial, religious, sexual, or any other label, we dehumanize them. And that’s a “slippery slope.” Once we head down that road it becomes easier and easier to make levels of humanity, a hierarchy where we’re all equal, but some of us more equal than others. Cruelty and inhumanity follows. So, whether we’re talking about judgment of a Muslim woman who is just trying to shop for food to feed her family, or our judgment of a formerly “Bible-thumping”, anti-gay legislator caught in a motel room in a compromising situation with a young man, the move towards “other-ing” is precisely what works against our faith. It is exactly what Jesus models against in this story from John. It is the very thing he actually accepts the title “messiah” to confront, the point of his ministry, one might say.
The woman who has come in the heat of the noonday sun to have a drink to quench her parched thirst, leaves the jug and heads out, her thirst perhaps met in another way. Think of the thirstiest you’ve ever been. Maybe you were running a race on a humid summer morning, or you were walking along the street on a blistering afternoon, or you were in the hospital one night and the nurse forgot to bring you ice chips. Remember how good that first drink of water felt? You felt that you couldn’t go a moment longer, and when that liquid finally coursed down your throat, it was so glorious, so satisfying, such a relief.
Yet how many more, my friends, thirst for something that seems even more inaccessible? How many thirst for acceptance or welcome? How many more have parched souls, waiting to hear that their true self is acceptable, is lovable, is even necessary for them to honor God and God’s diverse and beautiful creation? That, my friends, is good news to spread. It is light and hope and, if we read this story from John’s Gospel, the essence of the ministry of Jesus…the reason we call him savior.
Glory to God. Amen.