To be in real relationship requires vulnerability. But in our world, we construct barriers to vulnerability, both for others and ourselves. We fall victim to fears of not being accepted based on human notions of who belongs. This week, Faith in Real Life discussed this fear and, through the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, how Jesus looks past gender, ethnicity, cultural conventions, and even commonly held beliefs about morality to engage us in real relationship, that we may all experience a taste of the “living water,” and be forever changed.
5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’ 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.
31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
A little bit of historical background is necessary to appreciate this passage. Jesus was violating the conventions of the day by seeking anything from a Samaritan. The Samaritans were viewed as theologically unsound and ethnically impure. So much so, even when the Jews needed all the help they could get, the Samaritans were not allowed to participate in the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritans responded by building their own temple on Mt. Gerizim and the two temples vied for importance as the proper place of worship. The antipathy between these groups easily matched our modern day religious conflicts.
And even more, Jesus defied all propriety by speaking directly to a woman. This would not be proper even if the woman were Jewish. Women had no social standing outside of their relationship to men. As a gender, women were viewed as unclean and in the best of circumstances, it was quite improper for men and women to be alone with each other. Even the disciples didn’t know how to respond when they saw Jesus speaking to a woman. They noticed but did not inquire. For us, it would be like walking into a restaurant and seeing a close male friend in intimate conversation with an unknown woman. We would notice but discretion would dictate silence.
The human determination of who belongs and what is ‘enough’ is our sin. It is what separates us from love. Sometimes we do it to ourselves. Sometimes the society does it to us. Sometimes it is both. This is the predicament of the woman at the well. In terms of the society, she was without status or stature. She was insignificant and unclean. Her rejection was real. It was not imagined. Hence her question to Jesus, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Similarly, she does not volunteer her history. She glosses over the instability of her life. She has no reason to believe that her past won’t be held against her.
All of us have a history. All of us keep some of our history secret. As we discussed in our FIRL groups, we fear we will be rejected if our whole history is known. Many will use who we are against us. Likewise, none of us ‘measure up’—whether that is by human or Godly standards— but we keep acting as if our relationships depended upon it. This is a fear all too familiar in real life. I am seeing a couple who have a nine year age differential. She is in her early 50’s and she is all too aware that age is taking its toll on her body. She fears she will not be attractive enough for her younger husband. So she literally and figuratively lives in the dark. She avoids her husband. He is much more concerned about the broken relationship than the changes time has wrought—but she does not believe him. While she judges herself as inadequate, she can not bear being seen. Her fear of being left has led to her leaving her husband first.
Aware of our failings, we can not imagine we can be fully loved. It is hard to imagine that we can be fully known and be loved. But that is exactly what Jesus offered the woman at the well— and what he offers each of us. Jesus does not itemize the woman’s ‘sin’. All we really know is that she has had a difficult unstable life. Though there is a tradition which suggests the woman is promiscuous and was avoiding the other women by coming at noon, there is no mention of promiscuity—nor of forgiveness in the text. All we know is that she has had a difficult life. She was unattached. And that was hard enough.
Jesus tells her ‘everything she has ever done’. Jesus reaches out to her across the barriers of prejudice, convention and tradition. By reaching beyond convention, a nobody becomes a somebody. In the eyes of society (and probably her own), this woman was unworthy and undesirable, but with Jesus, she is seen and accepted. It is to this woman that he first declares that he is Messiah. She becomes a somebody— a child of God, an agent for the spread of the Gospel. And as Peter and Andrew put down their nets and followed him, the woman put down her jar and went to tell the townspeople. A woman who normally would never speak up, who no one would pay attention to, draws enough attention to herself that people came to investigate and later came to believe. She, the most unlikely, has become an agent of God’s salvation.
In ‘real life’ terms, all love depends on being known and being accepted. We struggle mightily with trying to ‘prove’ ourselves. Ultimately we are slaves to that unquenchable thirst and slaves to how others perceive us. Jesus demonstrates that all of the categories we use to sort and rank our lives are meaningless to God. Traits that seem to matter so much to us— gender, nationality, social standing, religious affiliation, obedience and even moral rectitude are human criteria. Jesus looks beyond all of these. Jesus sees children of God. This is how he saves.
If ever you have felt known and loved, the experience will carry you through many deserts. The initial exposure is terrifying but the transformation is miraculous. When we are secure in the love of God, we drink from living water. The woman at the well is every woman and every man. Jesus sees beyond the distinctions of our world. Jesus knows our most secret heart and our most foolish behaviors. And he loves us. That is the promise of the Messiah.
May we with Samaritans say: “…. we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” Let it be so.