Sunday, March 8, 2015

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One. A Man Goes to a Well ...

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler

I can’t help but think that much of what happens in Jesus’ exchange with the woman at the well is not abundantly clear in print. Words by themselves cannot possibly tell an entire story, so the words of the Bible serve as a script for performance. And so when we read the Bible we cannot avoid putting ourselves into it. This story is a great example, and if I take this story in a direction that doesn’t work for you, I invite you yourself to read the story out loud sometime and see what you come up with. It might be something very different.

Map (8th century BCE) from Wikipedia
Jesus and his disciples are passing through foreign territory. And here’s where a little history will be helpful. A thousand years before Jesus, the original, short-lived nation of Israel suffered a political split. Samaria became the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, while Jerusalem, the “city of David,” remained the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah. Naturally, Jerusalem not being a part of the northern kingdom, David’s city did not remain important to the northern people of Israel, so they moved the focus of their worship to Mount Gerizim. Israel in the north was eventually conquered by the Assyrians. One hundred fifty years later the southern kingdom of Judah was conquered by a newer superpower, the Babylonians.

Many of the northern Jews intermarried with Assyrians but retained their Jewish faith and practice as best they could. They became known as the Samaritans, and they are still around to this day, though only a few hundred remain. In Jesus’ time, Samaria was yet another occupied province of the Roman Empire. Despite the Samaritans and the Judean Jews being under the same occupation, the ancient rivalries about the proper place of worship had not abated. The other big difference is that the northern tribes never received any formal permission to repopulate their homeland in their own way, while the Judeans had been given express permission several centuries before, by King Cyrus of Persia, to reclaim their land and their worship practices and to rebuild their temple.

And so we have two peoples with common ancestors, nursing grudges and suffering from a great deal of animosity towards each other—like Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, or like Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq. The excuse for the breach is religious, but mostly it plays out in politics and especially in social norms. No doubt the children on both sides are told simply that if you want to remain safe and untainted, you stay away from “those people.”

unknown African artist;image from beggarsbread,org
At a well in Samaria, Jesus throws this systemic racism out the window. I imagine the woman is startled to see a Jew at the well. Jesus is “tired out by his journey” and thirsty, and he has no bucket with which to get water. He uses his physical needs to make himself vulnerable, but this vulnerability is not immediately apparent. Jesus’ opening line to the woman is, “Give me a drink.”

I’ve heard this story many times, but this is the first time it has occurred to me that this is a pick-up line—in reverse! It’s the opposite of, “Let me buy you a drink.” It’s also historically related to ancient stories of men and women and wells—stories their two religions share. Abraham’s servant met Isaac’s future wife Rebecca at a well, and he asked her for a drink.  Jacob met Rachel, the love of his life, when she came to the well and he helped her remove the heavy cover from it. Moses met his wife Zipporah at a well. It’s a trope of ancient Semitic storytelling, as familiar to them as “a man walks into a bar.” When I was at seminary, the water cooler in one of our common areas had a sign next to it that read: “Ladies, beware of meeting men at the well.”

The woman points out the impropriety of a Jew talking to an unrelated woman at all, let alone a Samaritan woman. And this is when things get interesting. Jesus says, “If you had any idea who I am, you’d be asking me for a drink of living water.” Now, living water is not just an obscure mystical metaphor. Living water can also mean running water—flowing water—something you’ll never find in a well.

But there’s also the possibility of some innuendo here—like, “I’m not just any man. You don’t know what you’re missing.” So it should come as no surprise that the woman replies, in essence, “This well is deep, buddy, and you have no way into it. How great a man do you think you are?” She dares him to compare himself to Jacob, the great common ancestor of Jews and Samaritans. Referring to Jacob may also be an attempt to transcend their differences. Is she picking up on Jesus’ advances? Is she rationalizing the possibilities that might emerge with this foreigner? What is going on inside her?

Jesus keeps up the banter: “Lady, I’ll give you water that will quench your thirst so much you’ll never be thirsty again—and it will lead to eternal life.”

“Hah!” she retorts. “You do think you’re good!” A pause. “It would be great never to have to come here to draw water again.” And so the woman drops her guard by letting on that this public place stokes her public shame. She waits until noon to draw water, in the heat of the day, long after the other women have gone. She may speak this line with sarcasm, but is it also full of longing? Jesus knows it. The woman is thirsty for human connection without judgment. She wants to be known and loved for who she really is, but there is so much stuff in the way!

So Jesus calls out the stuff. He acts as if he has suddenly remembered that he shouldn’t be seen talking to a woman. “Go, call your husband, and come back.”

The woman’s story is not private; among her people, everybody knows about it. But it is, for her and for her people, shameful. If she is such a difficult wife that five men have rejected and divorced her, society scorns her willfulness. On the other hand, if she has outlived five husbands, would you want to marry her? She must have sinned in some way to earn this curse, so she is to be feared and shunned. The fact that this foreigner already knows her story is a little bit strange, though. Thus her reply: “Sir, I see that you are a prophet!” She may say it sarcastically, but … how does he know?

Now the woman shifts the conversation. Perhaps she’s never met a Jew before; she has only grown up hearing about their unforgivable flaws. Now she finally has a chance to understand one first hand, while nobody else is looking. And she is beginning to trust that he is, indeed, not like other men. So she starts talking theology: “OK, So the main difference between Samaritans and Jews is the place where we worship God. You say it has to be in Jerusalem, while we worship here. Just how different are we? What do you say?”

In reply, Jesus first claims that Jews are more theologically correct than Samaritans; perhaps there’s still an element of their banter. But he also states unequivocally that a unifying force will come out of Judaism and reunite the two clans. He says that very soon the mark of true worship will not depend on location or ancestral homeland, for anybody. Everyone will be invited just to love God.

“Yes,” says the woman. “Our two sects agree that our savior is coming.”

“Indeed,” says Jesus. “And you are speaking with him right now.”

The sexually charged banter has given way to true affection, the sarcasm to earnestness, and the woman feels herself being transformed. Over the next two days, she will serve as a magnet to draw many of her fellow Samaritans to this man’s presence.

What attractive reason does she give for meeting Jesus? “Come see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” On the surface, it may sound like she’s shilling for a fortune teller. So we must presume that the rest of the message comes in her face, in her bearing, in her total transformation before the town’s eyes, in the fact that her fear and shame have evaporated completely.

This is why Jesus is able to explain to his disciples, “Look! The field is ripe for harvesting all around you.” It’s true for us, too. We don’t have to look far to find someone who needs a human connection with God. Just go out of your way to seek out the people who are invisible, or who have been made invisible. There we will find the thirsty ones who crave the living water of a connection with God. There the church will, as Chris Hoke preached a few weeks ago, “storm the gates of Hades.”

Brené Brown, social scientist, professor, writer, Episcopalian, says that the message the church needs to send is not, “Show up, act like us, be seen.” Rather, our message should be simply, “Show up, be seen.” And then we need to do whatever it takes to act out the truth of that message. This is what frees people to move from shame to safety and hope.

When the other Samaritans come to Jesus, they find that the woman’s words are true, but they also find that they are able to understand the words in a new way through direct experience. It’s true in our world, too. You can study Christianity all you want academically and never make a spiritual connection with it. Faith can only be properly explored and understood experientially—from the inside. The further in you go, the larger it becomes.

Furthermore, our solitude holds no answer to our loneliness. Faith—the kind of faith that sustains us for the long haul—comes from within community. Most especially, it comes in the shift from shunned isolation to true belonging. And that’s why those who have been marginalized and cast out are the ones who understand Jesus best of all. Jesus restores them to their communities. It’s like they are born again.

God had to become one of us in order for us to relate to God at all. You can’t have a human connection with an all-transcendent deity. Yet human connection is what we need and are made for, so God saw fit to give that to us. The Savior of the world is God among us, God who knows us more deeply than we know ourselves. Even today he brings us living water and says, “You are my beloved—no matter what.” Amen.

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