We assume we know all about the woman at the well. But do we really know her story? Jesus chooses to have a relationship with this woman who in turns becomes an unlikely missionary.
I don’t typically like to talk about my kids in a sermon, but the more I studied the Gospel lesson, the more this memory came to my mind. It was move in day at college for our eldest daughter Jackie. We reached the lobby of her dorm and my eyes immediately focused on an older student who happened to be her Resident adviser. He had piercings on his ears, neck, face and tongue. Now I know it is rude to stare, but sometimes it is hard to look away. He seemed nice enough when he welcomed us. I thought to myself, I wonder what he is majoring in and if even goes to class. How does he eat with a pierced tongue? What do his parents think?
A few weeks later Jackie phoned home and asked if she could have her eyebrow pierced. Now I think of myself as a pretty progressive person, after all, I have three tattoos and two piercings in my ears. I remember telling her, “think about how it would look when you student teach”, and “nobody will want to hire you”. “And besides, how would you get there without a car?” She said, her resident advisor offered to take her. Of course, he did! All of a sudden, I imagined my daughter having more metal on her than a medieval knight in full armor. She decided not to have her eyebrow pierced and I was a bit relieved.
I look back and realize that I was making a lot of assumptions about the young man in that college dorm. And I was making assumptions of the treatment that my daughter would receive. Maybe it was because that that was how I viewed others with multiple piercings. I made assumptions about their lifestyle without the benefits of a real relationship!
In our Gospel reading for today, it is easy to make assumptions about the Samaritan woman or the “woman at the well”. She must have been a really horrible wife to have so many husbands. Didn’t she take her marriage vows seriously? What did she do wrong?
But let’s ask ourselves, how can scholars be so sure that the Samaritan woman was the cause of the five failed marriages? Why do we so eagerly assume that the unnamed woman was an immoral harlot needing redemption? Perhaps she was just old and had outlived all five husbands, for the text does not give her age. Then, in her later years, she gives up on legal marriage contracts and lives with a man who is not her husband. She probably thought after 5 marriages, it was time to give up!
In fact, in ancient Palestine, woman had no control over divorces. According to Deuteronomy, by law, only men could divorce women in the ancient world. Women were not permitted to divorce men.
Later, the rabbis would expound on this marriage code and argue that a man could divorce his wife with almost any cause, which could be inedible bread or even the lack of beauty. Maybe her five husbands had found her lacking, unsuitable, unlovely, unfit for their wants and needs and they simply rid themselves of responsibility and relationship.
This woman, who is not even given a proper name, is at the mercy of others. She doesn’t need redeeming from a promiscuous lifestyle, but redemption from the abuses of an unjust legal and social systems. She suffered broken relationships, unsuccessful marriages, societal oppression, and poverty. And if she lived what we deemed an unworthy lifestyle so what? What gives us the right to judge her as a sinner when we are all sinners who need redeeming?
What if we looked at her as we would a good and faithful friend or a beloved family member? Would we immediately assume she is unworthy to be in dialogue with Jesus? Unworthy to even breathe the same air as our Lord? Would we react as the disciples did, wondering why Jesus would even give her the time of day, a Samaritan woman at that, alone at a well with no male chaperone. What would people think?
The best part of this story is the fact that Jesus chose her to be a missionary – to tell others the things he had revealed to her. Jesus chose a woman from Samaria, people who were hated by other Jews, a woman married multiple times. Jesus approached her and chose to have a dialogue with her –he made it his business to know who she was and he didn’t condemn her.
Jesus broke the societal norms of the day and this wasn’t his first rodeo at having a relationship with those who were seen as persons who lived on the margin of Jewish society. In fact, time and time again he was accused of eating with sinners, meeting with women, tax collectors and of course I am sure people questioned his choice of disciples – ordinary people who were not seen as the cream of the crop of the day.
This Gospel lesson is much more than a story about a Samaritan woman at a well. It is about being in relationship with each other; regardless of backgrounds, political views, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation. Jesus modeled to the disciples what it meant to be in dialogue with those for whom we may disagree and it is about cultivating relationships. Too often we judge people from afar without really getting to know their stories.
This story also tells us that there is a deeper calling here. It moves beyond theories and theologies of the gospel and reminds us that the love of God in Christ Jesus is for all people, especially those who have yet to hear these saving words of Jesus, a Messiah for all people, even those for whom we disagree.
This story contains one of the longest conversations that Jesus has with anyone outside his circle and it is a Samaritan woman; one who is seen as less than. And Jesus let’s her speak -encourages dialogue with her- doesn’t condemn her, but knows her story – and Jesus knows our stories- the good and the bad. Jesus knows us inside and out and loves us anyway!
How many of us cut off dialogue or never start a conversation with someone who is so diametrically different than ourselves. We believe that we already know their story. If we see people using food stamps, we assume they are lazy and not working. A woman is assaulted and we wonder what role she played in her attack; what was she wearing or was she drinking? We see a young girl with multiple children and wonder if they all have the same father or if she is just doing it for the welfare benefits. If you are a Republican than you must be a racist and anti-women’s rights and if you are a Democrat you must be pro-abortion and pro-open borders.
We stereotype groups of people and put them in categories without really understanding their individual stories. It is so easy to judge from afar. But if we really think about it, others are doing the same thing to us. What are people saying about us and our choices? We probably would answer, “but you really don’t know me and my story”, and we would be right.
We only need look at the Biblical story for examples of the importance of dialogue and relationships. God talks to Adam and Eve in the Garden; God talked to Jonah and to the prophets. Jesus talked to God and to everyone for whom he came in contact. The Holy Spirit spoke at Pentecost and continues to speak to us today if we only listen. This must mean that dialogue, is fundamental to us as human beings, and is equally fundamental to our Christian faith which encourages us to dialogue with others.
Many of you know that there are businesses in which I do not frequent because of how they invest their monies. For me it is an ethical decision, but I also write to these companies letting them know why I stay away. I am always open to be in dialogue with them and to hear their stories of how they decide to invest. I am open to changing my mind. I realize that my business is not going to make or break them, but for me it is one way that I live out my call to love my neighbor. I also will dialogue with others as to why I choose not to shops at this business and in the end –I do not expect others to follow my lead. It is more about awareness and dialogue. I am sharing my story of my personal call.
By getting to know others, we can learn about their stories and why there may be certain triggers for them as well as understanding their behaviors. We ask ourselves, why is attendance so low, why aren’t people coming to church? I haven’t seen so and so lately, I wonder why they are not coming. Do we take the time to each out and ask them? We tend to expect behaviors from others based on our own behaviors and actions, without taking the time to really listen and understand to the other.
God loves us whether or not we go to church every Sunday, tithe 10 percent; come to youth group, sing in the choir or go to Sunday School. If we want to flourish as a community, we need to be in dialogue with others – and not stay in our safe zones with those for whom we already know. Reaching out to others, especially those we tend to be in disagreement can open a door which enables the Holy Spirit to enter into our lives and live together in community, despite disagreements.
My hope is that you reach out to someone you don’t know, or start a conversation with someone for whom you disagree. The goal isn’t to change each other’s mind, but to understand each other’s stories and to love each other regardless of the outcome. We are a community; a family of faith who will disagree many times but, in the end, will work together to spread the Good news of Jesus Christ, will work together to love God and love our neighbor, will work together for the common good of our community, regardless of our individual desires. Take a risk to find that person who is standing at the well in need of grace. Amen.