An Outsider In So Many Ways
August 25, 2021
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 42; Ephesians 2:17-22; John 4:3-30, 39-42
As the story opens, Jesus is on the road again, this time traveling north, and the route he’s chosen takes him through Samaria—today’s Palestinian West Bank—as rough a neighborhood then as now, and as ‘foreign’ and hostile to Jews of Jesus’ time as it is to Jews today. At midday Jesus and his friends come to a well with a long history. Jacob had dug it and had willed it to his son Joseph. When the Hebrews returned from Egypt they brought Joseph’s body back and buried it there by the well. The well still exists today, outside the town of Nablus. We can pretty safely guess that the day was hot and the road dusty and by that sweltering noon Jesus and his friends were tired and covered in the kind of fine dust that sticks to sweating skin. In that still midday, Jesus sat down to rest while his disciples went on into town to buy food. There may have been a fly buzzing around, but nothing else was moving in that unforgiving heat. No one would come out then if it could be helped.
But then, a woman comes to draw water and is, instead, drawn into conversation with Jesus. It’s an odd and remarkable dialogue we’re allowed to listen in on, full of double meanings and misunderstandings, theology and psychology. It’s written rather like a play with no stage direction. We don’t know how the lines were delivered—with what ambiguity or irony—but that’s okay. It allows us to enter their exchange where we are in our spiritual journey. Listen again.
It is Jesus who speaks first. “Give me a drink,” he says. “How come you’re asking me?” the woman replies. The gospel’s parenthetical explanation is clearly meant for us. 1st c. Jews would have been aghast at Jesus having a conversation (a) with a woman, or (b) with a Samaritan woman. The history between the peoples was old and bitter and revolved around ideas of racial purity and proper religious practice. The Samaritans represented what was left of the ancient Northern Kingdom, carried off into captivity, much intermarried, often corrupted by having absorbed foreign religions, but still honoring the Pentateuch as their sacred scripture and worshiping the God of the patriarchs, though not in Jerusalem—as much because of Jewish hostility toward them as anything else. Their own sacred mountain, Mt. Gerazim, had a valid claim to historical holiness but that wasn’t acknowledged by the Jews.
Jesus responds to her using the same words Yahweh had used to identify himself to Moses: “If you knew who I am, you’d be asking me for water and getting ‘living water.’ The image of God as the source of life sustaining water is woven throughout the Bible. In today’s Old Testament reading, Moses had asked God for water in the desert and gets ‘living water’, that is, water from a continually flowing spring.
There are many layers of meaning here, but all the woman hears, or at least what she responds to is an implied Jewish slight of her Samaritan well. She sees that he has no bucket for drawing water so what Jesus has said sounds preposterous—an empty boast from someone with no means of getting water at all. “You have no bucket,” she says. “How are you going to get ‘living water’? Are you greater than Jacob who gave us this well?”
Jesus’ reply is odd. “Everyone who drinks this well water will be thirsty again but those who drink from my water will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” At that point, the woman must have been wondering what sort of man she was conversing with—a madman, or merely a theologian. But her response is practical—even prosaic.
“Give me this water so I’ll never be thirsty or have to come and haul water again!” Maybe it’s a sincere request. Maybe it’s sarcastic. Certainly it’s superficial—not giving too much of herself—curious but cautious. She responds to the concrete issue of needing water again and again, but ignores the spiritual dimensions in Jesus’ statement.
“Go get your husband and come back,” Jesus tells her. “I have no husband,” she responds. “You’re right,” he says. “You’ve had five husbands and the man you’re with now isn’t your husband.” There must have been a moment or so of stunned silence then. With this pronouncement their conversation suddenly and dramatically shifts. Jesus now has her attention in a way he hadn’t up to this point. If she expected condemnation for her irregular marital history, she must have been surprised. Jesus doesn’t make that the point of their discussion. Maybe it’s not even her marriages he’s talking about but rather the long history of Samaria’s ‘weddings’ to foreign religions. Nevertheless, what generations of Bible commentators have been so intrigued by, her serial relationships, Jesus isn’t concerned with condemning.
In this conversation there is no accusation, just a simple statement. “What you have said is true.” What Jesus is doing is holding up a mirror for this woman—inviting her to confront herself because to stand before Jesus is to be known. There is nowhere to hide our failures, our mistakes… our ego—there are no shadows in the noonday of Jesus’ presence. Perhaps she is uncomfortable with the intimacy of being so fully known. In any case, this shifts the conversation to an entirely different plain.
“I see you’re a prophet,” she says. Then she asks him a thorny theological question that is right at the heart of the Jewish/Samaritan conflicts. “Where must we worship?” Maybe this is her attempt at diverting the conversation. Or maybe she’s just a smart woman who’s recognized that she’s not talking to an ordinary thirsty man, but to a thirsty theologian, and she takes advantage of that opportunity. “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you’all say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” In other words, where will we find God?
“Soon questions like this won’t matter,” Jesus tells her. Neither will be the ‘right’ place. The conventional ways of worship will change becoming worship not limited by location or culture. “The hour is coming when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” “Salvation is from the Jews,” Jesus reminds her, and that day this extraordinary Jewish rabbi brought salvation… to outsiders.
Sometimes I’m frustrated by the Bible not telling me women’s names—but in this story it doesn’t matter because she’s so many of us. She’s an outsider we can all recognize. Racially/ethnically/tribally she’s not one of us. Socially, she doesn’t fit the norms we expect. She doesn’t go to our church. Her religious practices are different than ours. Why, she might not even be a Christian! And she’s even the wrong gender! And yet… Jesus talks with her. Moreover, he listens to her. And that’s where there’s salvation for you and me.
This outsider, in fact, all the outsiders she speaks for, have been acknowledged, they’ve been heard, their lives matter to God. And this story gives us a mandate to do the same. But our cultural expectations get in the way of hearing and seeing through God’s eyes and so we exclude a big portion of humanity that just might have some valuable words for us to hear.
Who remembers the name Rodney King? Who remembers the sight of him being pulled out of his car by Los Angeles policemen and beaten, and beaten, and beaten until I thought surely he must be dead. That was 1991. Those policemen were tried and acquitted of using excessive force and L.A. erupted in riots. In the midst of all that anger and violence and calls for law and order, some news person asked Rodney King to comment. He wasn’t an articulate man, or an educated man, or a wealthy man. He wasn’t a white man. And when he spoke his one sentence, he stammered. But what he said pierced my soul. I think that may have been the particular, painful, jarring moment when I really began hearing the voices of the outsiders in my world.
“Wh…wh..why ca…ca…can’t we all just get along?” he said.
Well, why can’t we? Is it because we see too many folks as Samaritans? If there is one clear message the gospels give us about Jesus it’s that he opened his arms to the outsiders of his world—the folks who weren’t the regulars at synagogue, the ones who didn’t have a lot of coins to drop in the collection box, the ones who worried less about the religious rules and more about helping the victims. Jesus even talked with women.
The disciples didn’t get it right away. The day when they found Jesus having a conversation with a Samaritan woman it says they were ‘astonished.’ I think you can read that as ‘appalled.’ But later, after Jesus was no longer with them and small groups of folks were gathering and trying to remember all the things he had said and done they began to understand better—that Jesus’ good news was for everyone. We can hear it in the letters Paul wrote to those little gatherings, like the one in Ephesus, that would someday become churches.
“So [Jesus] came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God…” Eph. 2:17-19
You won’t find it written in the Bible, but I think Jesus would agree with my charge to you today. Go find the Samaritans in your life and then listen to what they have to say.