“The Woman at the Well”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
March 19, 2017
University Baptist Church
Here we are immersed in women’s history month. We are sending the bell choir away to be ambassadors in Germany and France while the shenanigans in Washington make us dizzy. Our sister church were denied their visas to visit us this coming August. Why? We can only make guesses—educated guesses. We don’t know if it had anything to do with the “Liberal Church” sign out front or the fact that we are now a sanctuary church. We do know that last week a group of Canadians were also denied entry to the US. They were planning on doing relief work for Hurricane Sandy. There is so much to resist and so much for which to advocate. Where to start? The reality is that we started long ago. We continue on in resistance and in imagining a better world, for our ancestors were also up against great odds. And they found in the church the insight and support to embrace a different kind of executive order. So let’s immerse ourselves in the Gospel and see where the Good News is for us today.
I like that early on in John’s Gospel, he tells this story of an encounter with this outsider. Actually John has unique encounters like this in other parts of the Gospel, too. And in all of them, it seems, women play a key role. In the second chapter of John, we have the wedding at Cana where Jesus gets into an argument with his mother about appropriate beverages. In the 8th chapter of John, Jesus is told that a woman has been accused of adultery. The religious leaders set a trap for Jesus and are almost salivating with the idea that Jesus the compassionate Rabbi dare not break the law, which says that she ought to be put to death if found guilty. No indication of the man’s punishment. Jesus changes the game and says, “Whoever is without sin, let them cast the first stone.” In the 10th and 11th chapters of John, Jesus seeks refuge from his troubles at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. John has the longest resurrection encounter with Mary Magdalene of all of the Gospels. It’s in John Gospel that Jesus says, “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”
So, in keeping with this theme of women at the center of the teaching, we have Jesus encountering a woman at a well—a woman from Samaria. Jesus is at Jacob’s well, that great primal well that served the common ancestors of the Judeans and the Samaritans. But now, the lines are drawn differently and the well is in disputed land. It’s like when the US expanded westward into what was the Mexican empire. The Mexican people were now subsumed by the US. Their homelands retain their Spanish names: Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada. But the Mexicans needed to learn another language because another invader said so, just like the Iberians did by making them speak the dominant Spanish instead of their ancestral dialects. Now there is a wall in parts of the old empire, so that people cannot drink out of the ancestral wells anymore. They can’t visit any more. They are suspect just because of the way they look, the way they talk.
The Samaritans were treated the same way by the Judeans. They were other. They had darker skin, a funny way of talking. They were looked down upon, spat upon, the targets of derisive speech. Violence against them was justified for their very existence was a threat.
Now Jesus, as a good Rabbi, knew his scriptures about not consorting with foreigners. He knew that women were unclean at certain times of the month. And to be seen with an enemy woman was at the very least a repudiation of the well-known Judah-first program—where good Jewish boys only hung out with other good Jewish boys. To hang out with women, let alone foreigners, made you suspect. Dangerous. A threat to national security. Not worth the risk. But Jesus had had enough of religion keeping the powerful, powerful and the shunned, shunned. There ought to be a better way. That’s what the Gospel is all about—showing a better way. Helping us to be the good news.
The scripture tells us that Jesus was at Jacob’s well in the middle of the day and encountered a Samaritan woman. What follows is Jesus at his boundary breaking best. Whereas others wanted to build a wall, Jesus sought to build a bridge.
American Baptist International Missionary Ray Schellinger works in the area of Tijuana, Mexico near the US border. He works at Deborah’s house, a shelter for women, many of them who are fleeing violent domestic situations. He wrote recently about reading this story with a group of women from Deborah’s House. Here’s a little of what he said:
For the last week I have had the opportunity to share a daily bible study with a new group of women at Deborah’s House. We have eight women at the shelter with their children, from a variety of backgrounds. They each have powerful stories of terrible abuse from which they are trying to find healing.
The violence they have faced is certainly bad enough, but in each of their cases, it has been compounded by the use of the bible by those who would abuse them…Certain passages are hand-picked, applied out of context, and repeated again and again. These are aimed at victims of abuse and strike harder blows than any of the physical blows they have received…
Today, we looked at John 4—the meeting at the well…Most of you reading this will not be very familiar with the chore of going to the well to draw water several times every day. I have certainly never needed to. We take for granted the ability to turn a faucet and have fresh drinking water miraculously flow into our houses. But half of the women in this group at Deborah’s House have spent much of their lives walking to and from a well or river to wash their clothes, to wash their daily rations of beans and rice, and to bathe. Several times daily they would carry as many buckets as they could back to their humble shacks a mile or two away.
I was fascinated to listen to their “well stories” as they shared their experiences, as women, walking together. This was an arduous task, never completed, yet it was also a chance to be among other women without the presence of men. They could find solidarity and good company, and they could speak freely as they walked together.
They immediately spotted what was so out of place in John 4. The Samaritan woman was alone, and she was there at midday. The well is a place where women would come together, and trips are almost always made early in the morning or in the late evening, in order to avoid the midday sun. Nobody does what this woman was doing – unless they needed to avoid the crowd. No one does this, unless they are treated as pariah.
But she did, she was there as Jesus came to the well to rest.
Pariah meet Messiah.
In the fascinating conversation that follows, Jesus offers her living water and as he does so he speaks to her in a way that he has not before spoken to anyone else. For a Jewish rabbi, it should have been impossible for Jesus to make any contact with her whatsoever. She was a Samaritan. She was a woman. And what’s more, she was rejected even by the people of her own community.
She had had five husbands, and was living with another man out of wedlock. The typical reaction to this news for most of us reading the passage is moral judgment. We assume this woman has “been around”, that she has no moral standards. We think that she chooses to move from man to man as she becomes bored or tired of them. Her community judged her as well, but not necessarily for those reasons. They would have seen her as deficient, incapable of being a wife. She was worthless in the only station which could give a woman value, or reveal God’s blessing on her. That is most certainly the reason she was at the well by herself at midday.
But that is not the truth of her situation. This woman never divorced a husband. She never had that right or power. Only men had the prerogative to leave their wives, and they could do so whenever they wanted for whatever pretext they could invent to justify it. Perhaps she couldn’t bear children and they left her because of it. As her situation grew more desperate, it is possible these men used her vulnerability to use her until they no longer wanted her. Each time they left her, she would have no way to make ends meet. She couldn’t own property or have a profession. Each time she would need to find a man if she wanted to survive.
And so she did. Six times, and five times she was rejected. Five times she was left destitute. For this, she was the pariah – for the things that were done to her. And so she stayed with the sixth man in her life as her only means of survival, even if he was unwilling to marry her.
My Bible study group today understands her better than I could. They know how it is to be judged by family, community and faith community for the things that were done to them. They know what it is like to cling to unhealthy relationships because they don’t believe anything better is even possible…
And this is where Jesus comes in. He speaks to her; he asks to drink form her jar, even from the same ladle from which she drinks. In so doing he treats her as, dare I say, equal. He offers her living water which would well up inside her, as he lets her know she is worthy as a vessel to hold this gift of life. He does this, and she knows he does this, even when he was aware of the sordid details of her life story.
Jesus let her know that, unlike the world, he did not condemn her for the abuse she has suffered. Jesus let her know that God was with her when no one else was. And so, she ran to tell her world the good news. Missionary….
God speaks to us, and asks to drink from our bitter jars. God treats us as worthy and offers rivers of living waters welling up inside of us. God does not condemn us even as God is aware of the sordid details of our life stories. God is with us, even when it seems no one else is. And if God is with us, who then could be against us?
Sisters and brothers, this is not only about Jesus being a good encourager of people down on their luck—offering them pity and encouraging words. This is about the woman at the well becoming a partner with the Jesus movement that broke down those barriers of mistrust. This was Jesus and the Samaritan woman showing that just because you are a foreigner, of the wrong religion, the wrong gender, the wrong social class, you still have dignity, agency, power and demand respect. Jesus told her the truth and she found her voice. But not only that, she became the missionary to the Samaritans.
It leads me to wonder what is the best way to change our enemies. Is it to cut ourselves off from the other, to restrict their travels? Is it to increase spending to our bloated military? Is it to say in so many words your religion is not worthy, your race is not worthy, your gender is not worthy, your income is not worthy, your mental health is not worthy, your physical health is not worthy? We need to cut ourselves off from the likes of you so we can be “safe.”
Jesus embraces a different, even a better strategy. It’s about befriending the other.
The biggest disappointment with not having our sister church delegation visiting this August is not that they won’t be able to receive the gifts from us, the rich northerners, the owners of the well. But we won’t have the opportunity to get to know the other. We won’t be able to live and laugh and cry with them. To see how we worship differently, to eat each other’s food, to struggle with language, to interpret each other’s cultures all the while holding up a mirror to us. I hope there are times when we can drink from the same well with them once again. They will tell us the truth. It may even set us free.
Our leaders think that putting up walls and barriers to our good work is going to dishearten us. They think it will make us cower in a corner and graciously submit to the rules of the administration.
But we have been to the well. We have drunk from the stranger’s ladle. We know the truth. Every barrier that gets put in our way is an opportunity for more courage and grace to show forth. We will use this denial to deepen our commitment to our immigrant sisters and brothers. We will use this denial as an indication that we are doing something right. For the forces of mistrust and small-mindedness are strong. But we follow one who is stronger. This one has told us the truth about our lives. And we are going to spread that Gospel. Your moves embolden us, just like it did those communities of old. We will not back down. We will sing with joy. We will ring our bells. We will proclaim a gospel of justice, mercy, inclusion and love, because we know it is true and it gives life not just to us, but to a whole world in need of light.
During Holy Week, we plan to begin a seven-week course called “Getting to know your Muslim Neighbor”. We’ll meet once per week, sometimes here and sometimes at a mosque to learn about our Islamic sisters and brothers. We do this to break down barriers and to be better peacemakers. We timed this to end right before the holy month of Ramadan. What better way to work between our Holy Week and their Holy Month?
Sisters and brothers, we have been to the well. We have encountered one who knew our truth and was not afraid to tell it. And we, like the woman at the well are bold enough to spread that word of truth in a fact-challenged world. Because the world needs that truth. We need that truth. Let us drink from its well. Let us share the ladle with someone who is seen as an enemy. Who knows, maybe that one will tell us the truth about our lives. It may just set us free. In fact, that’s our Gospel’s executive order.