John 4: 1-30 2-4-18 ACCUCC Rev. Tony Clark
The Samaritan woman at the well is perhaps the most maligned woman in history. An unnamed woman, a Samaritan, married five times and living with a man who was not her husband, talking to an unmarried man at a well in the heat of the day, and history has painted her as a trollop, a tramp, a sinner, a prostitute.
However, the reality is probably none of those things. She was smart, and she was the first witness to spread the word about Jesus in the gospel of John. She was held captive by a patriarchal system that kept women from owning property—in fact they were more like property than free-- and women were only known as the daughter of that man, the wife of another man, or the mother of this man. Nameless, she represents most of the women in the Bible, who are unnamed extras with walk on parts in the Greatest Story Ever Told. Beholden to the power of men, women are early examples of today’s #MeToo movement and not granted personal consent for what happened to their bodies or their lives.
Five times married. That’s who she was. The town gossips, watched her as she did her work alone. They would say, “What was wrong with her?” “She must be cursed.” “Her mother was a sinner, so no wonder she turned out this way.” Afraid they might be cursed by being near her, the gossips avoided her.
Yet it wasn’t always that way. When she was young, she was beautiful, adored, and had many friends. She married at 13, typical of the day, and her husband was an older man. She left her father’s house to join her new husband’s house. No longer her father’s daughter, she was now her husband’s wife, and she did her best to respond to her husband’s needs. She went each morning and evening to the well, chatting with the other women about her new husband, and her hopes for having children, especially sons to carry on his name. All of the women chatted about their daily lives, their children, who was engaged, who was pregnant, who had died.
The well was not just a spot to get the water they needed to live; It was a place of necessity, and it was a place of relationship. The local legend had it that it was the well where Jacob and Rachel met. Besides being the place for the relationships between women who gathered there every morning and evening, the well was a place with a relationship to the faith, and it also was a place of romance where relationships between men and women might start.
As she went to the well twice a day, the days turned into weeks, turned into months, with the women asking her every day if she was pregnant yet. She always said, “No.” The months turned into years, always carrying the water, and still she had no children. She prayed fervently, even as twice every day she carried her water jug to the well empty, and carried it home full.
As months turned into years with no children, her husband got increasingly angry with her, asking her, “What is wrong with you? What sin did you do that was so bad that God has cursed you with no children?” After a few years, he did what was legally allowed--he divorced her because she was barren, which leaft her to fend for herself. She remarried, but her friends wondered what curse had been placed on her, what sin she had committed, why God was not blessing her with children. They began to abandon her, a few at a time; still, a few loyal ones continued to talk to her on the walk to the well.
Again, no children, and again she was divorced, and then remarried, and again. Each time she married, there were no children, then a divorce, and she lost more friends. She lost status at the well, having to wait further and further back in the line to get water, until she found herself at the end of the line. No one, not even those few loyal friends, talked to her any more. She was shunned, and shamed, and finally she gave up, figuring if no one was going to talk to her, she would go to the well when no one was there, in the middle of the day. Being alone with her thoughts and prayers was better than being lonely in a crowd of finger-pointers and gossips.
The husbands got progressively older, and less desirable. A few had been kind, but most had seen her as necessary as a chamber pot. By the fifth husband, she was demoralized, disregarded, demonized as a serial divorcee. Alone, she would go to the well in the middle of the day, even though it was stiflingly hot, because she could get the water at her own pace without the stares and glares of the other women.
And then her 5th husband died. The law required her brother-in-law to take her in, not necessarily to marry, but to be cared for. She was property of the patriarchy of husband after husband, and now a brother-in-law, and she was slavishly chained to carrying a water jug to a water well when no one else was around.
Until one day, at noon, a thirsty man was sitting at the well. He asked her for water, but had no bucket. She knew what it would look like; talking to a man at the well where Jacob met Rachel, she knew how the village might gossip, and she also knew how desperate it could be to be so thirsty. Already shunned by her village, she broke every boundary and offered to help him.
And he looked at her, and guessed what her life was. Alone at the well in the middle of the day, he presumed she had been shunned by the other women, probably for being divorced for being barren, and he told her honestly, without judgement what her life had become. Even though she had enough water, her life was as dry and dusty as the desert, loveless and lonely, and he offered her the water to make her life have meaning again.
The conversation about water had become spiritual, and she asked the theological question of the day, “Where should we worship God?” It was a question borne out of 1000 years of division between her people and his-- since David’s unified kingdom split apart and became the Northern Kingdom of Israel, whose capital was Samaria, and the Southern Kingdom of Judea, whose capital was Jerusalem. “Where should we worship God?” was a question borne of 500 years of feuding, since the people were returned from Exile. The southerners rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple and the northerners built a new temple on Mt. Gerazim, which, although it had been destroyed some 130 years before Jesus, was still used as a sacred site, and the Samaritans worshipped among its ruins. “Where shall WE worship God?” was a question of unified identity, noting that Samaria and Judea, hating each other for centuries, worshipped the same God. And “Where shall we worship God?” was a question asked by all the gospels after the Jerusalem Temple had fallen.
Jesus answered that we shall worship God where God is, in Jesus. When she asked if he was the Messiah, Jesus answered, “I AM,” the words God used with Moses at the burning bush, “I AM.”
Jesus told her he is Living Water, the necessary provision from God for life. Water, the liquid that lies liminally between land and the breezy breath of God. Life that turns dry, dusty, demoralized, disregarded, and demonized divorcees into the ones who witness to the Messiah. She who was property of the patriarchy, shunned and shamed by her village, she who had spent years slavishly bearing water twice daily to her many husbands, dropped her water jug in order to bear the news of Living Water to her whole village. She who had lived a life of dark loneliness, shunned and shamed as if she was invisible, returned to the well surrounded and seen by her community. She who had been cursed by God for not birthing life, was blessed by God to speak life into being. She who had been judged a sinner by her village was not judged by Jesus, but seen for who she was, not an immoral woman cursed and childless, but a lonely but theologically astute woman with good news to share.
And the Samaritans, who had been shunned by Jerusalem and divorced from the Judeans centuries before, the Samaritans believed, and were brought back into the fold.
A thirsty man needing water, Jesus a Jew “needing” to go through Samaria the hated country (there were safer ways to get to Galilee!), the Messiah needing a witness, a shunned woman needing community, and a shunned nation needing a site to worship all came together at the well of Jacob.
A man and a woman met at a well, and relationship happened, relationship between a woman and God, between the world beyond Jerusalem and God, relationship between Samaria and Jerusalem. A man and a woman met at a well and life happened. Living water flowed, life abundant flowed, love and community flowed.
May we come to the well to offer water to those who thirst, may we be filled ourselves by the Living Water, and may we be turned out to tell the world. Amen.