Hello dear friends.
What a surreal time we are in right now. I knew I would be recording this video for you earlier this week because my body has shown symptoms of a cold and I do not want to risk getting anyone sick, but I had no idea that church would be halted altogether. As event after event, institution after institution has made a bold move to close I have found myself wondering multiples times if I was living in a movie. We are not though. This is very much real life. I so wish we could be together in this tumultuous time and offer hugs and just be able to see one another face-to-face.
Alas, we are not there right now. Pastor Rebecca and the team are working diligently to make sure we are all held well, and those who will need extra care are able to get it. This is what the church does. I love being a part of such a lovely and amazing church with you all. What a balm for my soul in this season. Our leaders are also working to navigate new ways of being together. I am so grateful for the options they have arrived at for the time being, and I know we will continue to reshape our plans as time goes on.
Just know, you are not alone. We are here with you, and we love you.
Our story today comes from John 4:5-42, read from the NRSV.
The woman at the well is a story we hear a lot in churches. When I hear the story I automatically think of her perceived sexual immorality because that was often what I heard from church growing up. The takeaway was that God loved this woman even though she came from a community despised by Jews and had had sex with at least six men. Essentially, you are never too far gone or outside of the boundaries for Jesus to love you, but also Jesus knows everything and will still call you out. I get angry when I think about this story as a woman. Very angry.
As a sexual violence advocate, I often wonder in stories what details may be missed or excluded that would shed a lot more light into the situation. If I think about it today, it is not common for a woman to marry five times. Based on historical evidence, it seems clear it was not common for women to marry so many times then either. So I start to wonder…what could have been the cause. This was a time when mortality rates were high, and it probably would have been difficult for a woman to support herself- not impossible, but difficult. I wonder if she married so many times because she had multiple husbands who died. I also wonder…what if she was abused by her husbands? While some cultures would immediately take care of the woman, many even to this day would put the responsibility on her shoulders to change her behavior. What if she was drawn to controlling or abusive relationships because her brain had become accustomed to them growing up, yet she would choose safety over societal customs when abuse started? What if she was forced to marry one or more men because they raped her- since in some cultures rape is only ‘corrected’ by the man marrying the woman? What if she never wanted to be married to these men? What if her last husband left her or refused a bill of divorce, leaving her unable to remarry?
I will say clearly- there is no evidence in the text to support my wonderings. But there is also no evidence against them. I am not saying they are Gospel truth, but I am saying there are a lot of details we simply do not know. My wondering here is an attempt to say, “if ______(this wondered fact) were the case, how would this story read? So if we enter this story again assuming she has been married and either lost husbands to death or left abusive relationships, what might we learn?
We see Jesus traveling through Samaria after the Pharisees get word he is baptizing many people. Imagine Jesus is walking by foot through this land which his community holds to be detestable. A bit of context: Samaria was disliked by Jews because even though they worshipped as Jews, they considered outside worshippers who did not adhere closely enough to codes. It would be similar to saying, “well, Catholics do __________ differently than us, so they really are not Christians because they don’t get it like we do.” No one holds a monopoly on what Christianity is, but that’s a whole different conversation… So Jesus is traveling by foot. He comes to a well, the well of Jacob. Think of the physical exhaustion. He probably would like water because it is the hotter part of the day.
Then a Samaritan woman comes up. There are many hypotheses as to why she is there. I’ve heard in churches it was because of her high number of marriages or because she was a commercial sex worker looking for a customer. It could also have been that she was on her second round because her work or family required more than one trip’s worth of water. Perhaps she had to make food for her family earlier in the day and was only able to get water then. Maybe she was getting water for a neighbor who couldn’t get their own. What if John just told us the time of day so we would understand Jesus would be hot in addition to tired, and there is no intentional commentary at all upon the woman’s timeliness at the well? We simply don’t know.
Jesus asks for water, and the woman asks why he would ask her- a Samaritan woman- for water. He tells her if she knew who he was, should ask him for a drink. He says he has “living water.” She asks how he will get the water, for he has no buckets. I like her. She’s practical. You’re not going to just pull one over on her.
But Jesus continues to tell her he has water of life, those who drink will never be thirsty again and it will carry them all the way to eternity. She replies, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Again, she is practical. Getting water each day takes time. It is tedious and draining, especially if she is collecting water during the hottest part of the day. Imagine the actual work of walking to the well, lowering your container, raising the filled container, and then carrying it back. Try to imagine your body doing this work every. single. day. If you need more than your container will hold you will have to make another trip. Every. single. day. This could take half of your day depending on how far you have to walk and how many trips you are making. Jesus says he can make it so she never has to thirst again- that would completely change her life. Given the fish and loaves multiplication in Mark and Matthew, I wonder if this is not just a figurative promise. What if he miraculously filled her jar with never ending water? How would that have changed her life, and the life of her family? Is this a story of caring for the physical needs of the woman?
Then Jesus says to her to go call her husband, and she says she has no husband. He says, “you are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” I was taught that this is when Jesus calls her out on her sinful ways. However, I wonder if this is actually Jesus saying, “hey, I know everything you have been through that brought you here. I know you are not legally married now. I know there is more to the story than meets the eye. I get it. I see you. I am with you. You are worthy despite what others may have said about your life. There is no judgement here. You get a lifetime supply of living water, no strings attached.”
Imagine having lived your life legally bound to five different men, and for one reason or another all five are no longer present in your life. I would imagine there is heartbreak. I would imagine there is betrayal of some sort. I would imagine life would not have been easy for her. She is living with someone who is not her husband now. Does she want him to be but there is a legal reason they cannot marry? Does she not want to marry him, but has not other option for living? Will he not marry her becuase of her prior marriages? I don’t know, Whatever her story is, Jesus knows and he tells her he knows. Something deep happens between the two of them, and we only get a glimpse of the interaction.
She tells him that she knows he is a prophet because of what he has said. She decides to ask a spiritual question about where to worship. Is she testing him? Is she genuinely curious? She has already declared him a prophet, so I would lean on the side of she is asking a genuine question she has been wondering about for some time. Jesus tells her a time is coming when location of worship will be applicable. People will worship in spirit instead. The time has come, and is now. She says she knows the Messiah is coming.
It is easy to get caught up in a story, but think about this for a moment. If we imagine what it is to be in her body. She is likely hot and tired just as Jesus is. She has been going about her ordinary tasks when this Jewish man asks her for water to drink. Now she is finding herself in a conversation of spirituality with a man who she never would have expected to speak to her. She knows this Messiah is coming. Her community has heard and are waiting. He tells her he IS the Messiah.
Have you ever been having a conversation with someone and not realized who they were? I went to a large religious studies conference in November. There was a big breakfast where I approached an almost-empty table. Just one woman was there. I asked politely if my friend and I could join, she said yes. We talked a bit before introducing ourselves. Come to find out, she was Dr. Mitzi Smith- a prominent womanist Biblical scholar. I had read her work and quoted her in papers. Now I was sitting here talking to her, all the while telling myself to play it cool and trying to remember our previous conversation to make sure I had not made a fool of myself. I can’t imagine my face as these details registered.
I cannot even fathom what would be coursing through my body if a man I was speaking to casually mentioned he was THE MESSIAH we were all waiting for. Oh my. I image I would have been thinking I should have pulled water up quickly to give him a drink. I shouldn’t have asked him if he was greater than Jacob! Oy!!!
The disciples show up. I’m sure it’s a tad awkward, even if they stay silent. I can see and feel their eyes searching me, wondering what is happening without attempting to hide their questioning faces. As a woman who has been married five times, I probably know all too well the looks of questions and judgement from others. I probably also know the silence can be much louder than spoken words. I exit the situation and run back to tell my community that the Messiah has come!!! I don’t even take my water jar back with me I am in such a frenzy.
When I get there, with my heart racing, my feet probably hurting from running so hard and fast, through short breaths I say, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” The comical side of me wonders if her question is somewhat asking the people, “did y’all set this up? Is this a prank?!”
What if it is true she has faced a lot of heartache and her community knows her well? They know she lost husbands to death or had to escape violent situations? This Jesus knows all the stories even if he has never been in their village… Perhaps he is the one… They all run to see him.
In the final section of this passage, we are told many believed because of the woman’s testimony. Yet even more believed after hearing from Jesus for two days. Then, they turned to her and said, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” I wonder what it would be like to be in her body at that moment. When the community basically snubs her. “Now that we checked it out for ourselves, we don’t need your word to know the truth.” On the one hand, direct witness helps build the story of John. On the other hand, this woman whom Jesus chose to engage a community through has been tossed aside. Perhaps like a husband or two had also done to her.
As I ponder these things, I remember times when I brought something to a group, was doubted, and then the majority took my suggestion and attributed it to someone else months later. It’s a common occurrence for women in the workplace. Jesus, though, chose to seek out this woman. She had a lot of heartache- no matter what the reason. Jesus sought her out at the well. He engaged her in conversation and had a spiritual discussion with her about serious matters. She was the first non-Jew he brought the Good News to. No matter how dismissed she was by the community, she would always have that conversation and validation from Jesus. He knew her, and he sought her out because of who she was- not in spite of who she was.
Friends, I hope you know God chooses you as well. God seeks you out knowing your life story. Your joys, your sorrows. Creator God knows our questions and even fears in the midst of this outbreak of the Corona virus. Spirit still seeks us out for conversation. We can bring our questions, and God will show up. We as a community can rally together to attest to what we know of God. However, we will not do so in a way to dismiss anyone. We will do so together. We will navigate this new way of life for the coming weeks or months together, holding each of us in high regard. So, drink deeply of water. Quite literally, because a healthy body is key right now. Also though, drink deeply of the living water. When things get to be too much, turn to Scripture, turn to singing, turn to each other, turn to prayer. Drink deeply in the ways Creator speaks most clearly to you. And know you are known and loved so much more than you will know on this side of eternity.