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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Third Sunday in Lent

Exodus 17:1-7
Romans 5:1-11

Psalm 95
John 4:5-42

The woman at the well is a favorite of mine; I like her. My dad would say she’s a feisty broad. She’s bold enough to look a strange man right in the face, and to say what’s on her mind; and she’s not afraid to question.

But I realized something as I read the story this time: I was coming to conclusions about her based not on what I was reading in scripture, but on what I've heard or read elsewhere, and on my own beliefs and experience.

So let's back up a minute. My Canon Law professor used to begin each class session by asking, "What Do We Know?" We'd recap the previous lesson, and go over the applicable sections in the canon, to reinforce facts and learning, and to correct misapprehensions. It was a helpful exercise.

So... What do we know?

Well, we know that Jesus is in Samaria, which was not a place John's readers would relish going. We can tell that from John's statement about the woman: "Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans." But remember the woman talking about "the well of our ancestor Jacob?" Samaritans actually really were also Jewish. They worshipped the one God, celebrated the Passover and other Jewish feasts, and abided by the Law of Moses, the 5 books of the Torah. Their practice was Jewish, indistinguishable, from the outside, from other Jewish traditions. However, the land had been conquered hundreds of years before, and there had been intermarriage and some blending of customs between the Jews with the Gentiles there, so the “pure Jews” had come to consider them outcast, and unclean. I can just hear the conversation now: "Introduce me? what do I care what their names are; they're Samaritans."

What else do we know?

We know that Jesus speaks to Samaritan woman; a double surprise, as it wouldn't have been considered at all proper for a woman to be speaking to a strange man. And not just a passing hello; theirs is the longest recorded conversation that Jesus has with anyone in the gospels.

And we also know that Jesus knows this woman, in a way that a stranger should not: he knows without being told that she has had 5 husbands, and is currently living with a man not now her husband. Yet another surprise.

Now.. let's think about what we don’t know.

First, we don't know her name. This is a common thing for women in the bible. Of the 4 women we’ve studied so far in our Bad Girls Bible study, only Eve had a name. The writer of John's Gospel may have assumed that it wasn't important. After all, she was only a woman-- and a Samaritan at that.

We don't know what her life is like, not really. What she thought, how she felt, what she had experienced, or how others experienced her. We only know that she happened to come to the well that day, and encountered Jesus.

And finally, we don't know the nature of her sin! yes, of course she's a sinner-- we all are. But the assumption that her relationships with men are sinful is just that: an assumption. She may have been divorced by one or more husbands for reasons beyond her control: for not conceiving a child, perhaps. Then again, the mortality rate was high back then; one or more of the men may have died, leaving her to find another husband as a means of survival. In fact, there is a provison in Jewish law that stated a woman who's husband died without leaving an heir was to be married to the man's brother; this insured her protection, as well as continuance of the family line.

Speaking of protection, we don't really know anything about her relationship with the man with whom she's living. It is possible that there was nothing illicit between them at all. To put the most charitable spin on it, he may well have been simply someone who allowed her to live in his household, to provide her care and protection.

Think about this: even knowing her as he does, Jesus never terms her a sinner, never even mentions the issues of sin or forgiveness, as he does in other places. Rather, he recognizes her-- for all that she is, good and bad. He offers her the living water of everlasting life. He proclaims himself messiah to her. And he inspires her to proclaim him to her community. This woman does nothing in the story to occasion us labeling her as an outrageous sinner.

But we do it anyway, don’t we? At least, I know I did. Even when we talked about her in our study on Wednesday, we went with the assumption of the author labelling her a “bad girl,” and didn’t question it. We took what little we had learned and thought we understood her; even when we didn't know so much as her name.

We all do it, all the time, really-- make judgments about people, or about situations, without having all the facts. It's way too easy, isn't it?

Let me give you a more current example. This is a true story: I know of two women who were out partying until the wee hours one summer night-- barely made it to bed before dawn. They had been in every bar in town that evening, dancing with any number of strange men. Heavens, they had even been seen dancing on the bar, at one point!

What images are in your head? It sounds pretty wild, doesn’t it? Not the kind of people you'd expect to see in church on Sunday morning?

Now, let me add some more facts. The women on the bar were my cousin Linda, and me-- both stone cold sober, I might add. “Every bar in town,” in this particular case, means two-- two bars, situated next door to one another. One serves food, and that's where we had dinner. The other has a better juke box-- lots of classic rock. We were there with a whole bunch of family in town for a reunion, and the dancing was with some of my cousins, who can be very strange indeed.

So maybe this is why scripture cautions us not to judge, lest we be judged. We can't take general information-- race, or gender, or sexual orientation-- and assume that we know enough of the truth to understand and make judgments about others who fit into those descriptions. We don’t know all the facts; only God does. Like the woman at the well, and like all the Samaritans as well, Jesus knows us each by name, intimately and fully. We are created in God's image, after all, known and loved before we were born.

We are not commanded to judge, but to love-- as we promise in our baptismal covenant, to "respect the dignity of every human being."

My brothers and sisters, we each have a name.


Blogger Beth said...

GREAT sermon! thanks for posting it!

February 27, 2005 12:39 PM  

Blogger Badger539 said...

Interesting what you say. However, the fact the woman was coming to the well in the middle of the day would suggest she was some sort of outcast. Drawing water is heavy work (water weighs eight pounds per gallon, not counting the (stoneware?) container. That's not something you would want to do in the heat of the day. (Only mad dogs and Anglicans go out in the noonday sun.) Most people would come to draw water in the morning or late afternoon.

While anybody who's gone through 5 husbands must have had a turbulent life, the fact she was living without benefit of clergy with #6 could not have endeared here in the eyes of her community, a judgement that would not have softened no matter what the extenuating circumstances. and trying to posit exenuating circumstances that would some way 'justify' her behavior is revisionistic. It also obscures the point of the story.

The woman was an outcast. Jesus, in contravention of law and social custom extended to her unqualified acceptance, and through her, to the entire community of which she was apart.

The comparison that springs to mind would be Zaccheus the tax collector.

February 28, 2005 8:50 PM  

Anonymous CJ said...

I came across you blog while idly browsing other blogs on my lunch hour. I enjoyed your discussion of the woman at the well. This is quite a compliment, as I consider myself a Christian, but am ambivalent about many aspects of church attendance, especially sermons! I heard another excellent sermon on this text at church last Sunday (Palmer Memorial Episcopal - Houston TX). However, I could not recall the relationship of the Samaritans to the Jews. Therefore I was pleased to read your concise summary. Love you blog!

March 02, 2005 11:04 AM  

Blogger Glory said...

Lovely, lovely writing--a rarity in this new blog-world! Thanks for sharing your gift, and your faith.

March 02, 2005 11:22 AM  

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