I remember when I first preached on this passage (and first did some solid research on it), the incident at the well reminded me of one of the bad-taste jokes that went around when I was at school. The joke went, “What did the deaf, dumb and blind kid get for Christmas?”, and the answer was that he got ‘AIDS’ or some other terrible disease like that.
It was the sort of bad-taste humour that seemed funny when I was a teenager but became less funny as I got to know more and more people who were like that – not deaf, dumb and blind specifically, but people with multiple problems for whom things always seemed to be getting worse.
We know a lot of people like that. We work with a lot of people like that here.
I start thinking about this and my mind fills with faces – all the kids who have no father or mother around but just someone referred to as ‘aunty’. They’re not doing well at school and they’re hanging around with all the wrong sorts of friends, and then you hear she’s in court, and maybe I’m asked along as a support person, or maybe I just bump into her in the street one day, as happened recently, and I say, “hey, we haven’t seen you at fight club lately”, and she says, “well, no, I’m pregnant”. And I say, … “congratulations”, and I don’t ask who the father is (of course) but I suddenly do get this very clear picture of where this girl’s life is going. She had few options ahead of her before and now she has fewer options still.
Someone said to me once, ‘freedom is a state of mind’, and they were wrong. Freedom is about choices – being able to make some choices about your life, your future, who you spend your life with and how you spend it. I know you can have too many choices, but having no options at all is what imprisonment is all about, and I suspect we all know a great number of people who are virtually (if not literally) imprisoned. Sometimes this imprisonment is a product of a psychiatric illness, though often enough it’s just the result of circumstances, and very often it’s a result of a painful combination of both.
And it is so unfair that when disaster strikes, it always strikes hardest and most frequently at those who are least able to bear it. When the tsunami hits, it always wipes away the homes of the poor first. When disease or violence break out, it is always the most vulnerable people who seem to be targeted.
These are the marginalised people – those who struggle, but who swell the under-belly of Australian society as they do in every human community. These are the people with few assets and fewer options, and the woman at the well who Jesus meets in John chapter 4 is one of those people.
It makes for an interesting read when you compare the two significant meetings that Jesus has, in John 3 and 4 respectively – the first with Nicodemus – a prominent teacher of the Jews, a well-credentialed and well-respected community leader, and then this meeting with a woman who has no credentials and no claim to fame in the community, beyond her notoriety.
And while Nicodemus came to Jesus in the middle of the night, in order to protect his own reputation, this woman meets Jesus right in the middle of the day, right in the midst of the noonday sun, and that’s also for reasons of her reputation, though in her case it‘s because she has a bad reputation, and so she’s avoiding contact with her peers by going to draw water at a time when she knew that nobody else would be likely to show up.
‘Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’, they say. Mad dogs and Englishmen and people who have good reason to avoid contact with others, we might add.
Perhaps this woman was a professional sex worker. Perhaps this woman had simply had multiple failed relationships, and those of us who have had even one significant failed relationship know full well the effect this has on your standing in the community of the righteous. Good middle-class church communities still have a habit of marginalizing single mums and divorcees, and especially those who have had multiple failed relationships, and I’m pretty sure we don’t have anyone in this community who has failed multiple times in their relationships (apart from myself anyway)
The point of course is that Jesus engages with this woman and He engages with her very creatively and playfully. Indeed, his engagement with the woman in John 4 is, in many ways, very similar to the dialogue he has with Nicodemus in chapter 3. You couldn‘t get two more dissimilar persons for Jesus to dialogue with, and yet He treats them both with equal respect.
And the fascinating thing about this is not just this this woman at the well has a reputation. She’s not even a believer! This woman is not a Jew. She is not a part of the community of faith at all! She’s not just a wayward member of the church. She’s never been a member of the church. She’s Islamic. She’s a Mormon. She’s not one of us! She’s the wrong religion.
To be precise, she’s a Samaritan, which means her religious tradition shares some elements in common with the religion of the Jews, but it’s certainly not the same faith. Just as Christianity, Islam and Judaism share a common reverence for the same Hebrew Scriptures, so the religion of the Samaritans and Judaism had as common sacred texts the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis to Deuteronomy) commonly referred to as the Pentateuch.
But just as Christianity and Islam and Mormonism share a common reverence for certain texts and yet are very different sorts of faiths, so the religion of the Samaritans was a very different sort of faith to the one Jesus normally worked with, and Jesus makes no bones about which faith He thinks is more correct:
“You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.”(John 4:22)
It’s interesting, as I think this is the most significant dialogue we ever see in the New Testament between Jesus and a person from another faith, and so I wonder to what extent we should be looking to this passage as a guide for us in how we dialogue with persons from other faiths.
Jesus makes a clear stand on what He believes is wrong about the woman’s understanding, but at the same time He seems to be affirming her as a spiritual person who is worshipping the same God as He is, even if, as He says to her, ‘you worship what you do not know’.
Of course Jesus’ point is not to simply affirm her in her spirituality nor to correct her about where she might have gone wrong, but rather to entice her forward and show her new possibilities in terms of a living and vibrant relationship with her creator such as she has not known up to this point.
Jesus says to her: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10)
But just as in the dialogue with Nicodemus there was a play on words, with the word for ‘wind’and the word for ‘spirit’ being the same word in Greek, so here there’s a play on ‘living water’ and‘flowing water’ which, again, are identical in Greek. Jesus offers the woman ‘living water’ but she thinks he’s found some underground stream of flowing water, which would be far preferable to the stagnant old well. As with Nicodemus, the two are really talking on entirely different levels and can’t fully engage.
And so the disciples, we are told, return, and they are amazed to see who Jesus is conversing with. Why? Because she’s a pagan Samaritan? No! Because she’s a woman with a notorious reputation? No! We are told that they were amazed simply because he was talking … ‘to a woman’(verse 27), which is a reminder, to be sure, that we are dealing with someone who, from the perspective of the society of the time, was handicapped in multiple ways: she was black, she was a pagan, she was notorious and … she was a woman.
Jesus, of course, as we’ve noted, dialogues with her as respectfully as He does with the most kosher, upper-class, well-credentialed male, but the disciples have difficulty in coming to terms with this, just as His disciples today still have difficulty in coming to terms with Jesus’ openness towards persons of different genders, classes, ages, races, and religions.
I wanted to make one other point about this story, and that’s that Jesus doesn’t actually seem to do a lot for this woman!
This woman comes to Jesus with a variety of problems – certainly a number of social problems, and if she was in the sex industry that would create its own set of problems, and I think there were some serious personality issues there as well. This woman comes to Jesus, at any rate, with a variety of problems and when her time with Him is over, so far as we can make out, she leaves with most of those problems still very much intact.
This is not a healing miracle. Nothing obvious is healed. By the end of her encounter with Jesus, this notorious woman is still a notorious woman, so far as I can see. It’s not obvious that anything special is going to happen to her difficult home life, even after having discussed it with Jesus. And it’s not even obvious that Jesus has ‘healed her of her ignorance’ (so to speak).
This woman comes to Jesus as a superstitious pagan, we might say, and despite Jesus’ attempt to enlighten her, it’s not obvious that she ends up with any greater understanding of God, herself or the universe as a result.
I could be wrong of course. She could have been converted through this encounter and come to profess faith in Jesus along with the other apostles. She may have been instrumental in founding the first church in Samaria, and she may have moved out of the sex industry, got her relationships working, and got a job in a local bank, but it’s unlikely I think.
We never catch her name for one thing. I know this isn’t decisive, but I’m conscious that in the case of some of Jesus’ healing miracles, such as the healing of the old blind man who used to sit begging outside Jericho, we are told quite definitely that his name was Bartimaeus, and I assume we know his name is Bartimaeus because Bartimaeus went on to become the first Sunday School superintendent of Holy Trinity Jericho (or something like that) and so was well known to the Gospel writer because he was still a part of the early Christian community by the time the Gospel came to be written.
This woman, on the other hand, whatever her name was, emerges from her obscure life in Samaria to have this intense dialogue with Jesus and then, so it seems, slips back into the obscurity out of which she emerged. So far as we can see, Jesus doesn’t heal her, doesn’t transform her.
So what did Jesus do for her? I think the answer is that He took her seriously, and if there’s an example in here for us today I think it is this, that Jesus took this marginalised woman seriously, engaged with her intellectually, recognised her as a person of faith (however limited) and challenged her rise above herself. And that’s the other thing I guess that Jesus gave her – He gave her new possibilities. He opened up options for her, showed her that she had choices, about how she related to God, to her partner, and to Him. I guess she just didn’t take Him up on any of the options.
We who would follow Jesus will continue to follow Him out on to the margins of society, taking the risks, associating ourselves with people who are struggling, have few options, that we find difficult to engage with, and we do so in the belief that the living water that Jesus spoke about is still flowing. And we do so knowing that while not everyone responds, and while not every story is a success story, every marginalised soul is worth the effort.
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, February 2007.