March 7, 1999
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
It is high noon, in a country where it begins to get hot as soon as the sun crests over the hill at dawn. By high noon, the waves of heat radiate off the parched land and most sane people are inside the cool of their homes. Perhaps that is where the Samaritan woman wishes to be, but instead she is shuffling her feet near Jacob’s well outside the village of Sychar where she has gone to fill her jar with water and seek a few moments alone. But when she arrives, she see that she is not alone. A man sits on the cover of the cistern as if waiting for someone. She glances about for a companion but sees no one and the man looks only at her.
It is an awkward, even tense moment for the Samaritan woman. She is as hard as the land, toughened not from sun and warmth but from the coldness of life, and she has come to expect little but judgment from others. All of the village knows her history, and so it is perhaps not a surprise when this man too reveals that he knows about her five husbands. Five husbands dead? Five divorced? Or some combination of the two? The story doesn’t say but whether dead or divorced, one way or another they have all left her. In those days, it was only the man who could choose to leave a marriage and the woman who would be left behind to make her way as best she could in a society designed around men’s needs and position. And so whether through death or divorce, the Samaritan woman has been left bereft five times without a place in her society, and now bearing the additional shame of being a woman who can just not keep a man. Even the man she now lives with has no obligatory ties to her. We don’t know the circumstances of this relationship either: it may be that he is her dead husbands’ brother who, by law, must take in his brother’s widow if she has sons so that he can care for his brother’s heirs, or if the dead brother was childless, to sire some on the dead brother’s behalf. The needs of the woman were irrelevant in this arrangement. She was merely the vehicle to produce male heirs through which the dead man could continue his legacy. Or maybe she is living with a man who is willing to give her a home but who refuses to marry her, wanting to retain his freedom to leave her at any time. To live in disrepute may have been socially demeaning but at least it meant that she was living. There were, as I said, few avenues open to a woman who had lost five husbands and so who could blame her? Apparently the people of Sychar could blame her, and they did.
And so she has come to the well at a time when she knows there will be no others around to twitter under their breath or glance at one another knowingly behind her back. She has come to seek the solace of solitude and silence, but instead to her dismay, she encounters a man at the well who she will discover, will just not let the conversation die.
As the woman approaches the well, Jesus looks up, looks directly at her, and asks her for a drink. This is an innocent enough request in our ears but to her, the simple words raise her suspicions immediately. She is a Samaritan; he is a Jew. Samaritans and Jews were like Palestinians and Israelis — neighbors who at the least distrusted one another and more often hated one another. Moreover, she is woman and he is a man. As I said, men and women interacted for the sole purpose of begetting and raising children, they did not engage in idle chit chat. Conversations just did not happen between Samaritans and Jews, men and women. Moreover, for this particular woman conversations of any sort rarely occurred anymore unless taunts, catcalls, and mocking ridicule can be considered conversation.
It is no surprise then that the woman is immediately on her guard. She probes looking for the trap.
“How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” We can see her mind working: if she quietly acquiesces and gives him a drink, will he then mock her to his buddies, telling them about how he got a Samaritan woman to bow to his demands? Will word get back to the villagers who will use this as fodder to condemn her for violating one more cultural convention? Her eyes narrow in suspicion.
But Jesus’ answer is unexpected. “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am,” he says, “you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water.”
His words penetrate her heart like an arrow: “if you knew the generosity of God.” Generosity of God? She who has had and lost five husbands? She who is ridiculed by her townspeople, moving through the world in bitter isolation? The generosity of God? She doesn’t know whether to laugh bitterly or weep at the truth of his words. No, she clearly hasn’t known the generosity of God. What she would give to feel God’s love wash over her, even for a moment, but instead, it is the pain of her past that washes over her. Pushing back at the painful memories, she robes herself in the armor of sarcasm.
“Sir, you don’t even have a bucket to draw with, and this well is deep. So how are you going to get this ‘living water’?”
At this point, an ordinary man would condemn her rudeness, put her in her place, but to her surprise, Jesus doesn’t ridicule her. Instead, he listens to her words and responds thoughtfully as if he is a teacher and she a disciple. She wonders if he would be having this conversation if he knew her past because certainly no one has ever talked to her — the woman who can’t keep a man — as if she were a person worth talking to.
But then, as if he can read her mind, he says, “Go call your husband,” and when she hesitates, he reveals that he does know all about her. He reels off the facts of her life, ticking off the five husbands on his fingers, ending with the current man who is not a husband and probably never will be, and then as she waits for the inevitable ridicule to follow, he stops. To her amazement, he states these facts simply as a description of her reality and refuses to add a word of judgment or condemnation. She has never had anyone look at her life that way, as a series of unchangeable facts to be accepted without comment as if they are irrelevant to the important question of who she is. And as the conversation unfolds, her astonishment increases, for the simple reason that the conversation does unfold. Glossing quickly over her past, this man moves on to discuss theology of all things. Theological discussions take place between intellectual equals and yet here he is talking about the meaning of worship and the nature of God with her, a Samaritan. With her, a woman. With her, a woman who can’t keep a man. He knows her history, he knows her current circumstances, and she is beginning to suspect that he can look right into her and know the secrets of her heart – her loves, her hates, her bitterness, or hurts, and her hopes — and yet he continues to sit with her, talk with her, and treat her as someone worth listening to. For years, this woman has been defined solely by her past. She has had no place in her village and no voice in their world. Her role was to be simply the “the woman who couldn’t keep a man,” and she has played that role for so long that she had forgotten there might be anything more to her. Over the years, she had become a caricature of herself, and though she claimed to resent the daily mockery and judgment of her neighbors, she had at a deeper level come to accept their view of her, come to believe herself that she was unworthy of their attention, that she was a woman of such little account that living with her would drive you to death, or at least out the door. For years, this woman’s past defined her, restricted her, imprisoned her.
And yet this man laid out the facts of her life with a shrug and then moved on to talk as if her past had nothing to do with her future, and suggested that she could carve out a future of her own choosing.
“It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God,” he said with a smile. What a remarkable thing, she thought, to find someone who treats her past as… well, as past, instead of something that will hang over every day of her life from now until the moment she dies. She who has been left so many times, she who has been judged so many times, she who has thirsted for a kind word, a forgiving look, a moment of mercy, but who had come to believe that such things were no longer possible for her, is suddenly drenched in a living waterfall of possibility. In the baptism of Jesus’ compassion, she is cleansed and a whole new world opens before her.
This is who Jesus is: into the emptiness and loneliness of our lives comes a man who says, “The past is past. It is who you are now and the way you choose to live today that counts before God.”
And, like the woman at the well, we dance around the promise, testing it, not completely trusting it. We say, “Oh Jesus, you wouldn’t say that if you really knew me. There are things in my past that I am so ashamed of, hurts that I have inflicted on others, and failures that embarrass me. There are deep wounds I carry in my heart, memories of grief, suffering in my past that weigh me down. If you knew me, you wouldn’t believe in me. Even in so many little ways, you would be embarrassed by me if you knew what goes on in my head and the struggles of my soul. There have been so many times when all I could think about was myself. There have been times when I got so tired of my family and the people around me that I wanted to get in a car and leave everyone far behind. I have struggled with despair and doubt, have been impatient, so impatient with others, and chosen to live small when I know I should have been courageous enough to create a life of meaning and purpose. Oh Jesus, if you really knew me you wouldn’t say that my past doesn’t matter.”
We dance and we test and we find it hard to believe that Jesus really isn’t as concerned about our past as we are and only cares about this day and this moment. Yet this is what he promises: “I am living water that will quench your thirst forever,” he says. Jesus will wash away our brokenness, hush the clamor of the judgement of others and our own doubts, shame and fear, and drench us in a living waterfall of acceptance and renewal. In his mercy, we are freed to live for this moment alone in goodness and wholeness, and so become our truest selves again as God calls us to be.
In this book Telling Secrets, Frederick Buechner said, “Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you . . . remember that the lives of others are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business . . . even your own life is not your business. It also is God’s business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought . . . unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy . . . What deadens us most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort . . . than being able from time to time to stop that chatter . . . ”
For the woman at the well, the chatter of her past was silenced by the sound of living water pouring over her, flowing around her, quenching her thirst, cleansing her past, and baptizing her into a new life of possibility. Jesus offers to each of us this same living water, promising that you will not be judged by your past, by the weight of your grief or the shame of your failures, by your inadequacies or doubts, by your wounds or limitations, but simply by this moment and the way you choose to live today.
Come to the water you who are thirsty and drink.