The Encounter; John 4:7-30, 39-40
Plymouth First United Methodist Church; July 18, 2021
Pastor Toni Carmer
There’s a saying that was at one time a part of the daily devotions of Jewish men. It goes something like this: “Blessed art thou, O God, that thou hast made me human and not beast, Jew and not Gentile, man and not woman.”
This is the context for us to keep in mind as we consider Jesus’ walk through Samaria, and his talk with the Samaritan woman.
It had been a long and tiring morning. The man she lived with had left even before the sun had risen, and was working with the other men of the village in a field nearby. The children had been under her feet all morning. She had literally stumbled (more than once) over a little one—the last time they had both ended up in tears. Some days are just like that, and this was one of those. Finally, it was naptime. She put the younger children down, placed the older ones in charge, and emptied the little bit of remaining water from yesterday’s visit to the well into the bowl they would use to wash their hands. She then took her water jar, and began the walk to the well.
It was a long walk, and in some ways, on some days, a lonely one. Most women walked together with their friends early in the morning, or late in the afternoon to avoid the hot midday sun. This woman walked alone. She had friends, but most of them had grown skeptical over the years. Probably because they didn’t want to take the chance of tarnishing their reputations; they had decided it was best just to stay away.
She had to admit, she didn’t know anyone who had been married, or had been engaged to be married more than she had been. It was really more “bad luck” than anything else. The man to whom her parents had promised her had died before she was 13. Even though she hadn’t yet moved from her father’s home, the marriage had been considered legally binding, so it had been the responsibility of the man’s brother to take her as his wife. He had fulfilled his legal obligation, but cared little for her, since he already had several wives. She didn’t even cry when he got sick and died. But there she’d been, on her own, with two little babies. Her parents were too old, and lived too far away to come for her, and a woman without a man didn’t travel. She had made some mistakes along the way, she knew that. But her options had been pretty limited. Still, the man she now lived with provided for her and the children and so she was satisfied.
As she walked, she could see in the distance that a man was sitting alone at the well. As she came nearer, she could see by his dress that he was a rabbi. This was unexpected, to say the least! Jews didn’t travel through Samaria. Most took the longer way, just to avoid contact with her people. Animosity between Jews and Samaritans stretched back for generations. Her people were descended from those Jews who had married foreigners after the defeat of Israel by Assyria and Babylon. They were considered by Orthodox Jews to be rebellious sinners fit for nothing but judgment and hell. Not only did they believe the Samaritans had polluted the bloodline, but they worshiped on a mountain instead of at the temple in Jerusalem, which they recognized as the “true” center of worship. And yet here, now, on Samaritan land at a Samaritan well, sits this strange Jewish rabbi.
The woman quietly approaches, hoping not to disturb him. She figures she’ll just draw the water she needs and quickly leave. She nearly drops her jar when he turns to her, and directly addresses her, asking her for a drink. Not only is she Samaritan, but she’s a woman. Respectable men didn’t speak with strange women. But he continues to talk to her, and she responds, though they actually communicate at two different levels. The woman takes the things Jesus says to her at face value, until he stuns her with revelations about her personal life. Eventually recognizing him as the Messiah, she returns to her town and tells everyone about him. Door to door, she calls out to them, “Come and hear Jesus! Come and hear the things he has to say! Come and hear Jesus!” They’re so surprised at her abrupt behavior, at her newfound confidence in approaching them—at her joy—that they’ve got to go and see what this is about. And so they do: they go and hear, and they come to know for themselves the truth of what she’s said: this man is the Messiah.
We’re in the second week of our series Quest: Travel as a Spiritual Act. And we can see in this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well that we don’t always have to travel very far to be introduced to new people and experiences and ideas. Sometimes we can meet new people and learn new things even as we move through very familiar territory.
The path between the Samaritan woman’s doorstep and the well was one she traveled every day. She was on her own turf. Her news and information would come from other Samaritans; she wouldn’t have a lot of interaction or particular interest in knowing what was happening in communities elsewhere. She wouldn’t go there anyway; these other places wouldn’t be open or receptive to her presence if she did. That’s just the way it was.
Maybe you’ve lived in a place like that. When we lived in Morocco, IN, which is just a couple of miles from the Illinois state line, we knew nothing of what was happening in that bordering state. Kankakee was much closer than either Lafayette to our south or Merrillville to our north, but we never even considered going there. It was completely off our radar. People in Illinois would of course be fine if we happened to visit or shop there, but we never even considered it.
This woman, who wasn’t considered important enough to even be named, knew nothing about Jesus. She’d never seen or heard of any of his signs of wonder and hadn’t heard that he was a teacher who “Came from God.” For her, he’s only a thirsty Jewish stranger who dares to ask her for a drink.
In his request, Jesus is crossing significant social boundaries of religion, ethnicity and gender.
Today it’s Jesus who’s doing the traveling, and as he travels across these boundaries he invites a curious woman to do some traveling, as well.
As today’s lesson begins, we’re told that Jesus and his disciples are traveling from Judea to Galilee and that he “has” to go through Samaria. Other Jews on this journey would go around Samaria, like you and I might go around/take an alternate route to avoid construction or hostile territory as we mentioned last week. Rather than perceiving Jesus’ decision as being made for geographical reasons, it might make better sense to see that his reason for “having” to go through Samaria is a theological one. Jesus is going through Samaria to offer himself to a people whose social convention would normally deem unacceptable.
Being an introvert, I observe Jesus seeking out opportunities to interact with people in a way that isn’t always so easy or comfortable for me. I can imagine doing what he does in this story, sitting someplace out and away from people while my friends go get something for all of us to eat because a bit of quiet time and rest sounds nice in the midst of a journey after walking all morning. Just as it has been a busy morning for the Samaritan woman, so, too, has it been a busy morning for Jesus and his disciples, as they are traveling a considerable distance.
When the woman approaches, Jesus asks the woman for some water. Or, I guess what always surprises me is that he tells her to give him a drink of water. (Is that just the way men spoke to women, or the way Jews spoke to Samaritans in that day? He’s not rude, but he’s direct.) However I might interpret his request, it seems that this traveling teacher doesn’t have a bucket to draw a drink from the well, but the Samaritan woman does. It’s hot: the sun is overhead at noon, he’s been traveling, he’s thirsty and tired. It seems that in this moment the woman has something he needs, and they begin this exchange where he receives what he needs to quench his physical thirst, while she receives what she needs to quench her spiritual thirst.
There’s a give and take kind of conversation. This is one of the longer conversations we read in scripture between Jesus and another person, and this exchange is with a Samaritan woman. Jesus doesn’t judge the woman, but he is truthful with her, pointing out her living situation. Rather than being offended, she continues to engage with him, thinking him first to be a miracle worker who just might be able to “save” her from her daily treks to the well. She then guesses him to be a prophet, and finally comes to understand that he is the Messiah. Her response is to go back to her town and tell her neighbors what she’s experienced. Because of her invitation to them, Jesus and his disciples remain in town, teaching for 2 days.
The people of Sychar come to know Jesus and are ready to follow him as a result of the witness of this woman, whose gender, ethnicity, lifestyle and values would be considered sorely lacking. And yet, Jesus affirms her value, and that makes all the difference.
Our first impulse in translating this text for our day might cause us to breathe a sigh of relief: “Wow, we’ve come a long way, baby.” And yet, have we? Unfortunately, it seems we still have a tendency to place ourselves at the top of the heap of humanity, and remain skilled at our ability to define “us” and “other.” Even if we were to consider only the “issue” of gender, we most likely would say, “oh, it’s all good—we’re good!” But maybe it isn’t as good as we’d like to think.
In the United States, where our Constitution states that “all men are created equal,” we have to admit, “not so much.” Voting rights for women are relatively recent in our history. Susan B. Anthony was arrested in 1872 for casting a ballot in New York. She was tried and convicted for voting illegally and fined $100.
It wasn’t until 1919 that the 19th Amendment was signed into law and women granted the right to vote, and yet in 1920, women of color, along with men of color, were blocked from doing so.
Today, 100 years later, we continue to be in conversation about voting rights, because our laws reflect our thinking, our priorities and unfortunately our prejudices. And we who have doors open to us, have a hard time seeing that those same doors are closed for others.
We would like to believe that the church of Jesus Christ would be more progressive, more accepting and aware of exclusion, and yet we have to admit, “not so much,” as well. Though women in Methodism were approved to preach and be ordained in the mid-1800s, it wasn’t until 1956 that women were granted full clergy rights, and it has taken much longer for women to be received as pastors in many places. It was 60 years after that when Plymouth First United Methodist Church received your first female pastor: me! It wasn’t that you advocated against having a woman appointed here, I know that, but I know a female pastor was new for you, and there were those who weren’t so sure how that might work, while perhaps others said, it’s about time!
Regardless of whether a man or woman stands in the pulpit, in many churches, men still outnumber women in their administrative positions. It’s not necessarily intentional. But we always need to be aware of balance. When I look to fill positions through nominations each year, I look at being sure we’re as balanced as possible when it comes to representation from each of our services, along with age and gender.
We started talking a couple of years ago about the openness of the church as a whole to people who are gay and lesbian. General Conference, which was expected to meet in 2020 with the real possibility of division over this conversation was postponed due to Covid. It was rescheduled for this Fall and then again postponed due to Covid. It’s expected to happen in September, 2022. Since our original conversation, the language has been expanded from discussion of gay and lesbian participation and ordination to LGBTQ+, which honestly, I can’t completely define and don’t fully understand. But in my thinking, I don’t have to understand exactly what a person’s full reasons are for being who they are to believe at the very core of who I am that all people are beloved children of God. All people. Which translates into the right to be fully included into the life of the church.
Jesus sat on the outskirts of Sychar and met one woman—who was an outcast in so many ways—and to her and through her, he communicated God’s message of love and hope and redemption.
I think it’s important for us to notice in their conversation together that Jesus didn’t say anything to her about sin. He didn’t end their time together saying, “You are forgiven.” Or, “Go and sin no more.” And my storytelling about the woman in this message is simply story-telling: offering possibilities of what might have happened that resulted in multiple marriages and shunning in that day. It makes us feel a little better to understand why a person might do what they do. But, she may have just been a woman who made lots of bad choices. Whatever, it didn’t make a difference to Jesus. She was worthy.
As we travel, as we journey in our lives, wherever that may be: to the grocery store, to South Bend, to some other state or to some other nation, may we be open and aware of the belovedness of all people to God. There is no distinction between gender, race, ethnicity, or sexuality, political preference, team affiliation, profession or college/university connection (or whatever else you might think of that in some way divides us from one another). The bottom line is that God loves. God loves. And that takes precedence over everything else.
May we love as Jesus loves.