First United Methodist Church
March 19, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
Grace for the Ashamed: The Woman at the Well
When we live in denial, we live in isolation. We have something so difficult to bear that either we do not wish to burden others with it, or we are so ashamed of it that we keep it buried, perhaps also to ourselves. We live in fear, doubt, and anxiety. But how do we become free? Free to live beyond the doubt, the fear, the anxiety of our shame? That comes by the grace and forgiveness through our encounter with the promise of Christ.
Our scripture today involves a woman who was living in isolation. Her life was consumed in the fear, doubt and anxiety of her shame. How do we know that? Because she came to the well alone.
Most other women would have already come to the well earlier in the day to draw water from it. But she came about noon. She was not expecting to meet anyone. In fact, she was counting on it. The other women criticized her life situation, making the morning social gathering at the well undesirable. She would rather complete this chore alone, despite the risks. Remember, the well was away from the town, and as a woman she was vulnerable to both human and animal predators who might view a woman walking alone as an opportunity.
Complicating this rather awkward situation, the woman sees a Jewish man at the well. She is a Samaritan. And Jews and Samaritans didn’t exactly get along. There were many prejudices, divisions, even hostilities between them. There were also cultural norms – women did not speak to men unless they were related to them or in the company of their husband or brothers.
And this woman doesn’t have a husband, which is an important point that we often overlook, because we interpret the situation through our own lens instead of the 1st Century lens in which it was written.
Jesus 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!”
Keep in mind that Jesus is speaking to her because he knows her secret and wants to offer her grace in order to free her from her shame, fear, hostility and division. It may be that the reference to five husbands might be a reference to false idols that she has clung to in her tradition as a Samaritan—and one which only added to the hostilities between Jews and Samaritans. But it also might really be a reference to five men to whom she has been married to. So let’s unpack that a little.
People didn’t date in the 1st Century. Marriages, even between peasants, were arranged by a relative. Everyone’s hope was that a son would be born before the husband or the father died so that there would be a male alive to take care of the women. Widows could remarry and often did, but these marriages were arranged by family members, because women had no rights. Think back to the story of Ruth – her situation involved the death of both her father and her husband, she did not have any children. She had to go to a relative – Boaz – hoping that he would follow the Jewish custom and marry her – if not, she would become a beggar and be scorned.
Divorced women, on the other hand, had no rights and were left to fend for themselves, which is why Jesus says the things he says about divorce. They didn’t remarry, because no one with any prestige would want them. In order to survive, they often became sex slaves – our modern derogatory term for that is “prostitute.”
But this woman had five husbands, which means that she was widowed at least four times. The last one may have ended in divorce, we aren’t told that, but because she is not married to the man she is now with, she either doesn’t have any living relatives to take care of her, or she has reached the point in her life where she can no longer bear children, so why marry her? She has no value – except as a sex slave.
She may not want to be in this relationship – we aren’t told that – but she probably has no other way to survive. She carries this shame with her to the well, where Jesus is waiting.
Jesus knows all about her secret, her shame. But he still sees her with grace and wishes her to be free in that grace. Jesus accepts her as a woman, as a Samaritan, and even as an adulterer. And he does not look upon her with shame, but with grace.
Fast forward to the 21st Century, and who would you say is this woman? Who is the person that we view with a critical lens because we don’t fully comprehend their particular situation.
Once there was a woman who was required to receive counseling in order to continue to receive a particular benefit, and she asked her pastor to come to her house and provide it since she was essentially immobile due to her weight. The pastor was somewhat critical of her at first, because all of the previous encounters with this woman occurred in the hospital or a rehab facility where the pastor would encourage her to follow the treatment plan, and whenever she went home she tended to reverse that treatment. But as the pastor learned about some of the history that contributed to her weight issues, she discovered that she wasn’t there to help the woman lose weight. That was the pastor’s goal, because she judged her based on her own bias.
What Jesus shows us in this passage is eye-opening: that offering grace and compassion can lead to wholeness and healing, even if the healing that occurs isn’t what you envision it to be. In this encounter, and the others that we have experienced throughout this Lenten journey, Jesus reveals that this is an opportunity for us to deal with our own biases, whether that bias is toward ourselves or toward others. Jesus reminds us to have compassion, and to take the time to fully understand one another.
We also have deep, buried, dark secrets and skeletons in our closet, afraid of the truth being disclosed, afraid of the criticism and judgment, afraid of being mocked or scorned by others. That’s why we keep them hidden, away from others, for fear of being discovered. But even for us, Jesus does not look upon us with shame, but with his grace. And his grace is far superior to all judgments, real or imagined. In Christ, we need not be afraid or ashamed.
But we aren’t quite finished with the woman at the well. Keep in mind that Jesus only pursues this conversation in order to free her from the darker truth she does not wish to have exposed. And her story is not yet over.
Remember that Jesus offered her living water.
Here the challenge is put before Jesus. How will you, Lord Jesus, overcome the great barriers of hostility and prejudice that have been in place for so long? How will you, Lord Jesus, overcome the great divides that keep us apart from so many others—in gender, in race, in orientation, in values, in politics, in being shunned and isolated? The list goes on, but all of them are things which we just don’t even discuss so openly and candidly, without fear, without shame.
Grace, however, makes unexpected encounters, and will continue to make unexpected encounters. It encounters all of us in our darkness, and frees us to the truth—that we really do not need to be living in fear and alienation from others, that we do not need to be afraid of our own past and the truth of our sins. Instead, we are spirited to a new truth, the truth of Jesus himself.
Sheila Raye Charles, one of Ray Charles’ eleven children, was raised by her mother and did not develop a relationship with her father until her teenage years. Having been neglected, abused and told that she was worthless all of her life, she struggled with substance use issues for about 20 years. The third time she was incarcerated, she had an encounter with a Christian Prison Minister who pointed at her in her cell and said, “Stand up! You are a child of God and you matter.” Sheila developed a relationship with Jesus Christ and was able to turn her life around, focusing on a music career and inspiring others wither message of reformation and redemption.
For Sheila and the woman at the well, that distance, that foreignness, that shame now gives way to Christ’s grace—the grace that overcomes all our sin and division, that leaves no one ashamed or afraid, not even afraid of encounter. We become people with the fullness of living water, his spirit and truth.
The woman of this story, however, has fled this scene, but not in fear or shame. She leaves behind her water jar—that symbol of all the old water of the well of life. Now she flees with the newness of the living waters she has running through her own veins, the gift of grace she has received from Jesus. For her, it was like Easter morning! She will run to the others with all the boldness of a new woman, with such truth and spirit that she still shakes from the sheer joy. All for which she was once afraid and ashamed is now over, now forgiven. What lies ahead now is a life of living in that newfound grace and freedom.
The woman now witnesses to others. These are the first of many such grace encounters. Others will now come to Jesus and will not miss their own chance to make encounters with him and his grace. And like the woman, they too will let go of all the truth of their own old lives of sin and fear and shame, embracing instead the boldness of Jesus’ living water running through their veins. There are no more barriers to grace. Jesus Christ has come!
We are graced with the living waters of Jesus Christ who has overcome all our own fear and shame. Now with the living waters of Christ in our own veins, we are free to go and make some unexpected encounters of our own—so that through our own witness, we may testify to the Savior of the world, where no one need live any longer in fear or shame, but may instead be truly free! Let us pray:
Lord Jesus, you asked the Samaritan woman for a drink of water, beginning the conversation that led her to trust in you as her Savior. She then told the people of her town about you and they too believed. Help us by your Spirit to begin such conversations with our friends and neighbors so that they will believe and worship you as their Lord and Savior. Give us the courage to trust you. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.