March 15, 2020 | Pastor Kelli Schmit
Jesus leaves Judea and heads back to Galilee, going through Samaria. This was surprising due to the animosity between the Jewish people and the Samaritans, hatred that dates back hundreds of years.
And for those of you who haven’t brushed up on your ancient Israelite geography or the preferred travel routes of that area in a while, let me offer a refresher. There was Judea, then Samaria to the north, then Galilee to the north of that. But there was so much hatred between these two groups that instead of going through Samaria, Israelites would walk east, cross the Jordan River, walk north, parallel to Samaria, then go west, crossing the Jordan again heading into Galilee. This route took six days rather than three, but it was worth it to avoid those despised Samaritans.
But Jesus didn’t go that route. We hear that he “had” to go through Samaria. So maybe he was in a hurry? But then at the end of our story, Jesus stays with the Samaritans two days. If he had to go through Samaria because he was on some type of divine time crunch, he wouldn’t have lingered. So there must be a different reason he has to go through Samaria. There was a conversation that needed to unfold – a connection that needed to be made.
You may be well aware of the different interpretations of this woman. There are many hypotheses for why she was at the well by herself at noon instead of the cool hours of the morning, and the many assumptions for why she has had five husbands, but the one she is currently with isn’t her husband.
Some say she was a prostitute. Some say that her first husband died, and every brother-in-law has married her – like they are supposed to according to the law – but they have all died, too. But do you know what all of these options miss?
The fact that Jesus doesn’t care
The text does not tell us why she has been married five times, only that she has. It’s just a fact. There’s no slant or judgement in the text. To blame the woman for her reality – especially when no information is given with which to blame her – to blame her for the hand life has dealt her only diminishes her humanity, dignity, and perceived value to the community.
These interpretations explain away her worth…but neither Jesus nor the gospel writer hint at any of these interpretations. Jesus doesn’t care why she has five husbands. He doesn’t shun her, tell her to repent, or offer forgiveness, which suggests there is nothing for which she needs to be forgiven. Jesus says none of this.
Jesus doesn’t bring up her marital past to shame her or to call out her failings or to be tawdry, but to highlight the weapon that is leveraged against her – the thing that makes her feel small and less than – and Jesus shows that he is someone who already knows the most painful part about her, all without her telling him…and he doesn’t care.
He says, “That thing that people use against you – I won’t do that to you. That thing that hurts you – it does not impact my love for you. That thing that makes you lower your eyes when you see people – it does not matter to me. How people hurt you and use your truth against you, that is what matters to me because you matter to me.”
Jesus engages her in conversation because he sees the humanity and dignity and value that everyone else overlooks or explains away
But let’s, for a moment, pretend the interpretations are correct and she does have grievous moral failings. Even if she was morally lax, Jesus still calls her to be a follower, Jesus still wants to be near her and to share her water jar with her, and Jesus still stays with her and her community for a couple of days. Jesus does not determine her worth based upon the men she does or does not have in her life. Her life is no problem for Jesus, so maybe there’s no need for it to be a problem for us.
So if we don’t know much about her personal life, what do we know? We know that Jesus was Jewish and male, which gave him the advantage in this situation, but he was a foreigner needing help to satiate his thirst, which puts him at a disadvantage. And Jesus would have known the power dynamics at play as he approaches the woman at the well.
Jesus intentionally and purposefully makes himself vulnerable by asking her for a drink. He makes space for the woman to hold the power that she has, because she is the one with the bucket.
He begins their conversation by granting her autonomy and strength in a situation where she would otherwise not have any. The woman is discarded by her community – she is abandoned and is afraid, and in her, Jesus finds a great conversation partner. Jesus gives her his time, wants to know what she thinks, and engages her opinion.
Jesus sees her not as a woman who has had five husbands, not as someone whose reputation regularly gets run through the gutter, not as someone holding a water jar hostage from a thirsty man, but as someone with whom he wants to talk and spend time.
While they are speaking, the woman professes that she knows the Messiah is coming (v25), to which Jesus responds, “I am he.” (v26) But it’s not just “I am he.” A direct translation would be, “I am.” This is the name God gave to Moses at the burning bush right before God sent Moses to talk to Pharaoh about letting the Israelites go. Jesus claims this divine name as his own. He is more than a prophet. He is telling this scared, rejected, enemy Samaritan woman that he is the Messiah.
He is the I Am
In our first reading we hear about Moses – the first to hear God’s name – we hear about Moses leading the Israelites through the wilderness. They, too, are afraid and feel abandoned. They have run out of water, have wandered miles and miles without finding any water source, and they fear that they will die in the wilderness. They begin to wonder if it would have been better to stay a slave in Egypt, because slavery under an oppressive ruler was less frightening than the prospect of watching your loved ones die of thirst in the desert.
God hears their fears and complaining, and grants them the gift of life – water that inexplicably comes gushing forth from a rock. Through this act God not only quenches their thirst and sustains their life, God reveals that God is always with them no matter where they go. God’s presence and care for them does not evaporate, God’s compassion does not run dry, and God will be with them and hold them when they are scared and don’t know what will happen one moment to the next.
When the woman was thirsting for acceptance, love, and dignity – when she only saw hurt, isolation, and shame in her future – God responded with the promise that who we are is enough, who we are is loved, and who we are is God’s.
When the Israelites were thirsting for water, life, and hope – when they only saw fear, confusion, and death in their future – God responded with the promise that life will spring forth from unlikely places, life will rise from our deepest hurts, and life will drown the sting of death.
Jesus removes any barrier that tries to limit his relationship and ability to be with those whom he loves. No gender, history, culture – no reputation, geography, or pandemic can stop him from being with those whom he loves. His compassion, courage, and wisdom flow past anything that tries to hinder people from knowing how madly in love God is with all of creation. There is nothing, not even the power of the cross, that can stop life from flowing from a rock…I mean, a tomb.
When we are like the woman isolated and ashamed – when we are like the Israelites afraid and confused – today God promises to always meet us in those places and stay with us until we feel seen and loved – until we witness life springing forth from the most unlikely of places.