Word of the Week

Meeting the Women at the Well

Characters Welcome: Lent 2011

The Samaritan Woman: John 4:5-42

Preached Sunday, March 27, 2011

The ancient story that you and I just heard read by Kirby, Bobby Jack and Whitney is one that probably seems familiar to most of us. For those of you for whom regular church attendance is not a new thing, I bet you could count on multiple fingers the numbers of times you’ve heard a sermon on this passage. For, it’s a story that we often like to go back to as a model of how in the way of Christ, Jesus changed everything—even hanging out with those unthinkable folks, the foreign women.

I can imagine how most of those sermons have gone, however. Most begin with a description of our character for this morning that is less than favorable. This unnamed female, known only by her country of origin, Samaria, is often cited as your typical wanton, reckless prostitute who has made a lot of bad choices in her life, but she meets Jesus during her walk of shame to the well in the middle of the day. Jesus calls her out on her sin when he tells her that she has had five husbands and the man she’s living with now is not her husband.  And, the miracle of the story, as many preachers would describe it, is that God saves even her—offering her living water (i.e. salvation) from Jacob’s Well.

Well known conservative preacher and author, John Piper said the following in a sermon about this woman, she’s “a worldly, sensually-minded, unspirited harlot from Samaria,” and goes on to later call her simply, “a whore.”[i]

And, to be critical of the life choices of the Samaritan Woman (though not with such mean spirited words) could be a reasonable approach to this text as I seek to bring you some good news from this passage.  It would be acceptable to many of your ears, even to for us to have a discussion about what it means to have a “shady past” with the Samaritan Woman to be leading our thoughts in this direction.

As has been my practice over the past two Sundays with our previous characters of “Mary, Mother of Jesus” and “Nicodemus,” I’ve sought to show you how each in their own right made some major errors in judgment—not too far off from some of the similar errors in judgment that you may have made—in hopes that we can all see how God longs for us to bring our WHOLE selves to him, faults and all, for we are loved and accepted for who we are.

But, must we see the Samaritan Woman as the poster child for immortality and bad decisions, or might we need to meet her again?

Sad, as it is that we don’t know a lot about the Samaritan woman, what we do know is that she was married five times. With this being the case, she was the definition of being an “outsider” and not “one of the girls.” Instead of coming to the well at the beginning of the day which weather patterns would suggest as the coolest and most convenient time of the day to fetch water, we read in verse six that when Jesus encountered the Samaritan Woman, it was noon, the hottest part of the day.

The thing is, that you and I know well is that sex, divorce and adultery sells and is remembered well over time. We tend to fixate on those among us who are perceived as having  “messed up” rather than those who are doing things “just as they should.”  Read any news headlines, watch any news magazine program, or see what is a trending topic on Facebook or Twitter and you will learn that it is natural human tendency for us to be mesmerized when we hear of a person whose has been a part of multiple marriages or relationships.  For example, why in the world would the media care so much about the death of Elizabeth Taylor this week – never mind her two academy awards and work for AIDS research—if she had not been married eight times to seven different men?

Yet, as David Lose wrote this week in his Huffington Post column, the Samaritan Woman “is not a prostitute. She doesn’t have a shady past. . . . There is nothing in the passage that makes this an obvious interpretation.”

Let’s take a closer look: nowhere in this passage do we hear Jesus speak of the woman’s need to repent of wrongdoing. In fact, contrary to popular belief, nowhere is the word sin mentioned at all.  Thus, we need to consider the fact that the woman Jesus meets at the well very possibly could be widowed, abandoned or divorced repeatedly. David Lose writes, “Five times would be heartbreaking, but not impossible.”

With all of this true, there are a couple of things to note.

First, women at this time were not allowed to divorce their husbands or even ask for it. To receive a divorce from a man was a decision that was left completely up to the man with the reason for the break-up almost always placed on the defect of the woman. 

Second, to be alone in this culture as a woman was a death sentence. For ages and ages long before the women’s revolution or the idea that a woman could do anything with or without a man, women during this time were not permitted to be out of relations from a husband or a male family member as their provider.  If alone, a woman’s only vocation was a life of begging—in hopes that someone would take pity on her for food and shelter.  For many taking on a new husband, was the only way out of homelessness.

Third, according to the Jewish law code found in Leviticus, when a woman was widowed or disowned by her husband for some reason and without a male child, she would be immediately marred to her deceased husband’s brother in order to produce an heir for herself. Yet, while living with her deceased husband’s brother, such a woman would not be considered his wife.

And, with all of this true, do you see where our rush to make the Samaritan woman story something that we can teach our children in Sunday School as a cut and dry tale of sin, judgment and acceptance by Jesus, has cost us the ability to see this woman for what she really is: a poor, oppressed one who has been dealt some of life’s most difficult circumstances?

It pains me to think about how history remembers her, believing that her isolation at the well that day all went back to “circumstances were ALL HER FAULT.”  The Samaritan woman had brought her “having five husbands” situation on herself. To say something like this sounds a lot to me like a domestic violence victim being blamed for her bruises. . . . So, how might we be called to see our failings as a people who continue to permit the same kind of injustice today?

Consider this just hitting the airwaves of CNN out of Libya yesterday morning: 

“Breakfast at a Tripoli hotel housing international journalists took a decidedly grim turn Saturday when a desperate Libyan woman burst into the building frantic to let the world know she had been raped and beaten by Moammar Gadhafi's militia. Her face was heavily bruised. So were her legs. She displayed blood on her right inner thigh.

She said her name was Eman al-Obeidy  . . . She spoke in English and said she was from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and had been picked up by Gadhafi's men at a checkpoint east of Tripoli.

She sobbed and said she was held against her will for two days and raped by 15 men. She showed the journalists how she had been tied at her wrists and ankles. She had visible rope burns.”[ii]

Yet, as the camera crews videotaped her desperate attempt to tell the world her story of oppression, the national militia walked in, they crushed the cameras of the international journalists and claimed they were taking this woman to a hospital and not to believe a word she said for she was mentally ill. Her witness of what had happened to her was deemed uncredible with wait staff from the kitchen shouting “Traitor.”

Though the details of this woman’s story have a modern twist, the theme is still the same—the poor, the powerless, the outsiders of our society are not seen for what they really are: sometimes victims of situations of which they are powerless to control. In an effort to explain away the difference between our lives and theirs, the insiders of society, who get to write the history books and the holy books, often want to beat down the insight that such resourceful characters can offer us.

Yet, the power of the Samaritan Woman’s story is that Jesus’ presence beside her helps to lift up what is good, what is lovely and true about her being. It all begins with seeing her not as the labels that others have placed on her, but as herself, just her. Jesus talks to the woman, he asks her for a drink and recognizes in her, her plight of doing the best with situations life put before her and MOST certainly not a woman of poor moral character.

Consider this: in contrast to the character we met last week, Nicodemus, we find a faith seeker in this woman who is not afraid, as the disenfranchised often are, to speak openly about her questions before others . . . Nicodemus comes at night while we meet the Samaritan Woman during the day. And, while we are left at the end of Nicodemus’ story wondering what he ever made of his experience with Jesus, we know for sure when it comes to the Samaritan Woman for she quickly runs back into town that afternoon and boldly declares in verse 29: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.” And later in verse 39 we learn that “Many Samaritans from that city believed in [Jesus] because of the woman’s testimony.” The bottom line is that she bears witness to Jesus—because she had a heart open enough to receive it.

Grace found the woman at the well that day. Not because she needed it especially more than any other. Not because she’d done something right or especially wrong. Living water, or otherwise known as what could truly fill her soul, found her and then God used her faith to bless others with this same gift. Pastor Jon M. Walton writes, “In the encounter at the well, Jesus reshapes the memories of an alienated past into a future hope that one day all God’s people, ancestors and generations to come, will worship God in a re-imagined future, one in which the common thread is the Spirit and the Truth of God’s love expressed through Jesus Christ.”[iii]

Maybe just maybe, then, the call of this passage is not for the sexually loose among us to clean up our act and make better decisions in the way of following Christ (not that this is bad idea or anything), but for us who are among the educated, privileged and provided for of people of this world, to wake-up, see our status as people who have the power to prevent the stories of the Eman al-Obeidy  of this world. To be a voice of justice, women, men and children all around the world are forced to keep abuse, pain and despair silent, or have to become so desperate to publically share personal matters and to be labeled as mentally ill as a result.

Though you and I often think of Lent as a time of personal reflection—enduring a practice of self-denial so that we can become more God focused in our own being—might the calling also be to consider how our actions or lack of actions are contributing to more crying voices going unheard, more tragedies going unnoticed, and more political decisions being made on behalf of people whom we judge based on stereotypes?

Might we thank God for the witness of the Samaritan woman, her curious faithfulness, but also be sobered that women with stories like hers continue to abide all around us today?

Bishop Desund Tutu spoke of how we participate in injustice by simply doing nothing when he wrote: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

So, today let me be the voice of the mouse, and say to all of us, that the voiceless of this world don’t appreciate our neutrality.

What issues might the Spirit ask you to speak about to those in power in the halls of Congress? What letters do you new to write? What calls do you need to make?

What good work of breaking the bonds of injustices might the Spirit be asking you to contribute your financial resources to?

What prejudges have you left unchallenged that the Spirit might be asking you to accept no longer?

What unnamed victims might the Spirit ask you to encounter as Jesus did and actually see?

What marginalized person might the Spirit long to speak to you through so that, like those in the town of the Samaritan woman, you too might believe in what is life-giving?

Let the Samaritan woman, wrecked woman, no good woman, rumors be put to rest, and instead let us rise up and celebrate, no matter if we find ourselves in the shoes of Mother Mary, Nicodemus or Woman at the Well (with more to come), all of us characters are welcome in the family of Christ.  And, we are welcome because it is grace, simply grace that has brought us through this far and it is grace that will lead us all the way home.


[i] John Piper, “God Seeks People to Worship Him in Spirit and Truth.” April 8, 1984. http://www.soundofgrace.com/piper84/040884.htm

[iii] Jon M. Walton “Preaching John 4:5-42” www.goodpreacher.com