A sermon for Lent 3A February 24, 2008 John 4:5-42
It’s been quite the week for dramatic news stories: Clinton goes off at Obama, the New York Times has some things to suggest about McCain, a film is released showing the treatment of cows in a huge slaughterhouse, and I wonder what these stories mean to me? How much can I trust them? Do I believe something only when it comes from the mouth of the person who says it? And how do I respond when the news sounds sketchy, even if I might like the impact it could have?
On CNN every week, there is a show about the media, called “Reliable Sources.” On the program, journalists reflect on their colleagues work and try to give some perspective on how the media itself influences the news. I recognize that there are some sources in the media I trust absolutely and others I always hear through a veil of skepticism.
Who can we trust? Who are our reliable sources?
I use my own resources of intelligence and education to sort out who and what I believe; I use the resources God gave me and the tools my parents helped me develop and the instincts formed by experience; I use them all with a spirit of freedom developed in the free church tradition in which I was raised, a way of thinking that demands I figure things out for myself, a way of believing that says my faith is between me and God. I like to think of God as the ultimate Reliable Source, but I have to admit that God sometimes speaks to me in riddles rather than the convenient declarative statements we might prefer.
I am in good company with the Samaritan woman at the well.
Now, when I tell you some things about the setting of this famous story, it’s my hope you will consider me to be a reliable source. In an effort to prepare for this day, I have read the scripture, looked back at what I have written about it before, discussed it in two clergy groups, one in person and one online, read articles and prayed about it. I may not know everything there is to know about it; for instance, I don’t know why the woman had five husbands, but I do know that how she got into that situation is of great interest to scholars. I do know that at the end of the week, I have to decide what I want to say about her story and have to hope you are willing to hear it.
In that day and place, water mattered. No Water District brought clean water in pipes to your house. If you did not live near a stream, or if the stream was dry, you went to the nearest well. It was woman’s work, carrying water. A large jug would have been carried, by a servant if you had one, by the woman of the house if you did not. Carrying the jar required strength and grace. Getting the water home mattered to everyone, and bringing it from a good source, a reliable source, mattered, too. Bad water, contaminated water, could and did sicken the household.
So going to the well was a daily task, not unusual in the least. It couldn’t have been more ordinary. But going alone and at noon, in the heat of the day, was very unusual, for a number of reasons.
First, no one did anything in the heat of the day that could have been done at another time.
But more importantly, women did not go to the well alone. If you were the only woman in your household, you went when everyone else was going. Going by yourself indicated that you either didn’t care about your reputation or that you weren’t accepted by your local community.
So the Samaritan woman was, by choice or by circumstance, not abiding by the standards of her community. We know that before we know anything else about her. Outcast? Maverick? As we go further we get a better sense of her.
Here are a few pieces of reliable information about unrelated men and women talking to each other in public in first century Samaria: nice ones didn’t.
Now we know Jesus didn’t care about social conventions; in fact he came to upset expectations, as surely as he upset the tables at the Temple. But why didn’t the woman care? It seems she had nothing to lose, or she would not have been willing to answer a stranger who was not only a man but clearly identifiable as a Jew.
That’s an important part of the story, too. The Jews and the Samaritans all descended from Jacob, and their scriptures were the same, but each group considered the other to have gone the wrong way. This is why it comes as a shock that the Samaritan is “Good” in the famous story Jesus told. That was not the way things were supposed to be. Samaritans were, to the Jews, bad people, and a worse kind of bad people than the invading Romans could ever have been. They were “bad” people who ought to have known better. And the Samaritans felt the same way about the Jews.
They begin talking to each other in a way that is mildly confrontational; some have even called it flirtatious! But certainly she challenges him at every turn. She cannot understand why he would consider using her jug, you see. She knows very well that even if he doesn’t assume things about her social position within her own community, it would go against his code of behavior to share anything she has touched.
Every group has habits of behavior around touch, and the woman could see right away that Jesus did not abide by those of his people. Perhaps this encouraged her to keep talking. Perhaps she wondered if he might be an outcast, too.
Theories abound about her five husbands. Perhaps she had been a woman of shocking behavior, or perhaps she was caught in the cycle of being married first to one brother and then another, an obligation of the first husband’s family to her if he died and left her childless. A woman might well be handed from one brother to another; a woman might decide she had been married to enough of them, too, but only a very brave woman would act to separate herself from the protection of an extended family.
There are many possible explanations of her situation, from widowhood to infertility to, yes, engaging in disapproved sexual behavior.
We just don’t know. There are theories, but no sources that can prove one thing or the other. We only know what we knew at the beginning: she went to the well alone, at noontime. She did not go with the other women, in the cool of the day.
Which makes it all the more astounding that when she left her jar at the well and went back to town, people listened to her.
I wonder what they thought when she came running back into the town, telling of the man she had met, wondering aloud if he might truly be the Messiah?
Why did they listen?
Sometimes we simply have to trust. Sometimes we must simply trust that there is more going on than we can explain rationally, more going on than we can justify practically, more going on than might feel comfortable personally.
She left her jar behind, the jar that meant a way to bring water to her household, to have water to drink herself. She left her jar and her work behind, like the first disciples dropping their nets, and gingerly she proclaimed her meeting at the well.
She was a woman, and not just a woman. She was a marginalized woman. But she gave testimony about her experience, and people listened.
It hasn’t been that long in modern times that we have willingly listened to the testimony of women in our churches. People still resist women in pulpits, although in our denomination more than half the seminarians have been female for many years now, and the Search Committee here could tell you that the majority of the profiles they read came from qualified women. We have come to a different point in history, when women can be reliable sources for the Good News.
And here it comes, my friends, the good news of this story. If we can’t know anything else, we do know the woman at the well lived on the margins of her town, of her society. We know she was unacceptable to authorities both religious and social. And yet, she was offered the living water by Jesus. It didn’t matter to him who she had married or not. It didn’t matter to him that she came to the well alone. It didn’t matter to him that she was a Samaritan. It didn’t matter to him that she was a woman.
All that mattered was this: she was thirsty for what he could give. And once she had a drink, she told others about it.
She was a woman and not just a woman. She left her jar and became a disciple, spreading the good news about the living water. And if you believe in Jesus Christ, you know she was a reliable source. Amen.