At the Well

Ravenna65 samaritan womanJohn 4:5-42

What can we learn from this Samaritan woman?

After Jesus talks with Nicodemus in Jerusalem in the passage we heard last week, Jesus goes to the Judean countryside. Then he decides to return to Galilee, but must pass through Samaria on the way. Jesus and his disciples stop at their ancestor Jacob’s well, and the disciples head into town to buy some food. Jesus, sitting alone, has a fascinating encounter with a stranger.

This meeting between Jesus and a Samaritan woman is different from Jesus’ meeting with Nicodemus in almost every way. Nicodemus is a highly respected, well-known Jewish leader; this woman is an unnamed foreigner of low social status. Nicodemus seeks out Jesus secretly, at night; while Jesus initiates his conversation with this woman in public, in broad daylight. Nicodemus asks a series of questions which Jesus answers, ending with a long speech. Jesus engages the Samaritan woman in a busier, more down-to earth conversation which ends with Jesus proclaiming that he is the one she has been waiting for, that he is the embodiment of the great “I Am.”

But the story is plenty interesting just on its own, without contrasting it with the one we’ve just heard. Why is Jesus so interested in talking with this woman of another culture, engaged in menial labor? Why does he want to offer her the gift of his presence, his teaching, his faith? Why is he so accepting of the differences between them? And how does she become such a powerful witness for him, after such a brief encounter?

From Nicodemus, we learn the importance of putting aside our assumptions, our power, our control, to make way for Jesus in our lives. But what can we learn from this Samaritan woman? The answer depends, I think, on where we put ourselves in this story.

This past week I read a story about a church, a predominantly white, suburban church, not so different from ours. This church longed to expand its ministry and to share the good news of Jesus. And they knew that Jesus often did what we see him doing in this story: he sought out those who were disrespected, those who were poor, and brought his message, his presence, to them. And so this church decided that it should act like Jesus, and plant a new congregation in a city. They decided to plant a new congregation in what is sometimes known as the “inner city” – by which they meant a place in the city that was full of people who didn’t seem much like them: people with darker skin and less money.

Now, these church folks had good intentions. They wanted to follow Jesus by connecting with people who weren’t very much like them. And they wanted to share what they had, both good news and money. But with all these good intentions, these folks made some tragic mistakes.

As it turns out, this particular area of this particular city already knew about the good news of Jesus. (Go figure!) There were leaders and communities already there, gathering in the name of Christ and working together in wise and wonderful ways. It’s not to say the folks there couldn’t use some help; some partners to bolster their fundraising and broadcast their message; some allies to amplify their efforts. But they didn’t need a new church, with white leaders, with their own agenda, arriving to introduce the neighborhood to Jesus.

At the heart of the tragic mistake that this majority white, suburban church made was misinterpreting who they were in the story. When they tried to reenact this biblical story, they imagined themselves into the place of Jesus. And here’s a helpful hint: when we’re exploring biblical stories and trying to find our place, it’s almost always safe to say: we’re not Jesus.

So if we want to learn from the mistakes of these folks, this suburban, majority white congregation, this congregation that shares so much in common with us, where should we look in the story? What is our part in this story of the Samaritan woman, if we’re there at all?

Some days, we may be the disciples: rushing back from our errands, and astonished to find out who Jesus is talking to. We may find ourselves just trying to keep up with God and all the crazy ideas God has about who Her good news is for and who might constitute the people of God. We may be surprised to find out what kinds of conversations Jesus is in with folks we didn’t expect to be teaching us: some of the new members here among us; or with some of the Christians we don’t always get along so well with; or folks from so-called “inner city” neighborhoods. We may be the disciples, just trying to keep our mouths shut so we don’t say something like, “Why are you speaking with her?”

Some days we may be the disciples. And some days we may be blessed to be the woman herself. Maybe we’ll discover that, oddly, Jesus wants to talk with us. We’ll discover that Jesus knows all about us and our sordid pasts. We’ll discover out that Jesus wants to offer us living water. We’ll hear him declare to us: I am the I am. And all that glory will send us off and running to tell whoever we can find, “Come and see! This Jesus knows all about me and loves me anyway! Can this be real?” We may be the Samaritan woman, suddenly brave enough to open our mouths and say, “Come, and see!”

Some days, we may be the disciples. Some days, we may be the Samaritan woman herself. And some days, we may be the people of Samaria. Maybe we’ll be so inspired by another person’s encounter, another person’s testimony, that we become willing to invite Jesus to stay with us for a while, to teach us, until we learn to believe.

Where are you in this story today? Are you confused and dismayed by the strange choices of Jesus? Are you full of joy and questions after a deep drink of living water? Are you curious to learn more about the one who’s caused such a fuss? What can we learn from this Samaritan Woman, from this fascinating story?

I hope, at least, we can learn this: we are not Jesus, and yet Jesus is always for us. Jesus is for us, whether we are privileged and powerful, or the object of gossip and ridicule. Jesus is for us, whether we are long-time followers or recent converts or renegades. Jesus is for us, whether we meet him face to face and hear him proclaim, “I am the I am;” or whether we always see his glory through the power of another person’s testimony. We are not Jesus, and yet Jesus is always for us: surprising us, inspiring us, and leading us deeper in to the mystery of faith. Thanks be to God.