March 23, 2014: John 4: 5-42

March 23, 2014

Disclaimer: I like to think (and I could be totally misguided on this) that my sermons read pretty well.  Some preachers feel that you have to hear and/or see the sermon to get anything from it.  While I think that is the best way to experience a sermon, usually the text works pretty well.  I am not sure it does for this sermon.  It feels pretty bumpy when you read it, but it’s worth a shot!

 Lent 3, Year A                   

            In the late 90’s, a book came out called “Bad Girls of the Bible.”  It was very popular and spawned two more books called Very Bad Girls of the Bible and Slightly Bad Girls of the Bible.  The series  has sold over a million copies, which is pretty good for a book about the bible.  I read it about 15 years ago and I liked it. However, the more time I spent studying the Bible, specifically women in the Bible, the less I liked it.  Let’s start with the cover.  All you can see are the heavily made up eyes of a woman with what I can only assume is a “come hither” look.  Otherwise, I am not sure why eyes with heavy mascara indicate a bad girl.  Then there is the line-up of “bad girls.”  There are a couple that I would not dispute (Delilah and Jezebel), but the rest I would take issue with…in regards to how bad they really are.

 In the midst of these bad girls is the Samaritan woman at the well.   Over the centuries she has been depicted as a seductress, a prostitute, an adulteress, a serial monogamist and everything in between.   All these assumptions come primarily from her response to Jesus’ request that she call her husband.  She responded: “I have no husband.”  He said, “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.” From this exchange, people have inferred that she was divorced five times and obviously it must have been her fault.  Now she is living with someone who is not her husband which is further proof that she is a woman of questionable character.

Divorce at this time is much different than it is today.  First of all, a woman could not ask for divorce.  So if this woman at the well was divorced 5 times, it was because five different men divorced her.  Men also did not need a reason to divorce.  There was no extensive paperwork.  All they needed to do was to put it in writing.  The woman had no recourse.  There was nothing she could do.  Since there were not many occupations available to woman, the only options for a divorced woman was to remarry, move in with a male relative, beg on the street, prostitute herself or starve.  

While a man could divorce his wife for any reason, there was one situation when divorce was recommended.   Because procreation was a so important in the Jewish faith, if a woman could not bear a child in the first ten years of marriage, it was recommended that the man take an additional wife or divorce and then remarry.[1]  Therefore (and please know this is conjecture…but a lot more likely than her being a seductress who liked to hang out at a well) it is very possible that the reason she had been abandoned by so many men was due to barrenness. 

Since this woman has been labeled as bad, a lot of people read this story as one of sin and forgiveness.   While Jesus does acknowledge the fact that she has been married five times, he never declares her to be a sinner.  In other stories of forgiveness, Jesus is very clear about the sin and the need to sin no more.  Yet in this story, he never accuses this woman of sinning nor does he say that she is forgiven.  Obviously, we are all sinners in need of forgiveness, but that is not what this story is about.

After Jesus tells her that he knows about her past and even her present living condition, she declares, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.”   Most people assume that she is just changing the subject from an uncomfortable topic. However, in the Gospel of John, the word “see” has a special meaning.  It often means belief.  Instead of just changing the subject, she might actually be making a powerful statement of belief.  Not only does she see him, she believes in him.   What is it that led her to believe in him? Was it because he knew all her sins and was able to forgive her?  I don’t think that was it.  Instead of just sin, I believe he saw a deep pain, a pain that she had kept hidden for many years…the pain of being broken in some way and then abandoned over and over again.  I believe he saw that pain that had become her identity, but he saw something else as well, something beautiful and divine.[2]

So often in life, we let ourselves be identified by things that we think are wrong with us.  We will always be the child who was abused, the wife who was beaten, the man who is unemployed, the person crushed by the weight of their own depression, the widow, the divorced person, the single person…and on and on. Often other people do not identify us this way, but we do it to ourselves.  If that is the case, then it might as well be everyone in the world who identifies us that way…at least it feels that way.  Imagine that you are that person who identifies yourself by your pain.  Then one day, someone comes to you and says, “I see your pain.  I see every piece of it, but I see something else too.  I am here to give you a new identity, an identity that carries no baggage and no shame.”  That would be transformative.  Would that transformation be enough to compel a woman of questionable character to run and tell an entire town, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah can he?”  I think it would be. 

For this woman at the well, this new identity is more powerful than any shame she might have carried.  She is now a vessel of living water.  The living water is Jesus the Messiah, and she carries it now. One of the quirky little details in this story is that when she goes into town to share the news of Jesus, she leaves her water jar behind.  Today, that would be like leaving your cell phone or wallet on the counter and walking out.  That jar was literally what kept her alive.   But she doesn’t need the jar anymore, because she is now a vessel of living water. 

Before, there was something inside her that was dead.  Now every part of her is nourished by this life giving water.  Before she was barren. Now she is anything but that.  Her self -worth is no longer dependent on anything those five husbands needed from her. Not only is she full of life, but she has life to share and that is what she immediately does.  She goes to tell the world about this person who is the very embodiment of all that is living, all that is good…the one being who conquers death on every level.

Jesus gives each one of us this opportunity, this chance to define ourselves- not by who we are or who we are not, not by the scars that we bear, but by the God who created us, died for us and was resurrected so that we may know what it is to truly live.

[2]This partially comes from what Karoline Lewis said about the barrenness of the woman and what affect that might have.