Year A, Lent 3
Usually when someone says, “I know what you did” or “I know all about you” it’s not a good thing. It’s a threat or an attempt to induce guilt or shame. Thus it has always confused me that this woman at the well went and told the whole town, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done. He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Why would that be the thing that proved he was the Messiah? Furthermore, why was she so excited about it?
This Gospel reading is a long one and that is because it was a long conversation. In fact, it is one of the longest conversations Jesus had that is recorded in the Bible and it was with a Samaritan woman who was alone. That is three strikes against her already. Let’s begin with the fact that she was a Samaritan. To say that the Samaritans and the Jews did not get along well would be like saying the people of Israel and the Palestinians don’t get along. It’s a huge understatement. This hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans was centuries old. Some of it had to do with what happened in the past and some was related to how and where they worshipped, which was a big deal at that point.
The second and third strikes were that she was a woman and she was alone. Women typically did not travel far without a male to accompany them. If they were not with a man who was related to them, they were with other women. Most women went to the well in the morning and the evening when the sun was not so high. This woman was there in the middle of the day, the hottest part of the day. Many have assumed that she was avoiding people. Thus there were many reasons Jesus should have avoided this woman. Jewish men (especially rabbis) were forbidden to speak to a woman alone who was not related to them. If seen by others, this would have been a scandal. She knew all of this which is why she asked, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” She already knew that this man was different.
Things got even stranger as Jesus began to engage her in a theological conversation. He wasn’t just telling her what to do. He was not merely making a demand. He was forming a relationship with her. She must have felt relatively safe because she responded and even argued a little, which was a risky move on her part. Then this theological debate took an unexpected turn. Jesus asked her to call her husband. When she told him she had no husband, he conceded that she was telling the truth. He added that she had five husbands and the man she was living with right now was not even her husband.
For millennia people have interpreted this statement by Jesus as an accusation of sin. He was confronting her for her sinful behavior. Clearly this woman was a harlot. She had five husbands and now she was living with someone she was not married to. No wonder she was there alone in the middle of the day. She was avoiding people because she was an outcast. She knew they were talking about her. She didn’t need to see their critical gaze. That is one theory anyhow. In my opinion, it’s wrong.
In the time of Jesus, women did not have many rights. A woman could not ask for divorce. If this woman at the well was divorced five times, it was because five different men divorced her. Men did not need a reason to divorce. There was no extensive paperwork. All they needed to do was to put it in writing. There was nothing the woman could do to salvage her marriage. 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. It is very possible that the reason she had been abandoned by so many men was due to barrenness.
Even if the divorces were a result of her being barren and not an adulteress, people would have thought that there was still something fundamentally wrong with her. She had been abandoned by the men in her life. She had been abandoned by God. The respected women and men of the town were almost surely talking about her and judging her. More than almost anyone, she needed this living water that Jesus was talking about. She needed this living water because she was barely alive.
Because of her thirst for hope, love and a relationship with God, she was open to Jesus’s words. She was ready to hear them. Instead of hearing what most people hear in this conversation (accusation and shame) she heard a man who knew her and wanted to know her more. He wanted to share the most important thing in the world, his love and acceptance. He revealed that he knew her story–some of which was shameful to her because she had likely come to believe what others believed about her. More important than the fact that he revealed what he knew of her, he also revealed a love and compassion for her. He didn’t care what others said about her. He knew the truth. He knew her heart, before it was corrupted by pain, shame and fear.
In addition, he also revealed himself, as the Christ—the Messiah. Jesus did not reveal himself to the most important men of the town. He did not go to the place of worship and announce that he was the Messiah. No, he went to her, a Samaritan, a woman, a person alone and abandoned.
Thus when she ran and told the whole town of people who had likely ostracized her to: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.” —she was saying that she had met someone who truly knew her and saw past the assumptions and stereotypes. Because this man, this Messiah had reminded her what it was to feel love and hope, she did not care that she was running into the middle of this town of people who had cast her off. She didn’t care that they considered her a shameful person. She had known what it was to live a life of shame. But now she knew the Messiah and he knew her. And once she knew that, there was no way she could hold it in. She had to tell the world.
People have occasionally told me that they don’t feel comfortable in church because they feel judged. Others tell me that they worry that if people know the truth, they would not respect them and that is something they don’t want to be reminded of. I think the reason so many people fear being part of a community of faith is combination of those things. I think people—we—have begun to judge ourselves based on what others have assumed. We have started to believe everything this culture is telling us, that we are not enough. We have forgotten that the truth lies not in the hearts of others, or even our own, but the heart of God. More than anything, God wants a relationship with us. God wants to know us and be known by us. There is no room for shame when it comes to our relationship with God. No shame.