Texts: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95:1-7; John 4:5-42
For our consideration and meditations this morning, we have two marvelous stories about water, that most essential material for life, and about which we should care more than we often do, taking it for granted. We are told, and should heed, the fact that in years to come water will become a more precious commodity than any fossil fuel. 18 per cent of the world’s population lack access to safe drinking water; 40 per cent lack basic sanitation; every day, some 6,000 people, most of them children, die from water-related causes.
As necessary for our physical well being, water also serves as a powerful metaphor in our spiritual and emotional lives as well. Water symbolizes both fertility and chaos; life and death, flip sides of one another in nature—as we have seen with the terrible tsunamis of the past five years—and in the spiritual lives of people from many world religions.
Scripture speaks to us because it is so honest about what we so rarely will let show to ourselves, and especially to others. The Israelites, we are told in Exodus, traveled by stages in the wilderness….as do we all. I love that phrase. Although the story tells us that they had no water to drink, it is not beyond appropriate interpretation to see this need for water as more than a physical crisis, but also a spiritual one as well….their souls were drying up, the aridity of their lives was taking its toll. They were angry with Moses, for bringing them away from Egypt where at least basic needs were satisfied. Anger, you know, is the cover emotion for fear and shame which are spiritual issues as much as they are emotional struggles.
In the Exodus story, Moses takes his staff—the first gift God gave to him to serve as a sign because Moses was afraid that the people would not believe that God had called him to lead them out of slavery and bondage, in an exodus to freedom—and this staff, this sign of God’s presence with him, is used to strike the rock at Mt. Horeb, where the scripture says, “God will be standing there in front of you.” “Water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses called this place Massah (which means test) and Meribah (which means quarrel). (As an aside, I’ve often thought that some congregations—not this one, praise be to God– ought to be called Massah and Meribah Church, because that’s all they seem to enjoy doing. And actually, church may be the right place for testing and quarrelling, not with one another, but with God, with whom we human beings seem to have the perpetual lover’s quarrel—or perhaps it is the other way around, that our God has a lover’s quarrel with us.
That the creators of the lectionary should pair this story of Israel’s experience in the wilderness with the Fourth Gospel’s story of the Samaritan woman at the well seems fitting. For if the staff Moses had been given was a sign, and if it could bring “living water” – that is fresh running water—so necessary for life out of the rocks in a desert or, more metaphorically, that we created of our hearts, then the parallels are that Jesus, God’s sign and staff, the “ensign” the ancient prophet Isaiah said would be raised up, can offer also the “living water” that the woman at first confuses with running water. Only she discovers that Jesus means to offer her something that will break through the stone wall she has built around her soul, and refresh the arid, parched places of her mind and soul, and indeed, of her relationships.
Unfortunately, for much of the past 200 years, this woman has been painted as immoral, if not an out and out prostitute, as if she were some sort of merry divorcee, the Liz Taylor, may she rest in peace, of ancient Samaria, trading in husbands like sports cars. Yet there is nothing in this passage that makes this an obvious judgment. Note that in this story, Jesus never asks for or invites her repentance, nor does he speak at all of sin. She very easily could have been widowed or abandoned or even divorced (which was the same thing as abandoned, in that culture), or passed from brother to brother in the Levirate marriage system of the code of Leviticus. Her story is heart-breakingly tragic rather than scandalous, and yet too many preachers have assumed the latter.
So let us be clear today and state the truth: for too long there has been a history of misogyny in Christian theology that stands in sharp contrast to the important role women play in the gospels themselves. Women, the four evangelists testify, supported Jesus’ ministry, were present at the tomb when the male disciples fled, and were the first witnesses of the resurrection.
And one more thing while I’m on this rant: this business of casting the Samaritan woman as somehow immoral plays into the simplistic, and thus wrong-headed conviction that Christianity has primarily to do with morality. Not every Bible story should be read in terms of sin and forgiveness, moral depravity and repentance. Nor is religion simply a matter of behaving in certain ways and having certain, presumed, normative life experiences. [credit for these two points to David Lose, Director, Center for Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, posted Mar. 21, 2011, in The Huffington Post]
We may lay at the feet of St. Augustine the blame for much of this misogyny, for his own struggles with sexual temptation led him, in a fashion typical of narcissists of every age, to blame someone else, and to claim that women were the gateway to the devil.
Ironically, at the same time that Augustine was beginning the church’s long journey into the debasement of female personhood, a legend arose about this Samaritan woman that continued until the 14th century. In Orthodox circles, in Greek sermons from the fourth to the 14th century, this woman is called “apostle” and “evangelist.” In these sermons the Samaritan Woman is often compared to the male disciples and apostles and found to surpass them. Byzantine hagiographers (hagiography is the study of the lives of saints—and also the root word from which we get the slang and derogatory word “hag”—strange, isn’t it, how twisted words can be from their roots)…any way, Byzantine hagiographers developed the story of the Samaritan woman beginning where St. John left off. At Pentecost, they said, she received baptism, and took the name Photini, which means “the enlightened one.” She had five sisters and two sons who were baptized with her, and she began a missionary career, traveling far and wide, preaching the good news of the Messiah’s coming, his death and resurrection. When Nero, the emperor of Rome, began to persecute Christians, Photini and her son Joseph were in Carthage, Jesus appeared to Photini in a dream, and told her to go to Rome. Many of her converts, and her son Joseph, accompanied her from Africa to Rome. She aroused quite a following, with everyone talking about her. Eventually, Nero had her arrested, beheaded her family, and threw her into a dry well, where once again a vision of Jesus came to her before her death. There are ancient prayers in the Greek tradition made to Photini for her assistance in dark times.
There’s one more important point that needs to be made to assist our understanding of this story: Jesus clearly violated a number of cultural norms to address this person in her need. One of them was racial and nationalistic. On one level, the Samaritan woman is a spokesperson for all foreigners, but also for her people, speaking to a spokesperson for the Jewish people. They address each other in the Greek plural. John, the master of metaphor, symbolism, and multiple meanings, may have also meant for Jesus to allude not merely to the woman’s history of relationships, but to Samaria’s past as well, in which five nations have colonized and intermarried with the Samaritans. It is also possible that the “one with whom she is now living, who is NOT her husband”, represents, in fact, Rome, a colonial power with whom the Samaritans lived but did not intermarry as with the others.
The conversation that Jesus has with this foreign woman is longer than any that he has with anyone else in all the Gospels. Whatever the cause of this woman’s incredible series of losses in her personal relationships, it doesn’t matter to Jesus.
What clearly matters are not so much the failures of the relationships but a human the heart that has endured more aches than were visible. He asks her for a drink of water. She is stunned that he should even speak to her. They chat about why he would ask such a thing of her, and before she knows it, it seems he knows more about her than she herself will even try to face, so many stones she has built around her heart to protect herself. While it is never clear they are on the same page, she does seem to understand what Jesus is offering her.
In all of the gospels, Jesus never excludes anyone, nor belittles nor demeans them. He is saddened by their choices, but he does not condemn or exclude them from his concern. This Jesus wants to get closer to the Samaritan woman. He still wants a drink from her, but he is offering to give her one as well, only the intimacy of it all suddenly seems too much for the woman.
Here is God’s staff, God’s sign, tapping at the rocky dry places of her life, offering to give her water that will, at last, change all that.
Like most of us, when things get too personal, too close to the reality of our lives, we change the subject. So she tries to shift back to the issues of the differences between Samaritans and Jews. But it doesn’t work. Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “When she steps back, he steps toward her. When she steps out of the light, he steps into it. He will not let her retreat. If she is determined to show him less of herself, then he will show her more of himself. ‘I know that the Messiah is coming,’ she says, and he says, ‘I am he.’ …By telling the woman who she is, Jesus shows her who he is. By confirming her true identity, he reveals his own, and that is how it still happens. The Messiah is the one in whose presence you know who you really are—the good and bad of it, the all of it, the hope in it.” [Taylor, Barbara Brown. “Face to Face With God”, Living by the Word column, The Christian Century, Feb. 28, 1996]
The good news is that he comes to us. He initiates the conversation. He comes to us so that we might come to him. No matter who we are, or what we have endured, or how much of a wall we have built around our hearts that have been so hurt that they fear to ever love again. Wherever we are thirsty, what ever needs the soothing balm of water’s healing, God reaches out to let that water be drawn from the eternal wells of love. That’s the truth that lies at the heart of this Lenten journey that we are travelling by stages through the wilderness in this life. Amen.