Reading: John 4:5-42 (NIV)
5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
17 “I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”
28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him.
31 Meanwhile, his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”
32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”
33 Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”
34 “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36 Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37 Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”
39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41 And because of his words many more became believers.
42 They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”
It’s ironic that this encounter – transgressive from the get-go – is generally interpreted in a cliched way. As David Lose points out (and please, if you haven’t already, read his article), absolutely nothing in Lent 3A’s reading suggests that this is a loose woman we’re dealing with other than years of casually misogynistic assumptions from (mostly) male preachers and theologians.
But here’s the thing: if we want to encounter Jesus, we must transgress assumption.
The Merriam-Webster defines “transgress” as “to violate a command or law ” and “to go beyond a boundary or limit”. When Jesus initiated a conversation with the Samaritan woman he violated several boundaries: between the Samaritans and the Jews, the Jew and Gentile in general, between unwed women and men, between genders generally, between the sacred and the profane, life and death, the haves and the have-nots, and finally, between insider and outsider.
And we harp on about her five husbands, but I digress!
This isn’t transgression for its own sake. These binaries are the lines along which the abuse of power typically falls. Think colonialism, gendered violence, the material divide, patriarchy, empire-centred religion, racism, xenophobia. In striking up a conversation with an unnamed Samaritan woman, Jesus laid to waste “power over” attitudes and practices. He stepped into the very messy centre of these practices in action and neutralised them.
In Lose’s article, he talks about the fact that the Samaritan woman might very well have been living with a male relative because her widowhood left her in destitution; a common enough occurrence at the time. She was someone attached to the household but not in any privileged capacity. This would have left her entirely at the mercy of her benefactor. Certainly, hers wasn’t an enviable position.
In more mainline interpretations, the hour (noon) of her visit to the well is taken as evidence that the other women from Sychar shunned her for her promiscious ways – the habit being to gather water at dawn when it was coolest, and to prepare for the day’s work. But who’s the say that this was the first time that day that she’d visited the well? It’s just as easy to imagine her being tasked with the further collection of water over, say, the “lady of the house”: the higher-ups in the social structure where she was an outcast. Or perhaps, considering her position (a scornful one by societal standards) she avoided the well out of shame. Either interpretation is viable.
It’s into this situation that Jesus speaks when he engages her in conversation.
Read this way, it’s not difficult to see that Jesus is reaching out in a spirit of deep compassion and not correction, as commonly assumed. He speaks life – living water, a blessing in those days – into this woman’s life, acknowledging her pain and present circumstances and promising her the existence and availability of God’s love, care, and justice. It’s not strange then that in John’s gospel the Samaritan woman is the first to hear that Jesus is the promised Messiah. And fittingly, she of low estate proclaims Jesus as Christ to others.
In the same way that Jesus transgressed the oppressive boundaries of the Samaritan woman’s life, he transgresses the oppressive boundaries of sin and death in our lives. But it doesn’t stop there: he expects us to transgress oppressive boundaries, to help make ways for the living water to flow, so to speak. It would be a shame if we – who have benefitted from Jesus’ transgressiveness – abided by the status quo of the injust boundaries in proliferation all around us.
Blessings for your sermons,