March 30, 2014
The authors of the book we are currently reading in study group argue that the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus a couple of days before he crucified was the first Christian. They make a good argument about her understanding that the way of following Jesus was through death and resurrection came before the more famous male disciples figured that out. I think, though, you could argue that another woman, someone we read about much earlier in the life of Jesus, could also be claimed at the first Christian. Like the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, she remains unnamed through history, while the men we call the disciples get their names plastered not only throughout the pages of the New Testament, but they get churches, colleges, streets, boats and even cities named after them.
We read about this woman’s story in the fourth chapter of John’s gospel, which records the longest conversation that Jesus had with anyone, including Nicodemus, whose story is right before this one. It’s interesting that we even have this story in the Bible because the woman and Jesus were the only ones there. I have no evidence to back this up, but I can imagine that the reason the story survived to get included in the gospel of John, was that she kept telling it. I imagine she told it to her daughters, who told it to their daughters. I imagine she kept telling the story to anyone new who showed up in her Samaritan village. Maybe as the buzz about Jesus grew, people got more and more interested in her story.
A lot of you who already know this story are aware that from its initial words, there is something strange going on. There had been the usual crazy stuff going on with the religious establishment. This time they were trying to provoke bad feelings between the people who were caught up in the stuff that John the Baptist had been doing and saying, and the folk who were becoming growingly interested in this new guy from Nazareth. So Jesus decided to head back to Galilee. But the story says he had to go to Samaria to get there.
That had to catch people’s attention when they heard the story begin with. “Why on earth would he go through Samaria? They’re nothing but a bunch of hoodlums and half breeds. He should have taken the few extra miles to go around it and avoid even the dust of Samaria getting on his feet. That’s what a good Jew would do.” Of course, if you were a Samaritan and heard the beginning of this story, you would have had a much different reaction. “Wow, He’s coming right through our territory, not ignoring us in disgust like most of the others teachers. But wait a minute, maybe we don’t want his kind here, anyway.”
Jesus did go right through Samaria and stopped at a well outside a little village called Sychar. This is not the first time this same well makes and appearance in Biblical literature. Okay scholars of the Bible, do you know the other story where this well is mentioned? There is a big hint in the dialogue between Jesus and this Samaritan woman. Tradition had it, that it was the well Jacob dug for his children and livestock more than a millennium before this encounter. And wells played a big part in Jacob’s life. It was at a well where he began his 14 year long quest to marry Rachel.
When Jesus stopped at the well for a drink it was Noon. The heat of the day. And there was this woman there fetching water for herself and her boyfriend. Now why would anyone wait until the hottest part of the day to go get water from the village well? Any ideas. Because nobody liked her. She was an outcast. We learn that she had been married and divorced several times, and the guy she was currently with didn’t even bother to marry her. It was a small village, and with all the men in and out of her life, she would have been the source of considerable marital discord there. There weren’t many people more marginalized than a Samaritan woman who was rejected by most of the citizens of her own village.
Yet there Jesus was asking her for a drink of water. The number of taboos that Jesus broke in that simple request are staggering. She’s a woman. She’s a Samaritan. Doing more than glancing at her would have rendered Jesus ritually unclean. There are still places in that part of the world where an encounter like this would be scandalous. But Jesus wanted to accept water from her and even drink from her cup. And if that is not enough, they get into a rather profound theological debate. Remember that most Jewish teachers would not have thought any woman, much less a Samaritan woman, as incapable of forming a coherent thought.
Jesus started talking about water, since they were both thirsty. I think it was Steve Mayer who reminded us last week, during Anita’s presentation, that people who live in a desert region have a much different attitude about water than most of us, living in the Great Lakes Region do. It’s easy enough for us to take water for granted, to not think very much about it because it is always there. Just turn on the faucet. Not so in the middle of the dessert in Samaria, or in most of the surrounding territory. Water meant to them, and still for many in that region today, what oil means to us.
We don’t think much about water until something like a drought hits. Vast parts of California are in the midst of a three year drought. And even though reservoirs are nearly out of water, people in Southern California still want to use lots of water to preserve their lawns in what is basically a dessert. The congress of the United States has passed exemptions from the Clean Water Act for the fracking industry, which means they are allowed to use as much of it, and pollute as much of it as they wish with their waste products with no consequence. One of these new computer facilities that the NSA is building is going to require 1.7 millions of gallons of water a day to run the computers that are collecting every bit of data that they can from us. And this is in Utah, one of the driest states of the Union.
I can’t imagine what Jesus and that woman would have thought if somebody told them that one day people would pollute water at will and risk ruining an abundant water supply. Or what would they have said if someone told them that for a long time people regarded water as something everyone had a right to, but that right put in jeopardy because we have turned water into a commodity that large multi-national corporations sell to us in plastic bottles?
For the woman Jesus met at that Samaritan well, procuring enough water was what shaped a big part of her day, both physically and psychologically. So when Jesus started talking about this living water that will put an end to thirst, she says, perhaps with some sarcasm, “Please give it to me. I want a drink of that so I will never have to lug my buckets to the well and back, and risk running into some of the other women. I know what they say about me here.”
They started talking about her personal life, the part about all the husbands, and the current arrangements. And then they got into deep theology. She wanted to know where the best place to worship God is, their place or Jesus’ place. He said both and neither. 21-23 “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship God neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem. You worship guessing in the dark; we Jews worship in the clear light of day. God’s way of salvation is made available through the Jews. But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. 23-24 “It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the God is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before God in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship God must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”
The woman had never heard anything like this before. Here Jesus was busting down all the boundaries, not just at the well, but in all the cosmos. That’s, I think, where she began to understand what that living water business was about. This was about quenching a thirst that was not in the body, but in the soul, and not just in her, but everybody and everything.
At that point, the disciples traveling with Jesus come back. They had gone off to get some food. They were shocked, appalled, befuddled, disgusted, and confused to see Jesus chatting with that Samaritan woman. As soon as she got a look at them and their reaction, she made a quick exit, realizing that those guys were nothing like Jesus.
She went back to the village. Not sneaking back, hoping that nobody would see her and hassle her, but going right into the center of the village and telling everybody what had just happened. “He knew all about me. The husbands and the jerk I’m with now. He knew everything and still he said God was looking for people like me. That I counted for something in God’s eyes. He said this is way beyond the man/woman thing, the Samaritan/Jew thing, this temple/that temple. He said the God he loves, loves us. It’s life. Just like he said. It starts like a trickle and before too long it’s a gushing stream that’s carrying you to something new and alive. If she wasn’t the first Christian, she was surely the first evangelist, because lots of villagers, people who had despised her, knew there was something she was saying they had been thirsting to hear. So they went to see Jesus themselves, and they became believers like her.
Maybe the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair, and anointed him for his burial, understood more than that Samaritan woman that Jesus was calling us to walk this path of death and resurrection. But how much of that do any of us really understand. For that woman with the jar of alabaster her confession came with tears. For the woman at the well, it was the new way of living she found in Jesus. Tears and wells in the parched dessert. It’s all water of life. AMEN