On a snowy day after church several years ago, a parishioner’s car got stuck in the gate between the church and middle school parking lots. One would have expected the force of gravity to come in handy with the slight incline between the lots, but the snow was packed so deep that gravity was no help. The last few folks at church came to the rescue, pushing and pushing, but the car remained firmly in place. Finally, Glenn Gall, I believe, had the bright idea to look for cardboard in the church basement—surely we had a discarded box somewhere! After finding flattened cardboard in the furnace room, we tucked pieces under the rear wheels of the car, and down it went when we pushed again!
My surprise at how simple the solution was to this problem remains fixed in my memory so many years later. Previously, I had not idea that simple cardboard could accomplish all that work which human muscle power alone could not. That’s a story about how cars get unstuck, but what about people? How do they—how do we–get unstuck?
There are a lot of “stuck” people in our Gospel story today, whose cast of characters includes an anonymous Samaritan woman, Jesus, and his male disciples. On the geo-political scale, the Jews and the Samaritans were “stuck” in their enmity toward one another. Ancient divisions had simmered and solidified over generations. Centuries earlier, northern Judea, with its easily breeched defenses, had been overrun by the Babylonians. They enforced mass deportations that led to the mixing of populations. This strategy decreased the likelihood of cohesive resistance. It also led to frequent intermarrying between Jews and foreigners, thus mixing religions and race. Such practices were abhorrent to the Jews in the South. They considered their Samaritan neighbors half-breeds, not pure-blooded Jews. A split nation was stuck in racial and religious stereotypes.
When I moved to Alabama for graduate school in 1974, the first think that struck me there was the fact that the Civil War was still living history. Now, I knew it was history, and I knew that racism was living history, but I had no idea that the Civil War was still living history. People referred to it as “the war between the States,” not the Civil War. And they knew their battle monuments, the stories of the battles, and more. I was referred to as a Northerner more times than I could count. When Steve moved down to Alabama, he was told by Southern Baptists that there was no way he would get a church job as a Northerner unless he had connections. Frankly, his only connection was me, another Northerner. He wound up working food preparation at Hardees, selling Life Insurance–well, trying to sell life insurance– and selling shoes at a discount shoe store called Shoe City. Historic enmity, played out generations later.
A byproduct of the historic stuck-ness between the Samaritans and the Jews was the difference between their places of worship. Samaritans worshiped on Mount Gerizim; Jews at the Temple in Jerusalem. The place of worship was very important in ancient times, and even today is a continuing factor in religious and political strife in the Middle East. The split nation of Samaritans and Jews was stuck about where God was truly, appropriately worshiped.
Yet there is still more stuck-ness in the story. In the patriarchal culture of Jesus’ day, there were generally two scenarios in which a woman and man might be found alone together—first, if they were blood relatives or second, if the man was propositioning the woman. As I explored artistic depictions of this story, what struck me most powerfully were the gender dynamics I felt seeing this woman alone at the well in a rural area with this man who is a stranger to her, asking for water. We cannot miss these dynamics as we consider the story.
In what scenario would a man and a woman be conversing together in a deserted public place–what alone a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman? In what scenario would a man and a woman be conversing about theology, worship, and the long-awaited Messiah, when engaging in such theological conversations was the privilege of men, not women? We all know the answer–it is none.
There is one final, profoundly personal point of stuck-ness in the story. Marriage in ancient patriarchal society came early for women, shortly after puberty, and somewhat later for men. It was a contractual agreement between families, not an individual arrangement between lovers. Divorce was easy for men, who could provide a writ of divorcement over small infractions, major differences, or great moral lapses.
Hear the words of the Law found in Deuteronomy 24: 1: “If a man marries a woman and then it happens that he no longer likes her because he has found something wrong with her, he may give her divorce papers, put them in her hand, and send her off.” Divorce was not a right of women. The Samaritan woman in the text–already an outcast by race and religion–has been five times put away and sent off by men, and the man she now lives with is not her husband.
There is another possible scenario, however. Jesus comments that the woman has been married five times, but never states that she has been divorced. Levirite Law, as recorded in Deut. 25:5-10 provides for widows in this way: “If a man dies without bearing offspring, his widow is to marry the deceased’s brother.” Now, Levirite Law might not have been practiced in more syncretistic northern Israel, and there are only two instances of it recorded in the Hebrew scriptures, but it is possible that this woman has been repeatedly widowed and remarried, widowed and divorced, or some combination thereof.
This woman was clearly stuck, personally stuck, deeply stuck. Was it ‘her fault’ that she had so many failed relationships, and/or deceased husbands? Was she unable to have children, or did she face some illness of mind, body, or spirit that made it difficult for her to function in a relationship? Was she too strong of spirit for the men she had been married to? Historically, the Samaritan woman is often portrayed as a “loose woman,” who would bed down with anyone, anywhere. Yet to lose so many relationships was never in this woman’s power to choose. These six men are surely background characters in this story.
Regardless of the reasons, this woman was stuck, stuck in patterns that repeated themselves over and over again. This stuck-ness stripped her of social status as an honorable woman. Rather than enjoying the friendship of other women, she was likely the brunt of judging stares and juicy gossip. This is surely the reason Jesus finds her alone, drawing water from the well at high noon– the hottest time of day–rather than in the cool of the morning or the early evening, as would be customary for the other women. The Samaritan woman was not “wanted” in the company of the other women. She was not “safe” in their company. She was not “accepted” in their company.
Generally, Jews from Judea took the long road around Samaria to get to Galilee, not the short road through it, as Jesus and his disciples did that day. Barreling straight through generational prejudices was Jesus’ way. On this hot day, his basic need for a cup of water leads to surprising encounters with surprising consequences. He treats the woman as a person with legitimate ideas, thoughts, and perspectives. He invites her to open up to the idea that “God is Spirit,” (John 4:24), that a specific geographical location for worship is less important than the authenticity of worship. He discloses her past in a challenging rather than condemning way. To Jesus, her personal history does not stand in the way of what and who this woman can become. He invites her into his world with an offer of “an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life” (John 4:14, The Message Bible). Her own thirst for change and welcome is so great, this is an invitation she cannot refuse! Seen in its historical, religious, cultural, and gendered context, it’s all radical stuff.
Jesus’ male followers return and are shocked that he is talking to a woman. That is unsettling! They are still stuck. The woman, however–so amazed and undone by the conversation with Jesus–forgets her water pot, throws caution to the wind, and returns to the village to tell everyone about the man she met at the well that day who knew all about her. She becomes an evangelist, whose testimony leads many of the Samaritans to ‘come and see for themselves’ and ultimately be convinced that Jesus is the Messiah (John 4:42).
The Samaritan woman gets unstuck. In her singular encounter with Jesus, generations of stereotypes about Jews and Samaritans begin to unravel. In her singular encounter with Jesus, generations of belief about where one should worship God are challenged. In her singular encounter with Jesus, cycles of marriage and divorce followed by more of the same are laid bare before the light of God’s grace. In her singular encounter with Jesus, living waters–springing up, gushing up–are offered in place of patterns of living that here only led to more death. Through this singular encounter with Jesus, this despised woman becomes an emissary of God to her neighbors.
I’ve been stuck. Have you been stuck? We are all stuck, in ways we may know and places we may not. A critical thought based on how someone looks, not knowing who they are. Stuck. A stereotype about a whole group of people. Stuck. Cycles of self-reproach that lead to nowhere but more self-hatred. Stuck. Riding the fence on one’s commitment to Christ, with one foot in the door and one out. Stuck. Sometimes we are hesitant to admit to ourselves where we are stuck.
One of the greatest blessings for me of finding a Spiritual Director last year and continuing Spiritual Direction has been getting unstuck. In the light of increasing unstuck-ness, I am more capable of seeing the places where I am still stuck, or slowly getting unstuck. I can sense the artesian springs of living water gushing up, spilling out, breaking forth in my life in new ways.
As we close, I want to offer you a few moments of silence to reflect on where you, personally, are still stuck. Notice one place you are stuck (Silence). Listen for the God who is Spirit (Silence). Imagine rivers of life–artesian springs–flowing in, around, over, and through that stuck-ness (Silence). Consider one small step you will take this week toward getting unstuck (Silence). Let us pray together…