Sermon March 15: John 4:5ff Nevertheless She Persisted Rev. Betsy Hogan
There are times, I am forced to admit, when the beautiful heavenly mysticism of a particular passage of scripture leaves me vaguely annoyed. And grumbling back at it.
A few weeks back. “Consider the lilies, how they grow” and “consider the birds of the air, who neither sow nor gather into barns” – and I find myself grumbling back at these beautiful heavenly mystical words of Jesus with “consider the temperature, how it falls”.
The beautiful heavenly mystical words of Jesus… I do think we get to grumble back at them sometimes. Because our world now is NOT the world then. And that actually matters, if we’re going to attend to the words of the scriptures seriously as though they still speak now.
It’s actually less serious and less honest to let them sit there and NOT grumble back at them. Because it suggests that they can’t hack it in this present reality. That they have to be held, crystallized in the past, like idols instead of living words. And that isn’t so. Sometimes notwithstanding the beautiful heavenly mysticism of a particular passage of scripture, we do get to push back.
And the story of the Woman at the Well that we heard earlier, I think is one of those times.
Because beautiful and heavenly and mystical it surely is. In fact, it’s laden with so much subtext and symbolism, this story of Jesus meeting the Woman at the Well, that just the mere task of bringing it down to earth long enough to PARSE all that subtext and symbolism is fairly monumental – before we even get to the point of it.
Because John’s gospel, of the four gospels, is the one that’s the least about minute-by-minute literal coverage of events in Jesus’ life… and is the one that instead is deliberately built. Events are shaped into stories.
And while it’s always perfectly possible that each event occurred precisely and literally as recorded… it’s also notable how many familiar narrative tropes and symbols appear in John’s gospel, and how the events that he records – with these stories around them full of huge detail – don’t appear in the other gospels.
There’s a “built-ness” about it all. That doesn’t erase meaning – it may erase whatever meaning is associated with literalness, but it just adds a different kind of meaning. In which the narrative tropes and the symbols add their own meaning. As really is the case with this story of Jesus meeting the Woman at the Well.
Because stories in biblical times in which a man and a woman meet at a well – that was an automatic narrative marker for people in biblical times that this story is going to be about a betrothal. A proposal of marriage.
Moses meets his betrothed at a well. Isaac proposes marriage to Rebekah at a well. Jacob meets Rachel at a well.
Man meets woman at a well – a proposal of marriage is at hand. It’s a narrative trope that the first audience would have known as well as any of us might know that whoever annoys the heroine most in the first few scenes of a romantic comedy is sure to become her true love by the end of it.
So man meets woman at a well. A betrothal is at hand. The audience is ready.
Except wait! More subtext, more symbolism. This well is in Samaria, this woman is a Samaritan! This can’t be a betrothal story – Jesus is a Jew. Samaritans are to be despised, loathed, avoided at all costs. So this is obviously not going to be a betrothal story because Jesus is a Jew. He’ll know better than to even TALK to a Samaritan.
And she’s a WOMAN! I mean, if this were a betrothal story we could give him a bye – but it’s clearly NOT a betrothal story due to her being a Samaritan –
So he’s obviously NOT going to talk to this woman, which would be contrary to every social norm. A man would NEVER talk to a woman he doesn’t know, and a rabbi certainly wouldn’t. So that’s definitely not going to happen –
And then on top of that, this is a woman who’s coming to the well at NOON. Which is not when the nice women, the properly brought-up women, the women who have friends and family and a position in the community, it is not when the nice women go to the well to fetch water.
THEY go to the well to fetch water early in the morning when it’s still relatively cool out. They ALL go. In a group. In the early morning, in the cool of the day.
They do NOT go to the well at noon. That’s when the not-so-nice women go to the well. By themselves, because no one will associate with them. Because they’re not quite what they ought to be.
Like this particular woman, with her great abundance of former husbands and a fellow now who isn’t her husband. Who arrives at the well at noon. By herself. Because that’s what her life is like. She isn’t welcome around anybody else. So it’s not until they’ve all gathered their water for the day that she ventures out.
This Samaritan Woman. Clearly not betrothal material. Arrives at the well. At noon.
Where contrary to every expectation that anyone hearing this story is going to have, Jesus speaks to her anyway. All that subtext, out the window. This story is meant to shock those who hear it, and it DID shock those who first heard it.
Because a symbolic betrothal by the well IS in fact what they get. Because when Jesus identifies himself as the Messiah for whom she’s been waiting, she believes. And she becomes, just as surely as the twelve who follow Jesus on his way, she becomes a disciple. She runs back to her town, she proclaims “I have found the Messiah, come and see”, and people listen to her, and they run back with her, and they too come to believe.
She enters into the new covenant with Jesus, as a follower and a disciple. It IS in fact a symbolic betrothal by the well story! It shocks the first listeners, it forces them to broaden their view, widen their understanding, welcome into the family of faith those who are Samaritans – it’s a big overturning Good News of God’s Welcome, beyond the bounds of backward earthly rules about who’s in and who’s out, a proclamation of God’s love stretching to embrace those who are NOT like us, those whom we’ve imagined as outsiders.
And look around. And who do we not speak to. And who do we step over. And who do we imagine isn’t just as worthy of the gift of living water, the gift of God’s love and embrace, the gift of inclusion and welcome in community, as we are?
It’s a magnificent story, the Samaritan Woman at the Well. A little irritating, to be sure, that we never find out what her name is, but even still. Her gumption, her persistence, in not only answering Jesus – engaging in a conversation that under normal circumstances would have been forbidden – in not only answering Jesus but also challenging him – speaking to him like she’s his equal – she really is quite magnificent. Even IF we never find out her name.
So why, given all that, why would this story still make me grumble?
Well, I’ll tell you. Because “Sir,” the Samaritan Woman finally says to Jesus, “Give me some of this living water you offer so that I will never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
That’s the part that makes me grumble. Because I know that this is beautiful and heavenly and mystical language... We receive from God living water, the water of new life and healing and restoration and nurture and love and welcome… This living water pours out for us, from God who embraces us and lifts us up, and calls us beloved…
But once we get past all the beautiful and heavenly and mystical language? People still get thirsty. People still need clean water to drink. And some of those people are still having to trek out to a well every day. Are having to drink melted snow. Dirty river water. Are having to boil what comes out of their taps so it won’t poison them. People still get thirsty and need clean water to drink.
And beautiful and heavenly and mystical language? Doesn’t change that. Sure, the Samaritan woman has been restored to her community, she’s presumably not ostracized anymore as the one who led her community to meet and believe in the Messiah – but she’s still going to get thirsty and she’s still going to have to go back to that well to draw water.
And so beautiful and heavenly and mystical language? When there are thousands and thousands of people in Canada alone, living on First Nations reserves, who’ve been on boil-water orders for decades? Never mind other parts of the world, experiencing drought?
It’s not enough. That’s what makes me grumble about this passage. Because it’s almost cruel. Can you imagine if Moses had said to the people of Israel, parched and begging for water in the desert, “But God has given you living water, released you from slavery, so that you will never thirst again”?? I don’t think things would have ended very well for Moses, if that’s what he’d told the thirsty Israelites in the desert. There’s a reason why God tells Moses to take up his staff and smack it on a rock so that water will flow out. It’s because people get thirsty for real. People need actual water. Beautiful heavenly language just isn’t enough.
The good news is, that it’s readings like this that remind us of that. Or at least, they CAN remind us of that. Of the limits of beautiful heavenly language. Of how there are times when WORDS about the gift of God’s love and embrace and WORDS about inclusion and everyone mattering and WORDS about we’re all precious children of God really do have to manifest on the ground.
Or else they’re not just empty – they’re kind of insult to injury.
We’re already getting tested a bit on this right now. We have good and heartfelt words – and we really mean them – about caring how each other is doing in the midst of all this uncertainty. And already that’s manifesting in people making decisions that on purpose are directly and actively caring.
People at low risk offering help that allows people at higher risk to stay home. Plans being made to ensure that those who have to depend on food services or shelter services won’t get forgotten. Not just in our words but on the ground.
And these things are good. It’s not good that there’s a wildly contagious virus out there, but it’s good to be reminded that beautiful words about everyone mattering aren’t enough, if everyone patently isn’t mattering on the ground.
So I suspect we’re going to be pushed by this, and it isn’t going to be easy. Grocery shelves getting emptied and we expect them to be restocked – but if everyone matters then the staff who do the restocking matter too. And might have to self-isolate. Or stay home with their kids if the schools do close. If everyone matters, then the just employment policies that all of you ensure for me and the other staff in this place – I have to be loud in return about saying that’s how it should be for all of you. And for everyone else.
It’s a testing time. Are the beautiful words about love and care pouring out like living water, embracing all God’s children because all God’s children matter – are they just words? Or when actual water’s what’s needed, will they translate on the ground?
I think we’re going be pushed on that. And that’ll be part of how God is at work in all this. Making us mindful of the health and well-being not just of other people generally, but specifically other people we might not usually specifically think about. Or making us more aware of how our actions or our needs or our hopes might affect other people, and vice versa.
It’s a testing time and a pushing time. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It doesn’t make it a GOOD thing, it just makes it a thing that goodness and Godness are flowing through, pouring through, moving through…
Like living water. Embracing us and lifting us up.
Thanks be to God. Amen.