Exodus 17:1-7 John 4:5-42 Russell Eidmann-Hicks It was clear from the get-go that this woman’s heart was parched and dry, shrunk down to a thin and thirsty husk, hard and callous. ‘Don’t mess with me’ was written all over her face. The chip on her shoulder was as big as the bucket she carried. She went to the well in the heat of the day to avoid talking to the other villagers, especially the other women, who would gather in early morn or evening, with their cold shoulders and critical looks. She was in survival mode, defenses up, armor on, her tongue ready to cut and sting.
So why was this rabbi still talking to her? Why didn’t he curse at her and walk away, or ignore her – the way most people did? What was his problem? Over and over again she pushed him away, made fun of his weird comments, and reminded him of the enormous gulf between Jews and Samaritans. (“You worship in Jerusalem but we worship on Mt. Gerazim.”) That should have sent him packing. They she made a joke, which she thought was hilarious, about his bizarre comment about ‘living water,’ and ‘eternal life’. “Hey, if you give me that magic water, I won’t have to schlepp this stupid bucket to the well day after day.” Ha. Ha. Ha.
So why didn’t he get the message? Why was he still looking at her with those big calm eyes and talking with his smooth, peaceful voice? Why wasn’t he getting red in the face and shouting, the way most people reacted to her sarcasm? And why in heaven’s name was she feeling so calm herself, so at ease, and so energized and refreshed? Even when he caught on that she was no saint, that she had had four husbands and was now living in sin with the fifth, she didn’t feel shamed or humiliated. She felt relieved that someone could know her – all of her – could look deeply into her soul – and instead of condemning or hating her – accepted her. She could feel his approval and compassion; like cool water splashed on stones baked in the sun. She felt as if a flowing stream of renewal and healing was pouring into her soul, cleansing her sense of shame and sorrow – and filling her with refreshment and hope. She hadn’t felt this giddy and happy since she was a little girl. She heard his words again, echoing deep inside: “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Yes, that’s what she felt. But more importantly she stared and asked herself: ‘who is this man?’
The Samaritan woman at the well could easily have been a Jersey girl. She was tough and assertive, and didn’t take kindly to strangers, especially ones who got in her face. She was willing to lash back at anyone who got overly familiar. She could dish out whatever someone threw at her. And she certainly did to the strange rabbi who got way too personal with her.
But Jesus took it all in and didn’t blink. He treated her with respect – even though she was a foreigner and considered a heretic by most orthodox Jews. He treated her with honesty – even though she wasn’t being honest with him. And he treated her with compassion – even though she was doing all she could to push him away. She was not punished for her doubting and assertiveness, but rather, her pushing back brought her closer to Jesus. Sometimes we find ourselves closer to God when we wrestle with our faith, when we question and dig deeper. God loves us and is willing to be patient with us even when we react with sarcasm and doubt and hurt and rage.
In this season of Lent we are asked to look deeply at our own habits of defensiveness and selfishness. We are asked to consider how we might be a bit like this woman, or others… a tax collector, someone possessed, a prodigal, a Pharisee, or one who passes by a wounded traveler on the other side. We’re even asked if we are like Pontius Pilot or Judas Iscariot. We are asked to look honestly in the mirror of faith and to turn around, to dig deeper. But more – we are asked to look deeply into the face of God and to discover wholehearted love and acceptance. Then we will feel refreshing waters of spirit that will cleanse and enliven and heal us from the inside out.
It’s astounding that he, a Jewish rabbi would relate to a Samaritan – and a woman no less. Most would avoid this woman at all costs – and consider her unclean, less than human, and a pollution. Jesus though just speaks eye to eye, and treats her with the relaxed respect, opening the door wide to God’s love and salvation. He doesn’t judge on the basis of ethnicity or skin color or other labels – each person he meets he treats as God’s beloved.
Lewis Smedes tells this story that illustrates this transformation: “In Pulaski, Tennessee, where the Ku Klux Klan was born, a young minister named George Regas opened the door of his office one day to a woman who had scandalized the town by having a spectacular affair with a man who really stood for something in town. She did not have to tell the minister who she was: in Pulaski everybody knew her. In public – Amerelda – let’s call her that – flaunted the furies of southern shame, and in high style, too. She had been kicked out of the Methodist church. Divorced by her husband. But she wore her scarlet letter with withering nonchalance.
However, in the office of the young minister Amerelda was a tired spirit, heavy with shame: “Father Regas, I am not worthy of God, but I desperately need God. I’ll do anything to gain back God’s love. Help me. Help me, please. I’m so empty.” He told her that there was nothing she could do to gain back God’s love because she had never lost it.
Amerelda fought a savage fight against grace. Regas countered: “No, no, that’s not the way it works. God will accept you as you are. By God’s grace. You already feel all the sorrow you need to feel.”
Amerelda gradually let herself be accepted by God and gradually accepted herself in the same grace God gave to her. She slowly let the unshaming acceptance of people in that church get inside her soul. In the feeling of their acceptance she felt the wonder word of God: you are accepted. I do not believe this shamed woman could have discovered the grace of God in Pulaski, Tennessee, if she had not met God in the faces of a family of grace-based persons. After Amerelda’s heavy shame had been replaced by the lightness of grace, she became a grace-embodying person for others. There, in Pulaski, in 1957, when the Ku Klux Klan set the moral agenda, Amerelda reached out in grace to her black sisters and brothers, accepting them as she had been accepted. It is the law of grace.” (p. 129-130)
The law of grace is that when we receive it, we pass it along. The Samaritan woman experienced the grace and love of God through the conversation with Jesus – and she was transformed. She was cleansed, healed and refreshed by the living waters of grace. Then she turned around and became the first evangelist; she ran into town and talked to everyone she met about the teacher and healer she met, wondering out loud: “Could this be the messiah?”
The law of grace works within us as well. We learn from this story that Jesus doesn’t shun people, push them aside, or throw them under the bus. So for us in our age – we need to consider whom we discount, ignore or actively reject. We can ask what Jesus would do if she were a Muslim woman in a hijab? Or a woman without documents? Or a woman without money to pay for health insurance or a lawyer or shelter for her children? What would Jesus do if this was a Mormon or Southern Baptist or Unitarian? Why do we insist on creating litmus-tests for those who are acceptable and worth of care – when Jesus himself keeps jumping over our walls, our divisions and our exclusions?
Parker Palmer writes this in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy: “Some of what we must learn, if democracy is to flourish, comes only from “crossing over” into lives unlike our own, not fleeing from them in fear but entering into them in trust that an experience of “otherness” can help our closed hearts break open.”
In this season, when finger pointing and scapegoating are rife, let’s consider, as people of faith – how to be open to relating to others not like ourselves. Let’s be open to ‘otherness’ and to breaking our closed hearts open. Let’s cross borders. Then we will experience God’s grace and love, and pass this grace along. Thanks be to God. Amen.