Sunday, March 19, 2017

the woman at the well

May my words be in the name of the Holy and undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The woman Jesus meets at the well of Sychar, whom we read of in today's gospel, certainly seems to have been an interesting character. First, she certainly does not appear to have been a shy woman, as is apparent from the back and forth banter she engages in with our Lord. And this conversation reveals her to have been not only sharp of tongue but sharp of mind also, for after her initial somewhat barbed remarks she engages with Christ in a quite serious theological discussion.

The next important thing we may say of her is that she most certainly has not lived what might be considered a conventional life to date, for she has been married no less than five times and is now living with another man to whom she is not married. And we can also glean from Scripture that she has paid a price for her lifestyle. We can know this because she comes to the well at noon – the hottest time of the day. This was not the time for drawing water. That was done either in the cool of the morning or later in the afternoon when the burning sun was no longer at its height. And it was a social time, where the woman who gathered caught up on the gossip of the day. That this woman comes at noon, a time when she can expect no one to be there, means that she is someone who is not popular with the other women of the locality. No doubt they fear that when the time comes for her to move on from her current partner, her gaze may fix upon one of their husbands as a possible replacement.

Something of this latter aspect of her character may have been apparent from her appearance, for Jesus' followers are surprised that he is talking to her. Why? Because she is a woman? But Jesus, we know, was in the habit of talking to women – he had many female followers, and indeed his group relied on some of them for financial support. Because she is a Samaritan? But Jesus did not go in for the Jewish custom of shunning those from this part of the world – he even has one as the leading figure in one of his parables; and we know that he cured a leper who was also a Samaritan. Yet still they wonder that he talks with her. I suspect that it is because there is something about her that signals to them that she is not a respectable woman according to the lights of their culture. Perhaps she is dressed a little too flamboyantly. Perhaps she has too much showy jewellery on. Perhaps her make-up is a little too extreme. Or perhaps it is some combination of all three. But there is definitely something about her that tells them that this is not the kind of woman that the man they are sure must be the Messiah should be talking to.

Their reaction is illustrative of an age-old problem. How do you indicate to someone that there are aspects of the way that they are living their life that you do not approve of because they objectively violate God's law without falling into the trap of yourself violating God's law by judging them, something that is the prerogative of God alone? It is a balance that followers of Christ have struggled with throughout all the history of the Church. Often we have focussed solely on moralising the sinner while neglecting completely reaching out to them. Our attempts at correcting sin have themselves been sinful – sometimes, it would seem, more sinful than the sin they strive to correct, for they have taken people struggling with their failings and driven them out of the Church, the very place Christ created to be a hospital for the healing of those afflicted by sin.

We would have done better to follow the example of our Lord, as set out for us in this passage of Scripture. First, I do not think their meeting was accidental. St John tells us that Jesus is tired and waits by the well while the others go on into the town to buy food. And no doubt he was tired after their long journey from Judea. But was the one who fasted 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness, the one who would later carry the great weight of the Cross from Jerusalem to Golgotha after a brutal scouring that would have killed most other men, is he really more tired than his disciples and unable to go on? Or is he engineering this meeting with the woman, so that he may reach out to her – and model for us how we also should reach out? For reach out of her he does – he, remember, is the one who initiates the conversation with her, much to her surprise, and persists, despite her somewhat barbed reaction to it. But his openness to this woman who has been marginalised by the society she lives in does not extend to an openness to the things that are wrong about her life. As we so often see him do elsewhere in the Gospels with those who have been excluded because of their behaviour, he points out her wrongdoings. He calls out her less than exemplary behaviour with regard to marital relations; and he even points out the manner in which she, along with all other Samaritans, have got things wrong in relation to the right practice of religion. And her reaction is illuminating. Does this sharp-tongued woman respond with angry words? Does she turn on her heel and walk away? No – his openness to her and his honesty about her situation convince her of the truth of what he says. We can learn much from her reaction – a person of goodwill will never be offended by the truth, even if it can be uncomfortable for them to hear it.

Indeed, far from being offended, the woman rushes back to the town, in such a hurry that she leaves her water jar behind, to tell other about the Messiah and bring them also to know Jesus. Over the course of her brief conversation with Jesus something remarkable has happened: she has gone from being a social pariah, to being a follower of Christ, to being an evangelist who brings others to know and believe in Jesus.

We have no name for the woman our Lord met by the well. But we do have names for others that we know – others that we exclude because we are unhappy about the way that they live, or whom, even if we do not exclude them from our lives we do not truly invite them in because we would find it too uncomfortable to share the gospel truths with them for fear it would cast an uncomfortable light on their own lives and the way that they live it. During the time that remains of Lent it might be a good idea to consider who it is in your life might fit that description. And then consider how you might follow the example of Christ by trying to reach out to them and helping them transform their lives utterly by drawing them back into the Kingdom of God. Amen.

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