Sitting By A Well
In 1916, Robert Frost wrote this poem while hiking mountains and woodlands:
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in the wood, and
I took the one less traveled by,
And that made all the difference.”
It did for Jesus. It did for a Samaritan woman. Jesus could have taken the more popular road to Galilee up the Jordan Valley, which albeit a little longer, was a soft and gentler road. But the one he chose led him through the rocky terrain of Samaria’s mountain region and, because of this, somewhere in the ages hence, we are still telling this story.
John, in his gospel, devoted a great deal of time talking about the personal relationships Jesus developed with others. John believes that salvation does not come through creed and doctrine but through the heart of God, being open to the in-breathing of God’s Spirit. Thus he reminds us, “That there will come a time when we will not worship God on your sacred mountain or mine, but in Spirit and in Truth.”
To illustrate this John has put together two stories of two entirely different people who had their lives changed when they met Jesus. To understand either one of these stories fully, we must play one off against the other.
Thanks to Garry last week, you met Nicodemus, once again. Nicodemus is someone I identify easily with. Like Nicodemus, I have occupied a place of privilege in not only our society, but within the church. I was born into a privileged social-economic group; I was baptised into the largest Protestant denomination in our country. As such, I was given my Christian name and have been known and called by this name. Except when I got in trouble at home and then our names where used. As an ordained minister, I have been given certain authority although admittedly, this authority is waning as progressive generations have grown suspicious of the church. Although, if I still want good service at a restaurant, snapping on that collar never hurts.
Yet, my place in this society also comes with its disadvantages. Looking at the world through a certain lens cannot help but produce a kind of blindness. I remember well my foray into the world of university. My first few years of engineering pretty much supported my narrow capitalistic view of the world. Then came my arts degree. And here I met people who believed that everyone in this country should receive a guaranteed income so they would be free to develop their interests in life. I met people from varying religious backgrounds who challenged my conservative constructs. I met people who thought that a belief in God was for weak minded and weak-willed people. Even in seminary, I met professors who challenged my ingrained assumptions of faith, God and grace. Maybe Socrates was right. “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
The problem with people like Nicodemus and I is that we came from this socially acceptable, theologically dominant place that provided us with much privilege which we didn’t even bother questioning. So, Jesus tries to break us out of this mold by talking to us about being born again. The engineering side of my brain, is right there with Nicodemus when he retorts, “Are you trying to tell me that a man can go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” At the same time, the philosophical side of my brain remembers holding my new grandchild last weekend and watching her, at two weeks of age, tossing her head about trying to take in all the mysteries of this new life. To see the world with innocent eyes, with wonder and questions, seeking understanding. That is the kind of rebirth Jesus is telling Nicodemus and myself that we must have into order to worship God in spirit and in truth.
Bouncing off this story, John tells of another encounter. This time it is with someone who is totally opposite to Nicodemus. A woman. An unnamed Samaritan woman. A woman totally outside of everything Nicodemus had an inside track to. Without going into the whole history, let us understand for today that the people from Judea and the people from Samaria did not get along. It was a religious divide along the lines of doctrine. Like so many divisions in the church, it caused people to separate from one another, stop talking to each other, get agitated if another crossed into their turf, pitted people against each other. This woman was politically and religiously an outsider to Jesus. As a woman, she held no place of power or privilege within her society. To add insult to injury, this woman came to the well at mid-day, the hottest part of the day. Not in the cool of the morning with the other women, but at mid-day when she was fairly sure no one else would be there., for she was a woman who had been married five times. A disgrace.
Many a sermon has been written about this woman of ill repute and how Jesus got her to repent and forgave her sins. Frankly, I wonder if we are reading the same text because I don’t see any of that in this story. I do see a disgraced woman. But I have wondered if she was like so many women you see today who are forced to live on the streets. Women who are often compelled to ‘marry’ themselves to men, having to provide attention and sex to them in exchange for food and shelter. Then, when the man becomes tired of them, they are simply cast out once again, into the streets. For too many acutely vulnerable women, these transient partnerships are the only form of security they have from other predators.
Whatever the case for this woman, I hear no condemnation in Jesus’ voice. In fact, I think Jesus’ interaction with her is brilliant and we would be wise to learn from it. It is fair enough to see that when this woman first encounters Jesus, her defenses are up. Considering where she was coming from, why wouldn’t they be? Not only is a male sitting at the well, but a Judean male, dressed as a rabbi. Instinctively she steels herself for the expected judgmental assault. “You, a Jew, are asking me for water?” Then she proceeds to stage two of her defense, mockery. “You have no bucket. How are you going to draw water?” When Jesus tells her about a living water, her mind goes to the pragmatic place of Nicodemus. “Give me some of this water so that I might never have to come to this well again in the heat of the day to avoid the smirks and gossip of others.”
It is then Jesus gently disarms her with truth asking her about her husband. I don’t hear Jesus really accusing her of anything. He simply says, “You have spoken the truth. Now we are getting somewhere. For you have had five husbands and the one you are with now is not your husband.” You can hear the thud of this response as it lands on her. You sense the quiet which followed. The revelation. The reality that the wells of her life, he wells of covenanting with manhood, have now all run dry. In conclusion, Jesus does not say, “Go and sin no more.” In this moment of truth, he invites her into dialogue as they discuss together their beliefs. In this moment, Jesus invites here to worship with him, not on her sacred mountain nor his, but in the spirit of God and in truth.
I will never begin to assume that I know what this woman, along with many others, endure in their lives, but in some small way, I do understand where she is coming from. There are times in my life when I have felt defeated as I know you all have. There was a time in my life when I was traumatized by being the victim of a vicious assault. A time in my life when I had no control over what was going to happen to me and was left to the mercy of others. Along with this, there have been times in my life that I felt like an outsider. I imagine, you have been there too. I have often felt like a person who occupies an awkward place in the world as a minister, a place many people, including some family members, don’t know how to relate to. And, admittedly, sometimes an outsider within my own denomination. The wisdom of this scripture brings assurances to my life.
In the pending transition of retirement, I see Jesus asking me to be born anew and see the world in a new, wonderful and curious way of a child. He may well be asking Wesley Church to do the same. I also see that this Jesus is willing to go the long way around just to come and meet me. I hear him offer to me ‘living water’. Not stagnant water, but a water that is flowing and churning. As any high school science student can tell you, water always flows downhill, down through the crevices of our lives to the cave’s floor. It runs over the hard-packed floor softening the earth, turning our hearts of stone into a workable clay which, in the hands of the master potter, may be remade into new vessels which are able to hold these living waters. That, my friends, is salvation.
There will come a day when we, all of God’s creations, will no longer worship our God on your mountain or mine, but in Spirit and in truth. May that day dawn soon upon us.