Who is this God? And what is God up to?
We’re journeying through Lent with three guides, well, five if you count the siblings. Mary and Martha with their anger and grief, Lazarus with his pesky deadness, Nicodemus with his questions and fear; today this woman who doesn’t get named, with her baggage and her boldness, and actually, the disciples too in this one, all of these faith relatives of ours have their worlds blown open and their imaginations completely rewired for who God actually is and what God might actually be up to.
So let’s jump in with today’s guide, The Samaritan Woman.
I suspect the reason she’s not named is because the division and tension between Judeans and Samaritans before and beyond this story crept into the telling too. What’s most important to know is what’s most shocking and hardest to get over: she’s a Samaritan. Woman.
Judeans and Samaritans were all Jews, they had the same ancestors- but they had different practices, different scriptures, different worship.
Each one was right; each one knew the other was wrong. With so much scorn and disdain, they avoided each other whenever possible. Which was often possible. This meant that despite the shortest route from Judea to Galilee being through Samaria, it wasn’t often used by Judeans. And if Jesus had taken the regular route, this conversation its consequences would never happened. Jesus and the Samaritan Woman might never have met.
But God so loved the world. And Jesus went through Samaria.
So the conversation happened.
The writer of this story wants us to infer a few things about her right away from details we might not pick up being 21st century readers: she is coming to the well at the hottest time of day, when nobody comes to the well, and she is coming alone. Probably she has stopped trying to come in the early morning with the other women and children, when nobody really talked to her anyway, and it was too painful to see them surrounded by their big, loud families, discussing their sons, and husbands, while she trudged along behind them with her water jug on her shoulders, no one to share her load. So even though it’s a miserable, scorching walk in the middle of the day, it’s easier to come alone.
But today there is someone at the well. A man. Judean, clearly not Samaritan. She ignores him and goes about her business, until he clears his throat and addresses her, Excuse me, can I have a drink of that water?
And the conversation begins.
Encountering God, seeing Jesus, this life of faith and following, is not about answers handed down from heaven, not about good behavior or earned right or accumulated knowledge or perfect piety. It’s a conversation– it’s a back and forth with doubt and insight, frustration and challenge, with breakthroughs and mysteries that remain unsolved. And most often, we meets Jesus in places of need - sometimes our own, sometimes someone else’s. God comes to us in the real stuff of life, when we’re open and available to be encountered.
Here, encounter with God looks like two people from opposite sides of the fence, one with sweaty, dusty thirst, the other, a lonely, isolated person with a complicated living situation doing an arduous daily task with no support or companionship. Their religions forbid men and women from interacting, forbid Judeans and Samaritans from interacting and yet, in the glaring differences and walls that separate absolutely, a moment of connection happens anyway, and astonishingly, in their shared need there is dignity, generosity and humanity.
So the conversation happens. Jesus and Samaritan Woman.
He knows all about her tragedy. She has no people; five times she’s been divorced, abandoned, or widowed. A man could cast off a woman for nearly any reason, and if a husband dies and she has no sons, she has no protection, security, food or home. So she survives however she can, and probably has come to see herself the way the world sees her. She’s the disposable person, belonging to nobody. That’s her identity; that’s her lot; that’s her role.
But the longest recorded conversation Jesus has with anyone, is with her. He sees her. He engages her like an equal, addresses her intelligence, listens to her, recognizes the totality of her story – the painful parts and the parts before and beyond those. He treats her like she already belongs, and in so doing, he gives her a new role and identity.
When Jesus offers the woman living water, springing up from within; water of life as they are sitting here in this barren place where lack of water means sure and certain death, here at the ancient well of their shared ancestor, the place of God’s provision and protection, the well that sustains them, to which the whole village must arduously trek and laboriously draw water to stay alive, she is mystified, and feels the yearning within her rise up, and at the same time as she feels the tamped down longing come to live she is right at this moment being quenched, being giving this living water he speaks of.
Jesus doesn’t see her as a tragedy or a reputation or a burden or a cipher. When he sees her personhood the life within her so long dead, like Lazarus, wakes up. He treats her like she participates and so she does.
She recognizes him as a prophet, poses to him the question that divides their people, right out in the open, she names it. Just like Nicodemus great teacher of the law, who wrestled and pushed back with his questions, just like Martha and Martha who confronted him and demanded an answer, she lays the difficulty right at his feet. Your people, say the temple in Jerusalem is where God is found and only if you worship there are you truly seeking God. Our people say this mountain before us is where God meets people. Which is it then?
And he responds with those words we’ve just heard in a previous conversation – spirit and truth – trust me, he answers, the time is coming when it won’t matter where people worship. Those who seek God do so in spirit and truth. God will meet people in that place.
And like Nicodemus, she ventures a statement loaded with question, I know the Messiah is coming….
And he responds with the timeless words of Yahweh, when the voice of God from the burning bush declared to their shared ancestor Moses, “I AM.”
And the whole world cracks open.
She leaves her jar. Like James and John left their nets to follow, she walks away from the thing that had brought her there to begin with, and leaves behind who she was at the well beside him. And she runs. Free, fast, unencumbered. She runs back to her town and tells everyone – Come and see! Come and see this man who knows everything about me. He can’t be the Messiah, can he?
And they come.
They listened to her. And why wouldn’t they?
Can you imagine what they saw when she flew back into town without her water jug? Confident, luminous, upright and unflinching? She undoubtedly looked completely different than she did when she skulked out of town in the midday heat. She left an empty shadow of a person, and returned radiant, filled with passion and purpose, her shoulders high, her head, raised, her voice firm and eyes lit up, her face looking straight into the faces of others instead of down at the ground in front of them. How could they not take in what she was saying?
The living water he promised, the water she’d so desperately craved when he offered it, they felt it bubbling right up out of her and spilling onto them, drawing them back to the source of the water themselves, and then the whole town encountered Jesus.
Imagine being the unsuspecting disciples, who left to buy lunch, and returned to a different evangelism strategy? The poor disciples are upset and confused and a little pouty about whether someone else brought him food when that was their job.
Not only is this unnamed Samaritan woman with a sketchy social standing the first person to whom Jesus reveals that he is Messiah, but she is legitimately the first preacher in Christianity. Before the disciples even, she is the first evangelist, and she’s effective! Her whole town signs on quick, and this stop wasn’t even on the tour schedule!
But Jesus tells them they are part of something that started before them and continues after them – their part is important but this isn’t their show. The work they do now was begun by others, and these people they dismiss without a thought are the ones who Jesus will be staying with for the next few nights, so just sit back and let it unfold – for God so loves the whole wide world.
And the disciples now must bear witness to the reality that Jesus will always be found in the world, for the whole world, and will not stay confined to our plans or spaces or ideas or tribes. Nobody gets a corner on God, and as soon as we’ve labeled ourselves ‘the temple people,’ or ‘the mountain people,’ or ‘the true followers’ with ‘the correct beliefs,’ we’re about to be surprised by Jesus hanging out with the ones we’ve despised and dismissed. And then we must ask again, Who is this God and what is God up to?
I wonder what the first preacher would ask us if she were here?
Maybe she’d ask about our conversations with Jesus.
When have we felt seen and known, in the back-and-forth honesty with God?
When have our ideas of the world or ourselves been overthrown, and instead we’ve found ourselves deeply connected to something we’d been missing and hadn’t even known we needed?
Have we ever had a moment of ditching our own water jugs, or nets, or tombs, and finding a new identity and purpose inside the love and purposes of God?
Have we tasted the living water? Unexpectedly felt the thrill of coming alive?
Something in us touching something outside of us and discovered quite unpredictably that life we did not make happen bubbled up within us and end up blessing others?
When have we felt the life within us joining miraculously in the life in the world?
When have we found, in our need or in someone else’s need, the presence of God meeting us in the giving and receiving?
God comes to us in the real stuff of life, when we’re open and available to be encountered.
Like the Samaritan Woman, Nicodemus, Lazarus, Mary, Martha, the whole town of Samaritans and the baffled disciples, Jesus encounters us in the ways we’re least suspecting and most needing.