Part of my job as a pastor of a downtown church is dealing with the never-ending stream of people who come by looking for help. Often, their stories are heartbreaking. They’ve lost their jobs and are about to be evicted; they need money for a bus ticket or gas. Sometimes, it’s an elderly grandmother having to take care of her grandchildren because of their mother’s illness or incarceration. Or there’s the 19-year old Nigerian boy whose family was evicted for nonpayment of rent after his father abandoned him and his mother and sisters. I’ve had to develop a thick skin, and an ear for falsehoods, because often the stories aren’t true or are only partly true.
On Tuesday evening, as I was waiting for the beginning of the Lenten class, I had to deal with a man who couldn’t understand why the shelter wasn’t open (they’ve switched to summer hours with daylight savings time). He left a couple of times and returned and wanted to tell me about all the ways he’d been mistreated by the shelter staff. I finally was able to convince him that it would be fine for him but he needed to leave the property until intake began at 7:30. He left just as folks were coming in for the class.
Then, a few minutes after we’d begun talking about the meaning of the cross, I saw out of the corner of my eye movement in the loggia. Someone was gesturing to me. I sighed and went out, and undoubtedly made a comment under my breath about yet another supplicant. But to my surprise, the man handed me an envelope and said, “Here’s some money. You helped me out when I needed it, and I wanted to offer something back in return.” I suspected he meant that he had stayed in the shelter at some point in the past, but still, it was an enormous surprise and it reminded me that all of the cynicism and barriers that I’ve built up over the last 8 years of dealing with people in need, they are human beings after all, and in my encounters with them, I need to remain open to learning from them, open to their pain and suffering, their dignity, and their hopes for the future.
We build up barriers in ourselves to protect ourselves and to keep us from seeing the needs in other people, the dignity in those unlike ourselves. In today’s gospel reading, we see the possibilities that open up in a different sort of encounter, in which the opening request for help leads, over the course of a conversation, to transformation and faith.
Imagine this. A Samaritan woman comes to get water from the well. It’s the middle of the day, hot. It’s a daily chore. She’s all alone, by choice or necessity? Typically, like so many other chores in traditional villages, fetching water is a communal activity—the chance to gossip livens up the drudgery of the task. But she’s alone, because she’s the object of their gossip? Or have they excluded her because of her inappropriate sexual behavior?
She’s alone and likely wants to stay alone, to do her chores without bother. But there’s someone at the well, a Jew. Will he ignore her? Is he going to spit at her? Make snide comments about her being Samaritan? But no, he asks her for a drink, and in the surprise of that request begins an encounter that ends with her transformation.
With today’s Gospel we arrive at the second of a set of stories from the Gospel of John that we are reading during Lent. Last week we heard the story of Nicodemus, and this week we have the story of the Samaritan woman. The two stories are similar in several respects, but it is the differences between them that are especially revealing.
In the first place, we have two very different people who encounter Jesus. Nicodemus is the consummate insider—a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, a member of the High Court of the Jewish community, the Sanhedrin. The Samaritan woman is the ultimate outsider. She’s a member of a community hated by the Jewish community of Jesus’ day. The revulsion stems from the Samaritans having built their own temple, on Mt. Gerizim. They regarded themselves as descended from the Israelites who had lived in the northern kingdom and were crushed by the Assyrians in the 8th c. BCE. The Jews hated them in part, too, because they viewed them as syncretistic and ethnically impure. Of course, besides being a member of this hated community, the Samaritan woman was probably an outsider in her own community, having been married five times, and now living with a man not her husband.
There are other differences, too. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night; he initiates the conversation with Jesus. The encounter between Jessu and the Samaritan woman takes place in broad daylight, and the conversation is initiated by Jesus, not by the woman. In fact, she’s surprised that he would talk to her at all, let alone ask her for water.
But there are also differences in the ways the two people respond to Jesus. Nicodemus is puzzled by, and refuses to explore the ambiguity of Jesus’ statements to him—Did Jesus mean “You must be born again, or you must be born from above? The woman, equally puzzled by similarly incomprehensible speech by Jesus, asks him what he means, and asks for the water about which he speaks. Nicodemus vanishes from the scene to return later in the story, the woman leaves Jesus, but brings her whole village back to meet him.
The Samaritan woman, the “woman at the well” is traditionally regarded as a penitent sinner, but the gospel story is much more complex than the usual tale of a sinner coming to recognition of her sins, asking Jesus for forgiveness, receiving Jesus’ forgiveness, then amending her life. But it’s so much more than that. In fact, sin, repentance, forgiveness, none of that is mentioned in the story. Instead, we see a woman coming to faith. The encounter is so transformative, so exciting, that she forgets why she came there in the first place.
The woman leaves the well, leaves her water-jug behind, runs back to town and tells everyone what has happened to her. The townspeople then, invite Jesus to stay with them for a few days, and come to believe in Jesus, that he is the Savior of the world.
In other words, in John’s gospel, the Samaritan woman, the woman at the well, is the first missionary. When she runs back home to tell the town about the man she met, she says, “Come and see a man who has told me everything I have ever done!” I wonder about those townspeople. What did they think of her? She couldn’t have been the most popular woman around. After all, if 1st century Samaritans were anything like 21st century Americans, the woman with 5 ex-husbands who is now shacked up with a sixth man is probably not going to be a member of the in-crowd.
In fact, we want to know the lurid details but this story isn’t interested in them at all. It’s not even interested in the drama of sin, repentance, and forgiveness. In her invitation to the townspeople, the Samaritan woman repeats the same words Jesus used when calling his first disciples, “Come and see!” And when the townspeople invited Jesus to stay with them, they echoed another of Jesus’ statements from that earlier call, “Stay with us.”
Both of these invitations are important themes in John’s gospel, and they are important for us as well. The relationship that emerges between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, as brief as it is, is a model for our relationships with Jesus—encounter, openness to the other, and the experience of knowing and being known. Encounters with Christ, when we allow ourselves to let our guard and defenses down, can change our lives, reorder our priorities.
The woman came to the well for water. At the well, she met a crazy Jew who asked her for a drink. By opening up that encounter, the woman came to know Jesus Christ. The Samaritan woman left the well. She forgot why she had come. She forgot her empty water jar in her eagerness to share her experience with the townspeople. The townspeople heard in her words and in her joy, the possibility of new life and invited Jesus to stay with them, abide with them, so they might come to know him.
I pray that we are open to encounters with strangers and with Jesus; that such encounters might be opportunities for grace and transformation for ourselves and for others.