Monday, March 28, 2011

When No One's Around

Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (John 4.6-7)

With gratitude to Rev. Larissa Kwong Abazia, whose sermon, “Living Water,” inspired this reflection.

The Perfect Time

John’s account of Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well is packed with revealing details. As a Jewish man conversing openly with a Samaritan woman, Jesus flouts every conceivable taboo and debunks the myth that Jews have exclusive rights to God’s love and acceptance. That would be plenty on its own. But Jesus also demonstrates the difference between knowing a person’s history and judging his/her character by it. He tells the woman He’s aware she’s been married five times and now lives with a sixth man. Yet He neither questions nor condemns her. When she tactfully changes the subject to their differing beliefs, He blows the lid off sectarianism by radically redefining worship. He says, “A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4.23-24) The woman says she too believes the Messiah will revolutionize worship, whereupon Jesus reveals His identity, something He’s never disclosed to anyone—and will be reticent to admit thereafter. “I, the one speaking to you—I am he,” He says. (v26)

There are enough breakthroughs in this synopsis to leave us breathless. Before looking at the core of their conversation, Jesus’s promise of living water, we should note a few added details. Because—unlike the other Gospel writers, who paint their scenes with a few strokes and zero in on the big points—John lingers over specifics to endow his narrative with meaning we’d otherwise miss. Here, he tips us off to several crucial facts. Jesus and the disciples are taking a shortcut through Samaria, a calculated risk, since hostility between Jews and Samaritans raises prospects they’ll be viewed suspiciously. Jesus is road-weary and hungry. With the disciples off buying food, He sits at Jacob’s well—a bold gesture, as Jews bitterly contest Samaritans’ claim to be Jacob’s descendants also. Finally, it’s about noon, the hottest time of day. The morning chores are done and what’s left waits for the cool of the afternoon, when the well will get busy with women drawing water to cook and wash up before bed. For now, Jesus is alone—until a woman comes to the well. Suddenly, incidental mention of the hour acquires major importance. Only someone avoiding her neighbors draws water in the heat of the day. This profoundly touches Jesus. Meeting this lady when no one’s around provides the perfect time for Him to fix her situation.

Truth and Mercy

Jesus doesn’t bother with assessing the woman’s mood or sensibilities. As they are, their circumstances crackle with volatility. He stuns her by requesting the unthinkable: “Will you give me a drink?” Her jaw drops. “How can you, a Jew, ask that of me, a Samaritan?” she replies. (The basic protocol breached by a man addressing a woman in public is a given.) Jesus tells her if she knew Who He was, she’d give Him water and, in exchange, He’d give her living water. Before asking what He means, she reminds Him of a pragmatic issue that prevents her from honoring His request. He has nothing to draw with. Jews and Samaritans don’t drink from the same vessel, and the well is too deep for her to scoop up some water and pour into His hands. Then she asks where “living water” comes from. Jesus answers, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.” (v13-14) John doesn’t confirm the woman understands what Jesus is saying. It’s unlikely she does. But, if nothing else, never thirsting again will relieve her need to draw water in the noonday sun. “Give me this water!” she says.

Jesus knows exactly what He’s offering. He’s going to heal the woman’s self-confidence and restore her reputation so she’ll be welcome at the well when those who presently scorn her are there. He adeptly shifts the discussion from what the woman wants to who she is. He tells her to get her husband and come back to the well. Since Jesus is a foreigner, she very easily could fabricate a reason why her husband is unavailable. Yet she truthfully confesses, “I don’t have a husband,” validating what anyone who saw a woman drawing water at noon would presume. Yet there’s a problem: if she attributes anything Jesus says to guesswork, all of His words can be explained away. So He lays out her life story—without blinking an eye. The combination of truth and mercy amazes her. “I can see you are a prophet,” she says. (v19) Jesus knows who she is, and she thinks she knows Who He is. As a prophet, His interests focus on spiritual matters, not village scuttlebutt. She engages Him in theological talk, which inspires Him to reveal He is more than a prophet. He’s God’s Son, sent to bring truth and mercy to a world obsessed with pretense and judgment.

High Noon At the Well

What we see at the well are two outsiders. One, for reasons never explained, has never enjoyed marital stability. Most readers assume she’s a serial divorcée and hence, by ancient moral standards, an adulterer. Yet we can’t rule out the possibility she’s been widowed five times; no longer a viable bride, she may have taken a lover to provide her protection and companionship in middle age. Her rejection at the well may be fairly recent, due to her current arrangement. Whatever brings her to the well at noon, there she meets a ragtag Rabbi Whose true identity compels Him to buck religious traditions and ignore social taboos. Jesus sits by the well at noon, tired, hungry, and thirsty, because He has nowhere else to go. He’s as much a pariah as she. And in those quiet, uncomfortably hot moments when no one’s around, not only does He reveal that He knows everything about this alienated lady (yet doesn’t’ judge her). He reveals everything she should know about Him. Her encounter with Truth and Mercy Incarnate restores her confidence and self-respect. She goes into the village and invites the neighbors who’ve rejected her to the well. “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” she says.

So it is for all of us who, for one reason or another, trudge to the well in the heat of the day—looking to quench our thirst for life and sustain our faith. Prime time isn’t our time. We’ve come to the well then, only to be told we’re not welcome. But high noon at the well is the perfect time. That’s when we meet another Outsider. He knows everything about us. He neither questions nor condemns us. He talks to us as one Outsider to another. The truth and mercy in His words revive us and restore our confidence and self-respect. But most of all, He entrusts us with full knowledge of Who He truly is. The encounter with Jesus so changes us we invite the very neighbors who pushed us aside to the well and say, “Come, see a Man Who told me everything I ever did!” Some will come. Many will not. Nonetheless, what happens at high noon at the well changes how we view the well. It’s no longer their well, or the patriarch’s well, a Catholic well or a Protestant one. It’s our well, where we first tasted living water that forever changed our lives. We will never thirst again.

The well at noonday, when no one’s around, is where and when we find out Jesus knows all about us and Who Christ really is.

Postscript: “The Woman at the Well”

In her sermon, Larissa referred to this video—a monologue by the woman at the well—that shakes us with the realities of what transpires when we encounter Christ. “To be known is to be loved,” she says, “and to be loved is to be known.”


Fran said...

Wonderful - and I love that video.

Tim said...

Fran, thank you! The video gets it all down so powerfully I almost scrapped the post and let the video speak on its own.

After the sermon on Sunday, we did something I'll never forget. The pastor filled a fishbowl of shells with fresh water and invited each of us to reach into the water and retrieve a shell, symbolically renewing our baptism. Spontaneously (or so it seemed) the pianist reprised "I Went Down to the River to Pray"--the spiritual the choir had sung earlier in the service. The whole church began to sing, as each of us held our tokens of living water in our hands. And in the midst of this precious rite of renewal, I kept hearing the phrase from the video that Larissa turned into the sermon's key phrase: "To know is to love and to love is to know."

That knowledge and love bring the water to life! (Or is it, brings new life to the water?)

My dear sister, it's always a treat to have you here in these pages. And know that you're in my thoughts and prayers always.


Sherry said...

Tim, you have in breathtaking beauty retold this story in a way that everyone who is wounded, other (aren't we all really), and rejected, can relate. How powerful a metaphor of TWO rejected Outsiders. I simply loved it. It is one of my most favorite stories and there is so much packed within it you could meditate on various aspects of it for weeks! Thank you for this gift.
Blessings, Sherry

Tim said...

Thank you, Sherry. There are so many similarities in play between Jesus and the woman--and we tend to miss that because we view her case as so "extreme." What we're seeing here, I think, is the same sort of identification with outcast women that Jesus exhibits with the woman brought to Him for stoning. It's a truly shining moment of gender parity that, unfortunately, many would prefer to overlook.

I've taken a brief respite from scooting around the Web and have missed what you're doing lately. But I'm hoping to spend tomorrow catching up--and eager to learn what you've been hearing and thinking about!

Blessings always,