She Is Not a Whore or Harlot: Talking with the Woman at the Well (John 4:5-42)

Can you feel it?  I can hear it in the wind; blowing just beneath the blizzards, sleet, and rain.  What am I listening to?  Hint:  it’s not Mahler.  No, it is the growing chorus of preachers who are preparing sermons about the whore, prostitute, harlot, adulteress, and divorcee known as the Samaritan woman at the well.  The time-tested trope, the original Pretty Woman plot line and the mythology of the fallen female will be preached from pulpits all across the fruited plain.  Twisted new tales will be invented and older ones rehashed about why this woman is alone at high noon gathering water.  I hear Foghorn Leghorn’s voice in the back of my head, “I say, I say, boy, there’s something wrong with a single Samaritan woman getting water at mid day.  It’s not right, I tell you.”  They will all be wrong.  When it comes to this passage, no one seems to remember Occam’s razor:  the simplest explanation is always the best.

Could this be a chance encounter?  Might she be thirsty?  Yes and yes.  However, preachers love salacious gossip, especially when given the ability to cloak that gossip in the garments of preaching and worship.  We also like to condemn people in two thousand year old stories who can’t speak for themselves.   Is she who we’ve been led to believe?  No, she’s not.  It’s time to back up.  If we’ve been so wrong about this story from the first verse, maybe we’re wrong about the whole passage.  One step, in the wrong direction, at the very beginning may take us miles of course.

Jesus is travelling through the Samaritan countryside.  The Samaritans were theological renegades.  The mainstream Jewish community considered them unclean heretics.  They were outsiders in a way that’s difficult for us to imagine.  Most people hated the Samaritans.  It wasn’t a, “my religious practice is better than your religious practice” hatred.  It was what we would call racism.  Some People thought the Samaritans were less than human, inferior, and wrong.

Samaria was between Galilee and Judea.  The quickest way to go from Capernaum to Jerusalem was to go through Samaria.  Going along the coast roads was time consuming.  Jesus had no problem with Samaritan roads or people.  Our churches and Christians have stopped taking the Samaritan path altogether.  Not only do we judge this woman for no reason, our churches wouldn’t be caught dead spending time or traveling to modern day Samarias.    The long way is full of people who look, talk, and sound like us.  There is little risk in going via the Galilean road.  That is, until, we realize we are talking to ourselves.

Like Gary Cooper’s Will Kane in “High Noon”, the Samaritan woman appears at high noon.  Who is she?  She is a Samaritan woman.  It is revealed she’s had five husbands.  John makes no assumptions, assertions, or statements about her character, lifestyle, or personal history. We do that.  If she is alone, it must be for a reason.  We invent rules which did not exist:  divorced adulteresses and prostitutes were required to go the well at noon.  Anybody with five husbands must be cheap, right?  No, not right.

We create an image of a woman who has failed at marriage and life because we need Jesus to show up and save our immoral lives.  Doesn’t Christianity really come to down personal morality?  Don’t I preach this passage because it’s my job to tell people who they love, who they can have sex with, and who they can marry? No and no.

People died young in the 1st century.  It wouldn’t have been uncommon or out of the ordinary for a woman to outlive her husband, even five times.  Between the death of one husband, a brother marrying this woman, another death or divorce; this woman’s story isn’t “Fifty Shades of Grey”.   It’s called living.  Churches and preachers screw up when we make moral judgments about good people simply trying to survive.

Why should we give the hard realities of 1st century living credit when preachers can infer that a woman is a whore?  It’s much easier to play the “she’s a tramp” card.   Talking about grief, loneliness, and the death of five husbands; that’s hard.

What’s missing from this story is “sin”.  Jesus never talks about sin or repentance.  Neither the author nor Jesus identifies the woman as a sinner.  Why?  Sin isn’t the issue.  The woman’s no more a sinner than any other person.  Unlike most people Jesus meets, the Samaritan woman gets “it”.

This woman recognizes Jesus, not from a lineup, a newspaper article, or because a friend invited her to church.  She “sees” Jesus.  In John, sight means belief.  The people who see are those who understand what’s going on with Jesus and his message.  Listen to her, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.”  Right there, she’s sees Jesus.  He performed no miracles or pronounced judgment on her past.   They talked about water.  A conversation brought Jesus’ identity to light.  Churches and Christians have lost the ability to have conversations with and about Jesus that are not tinged to moralizing, judgments, or personal attacks.

Jesus sees the Samaritan woman.  He tells her that God (the Father) is looking for women and men who worship in spirit and truth.  God is looking for people like her.  She acknowledges the limits.  “But you and your people say it is necessary to worship in Jerusalem.”  We know all about limits.  Can’t you hear her now?  You and your people say it’s necessary to go to a church with vibrant contemporary worship, a divorced singles groups, and who believe I’m an adulterer.   There is no place for me in the religious world you’ve created.

Jesus, says, “Not me”.  Jesus is about erasing limits and boundaries; such as the ones we created to shape our understanding of this passage. Within this brief encounter, we see a glimpse of the coming Kingdom of God.  This new belief which John’s readers have accepted is to be built upon the fundamental importance of people in community.  Jesus brings her into a new communion, a new community.  A relationship with one person should reflect our relationships with each other and ultimately God.  Jesus’ conversation this woman reveals these simple ideas:  our morality is shaped in a community, inequality based on exclusion disconnects people from God, and those who claim to know what’s right for everyone else’s life are usually wrong.

Jesus sees her for who she is because she’s not afraid to name the problem.  He sees an honest woman who is willing to reflect on the realities of faithful living.  Living water is more than a cute spiritual metaphor.  It’s stuff of life.  The water is at hand.  Jesus uses what is available, what makes sense, and what connects to our lives.  Jesus uses the water to create a framework.   The well is a lens.  Now she can see what she already knows to be true; Christ is coming and he will teach us new things.

It’s hard to learn new things when we keep preaching the same party line.  We’ll be less likely to see Jesus if we start down the path of misogyny and condemnation.  Sure, we can talk about repentance and leaving it all at the altar all we want.  The Samaritan woman can be the stand-in seductress she’s always been for centuries.  Or, we can take a cue from Jesus, who didn’t care about her marital status, relationship history, or call her a Samaritan sinner.  He brought her to faith without having to break her down.

Jesus sees people, we see issues.  Jesus sees life, we see gossip.  Jesus sees a future, we see today.  Jesus knows our lives; we pretend to know each other.   Jesus sees reality, we create myths.  And when we see Orthodoxy, are Methodists seeing Jesus?  No.

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