She has three strikes against her. One, she is female. No religiously correct man would let himself be caught alone with a strange woman; he certainly wouldn’t be chatting with her. Two, she is a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans don’t mix; and they certainly don’t eat or drink together. Three, she’s had five husbands, and now she’s with a man she is not even married to. She’s hot stuff; her reputation is shot. Other women go to the well at dawn and at dusk. They go in groups, to stay safe; and as they walk and draw water, they share the news of the day. She goes at noon. She avoids the other women: the stares and the gossip, the snippy comments and the icy silences. She goes alone.
And there she meets a man. A man who is not afraid to talk with her. A Jewish man, who asks to share a drink. A person who knows her inside out.
Straight out, he offers her living water, water that will quench her deepest thirst. And she is thirsty. Thirsty for acceptance, perhaps, thirsty for love. Thirsty for belonging. She accepts.
He makes an observation. “You are right in saying you have no husband.” He doesn’t condemn her. He doesn’t accuse, or judge, or punish. He never demands a confession or any sign of repentance. He just observes. She hears the ring of truth, she realises that she is known—and yet, there’s something about him: she is not afraid. She doesn’t run away. Instead, she begins to wonder. Could he be the One, the Saviour they have all been waiting for? So she fishes. “I know that the Christ is coming,” she says. “I am,” says Jesus. “I am the one who is speaking to you.”
What does she do? Now she runs into town—and she talks to everyone. She makes no bones about it. She tells them that this man told her everything she ever did—all that they know, and more—and he just might be the Christ. The social outcast, this woman who was alone, hurtles into the town square and proclaims that she is known: and she becomes Jesus’ first witness.
Not the male disciples, in town shopping for lunch. Not the scribes or the Jewish men or the Catholic priests or the televangelists … but a lonely woman from the wrong religious group, living the wrong sort of life.
Unwittingly she echoes the words Jesus spoke to his first disciples, “Come and see!” she tells the townsfolk, “Come and see!” She invites them to encounter the Christ, and many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of her testimony. Because of her testimony! They believe because of her!
And so they leave the town and head towards him, the sort of man they could never have expected. For he is not your usual holy man. He hangs out at the well, where the women go. He speaks with unchaperoned women. He ignores often violently maintained cultural boundaries. He does not seek out the morally perfect, but reveals who he is to social outcasts and outsiders.
And yet something in her testimony, and something in his teaching, must quench their deepest thirst, for many Samaritans of that town believe. They believe, and they proclaim: “This truly is the Saviour of the world.”
This encounter happened two thousand years ago, yet we still live in a world that continues to ignore or silence those who do not meet the male heterosexual norm. Many Christians around the world, and in this country, still do not ordain women. Theological commissions on gender can still have no female representation. In our own city, many pulpits and elderships are closed to all but straight men. In some churches, women are explicitly denied equal authority. And as for people of diverse sexual and gender identities—forget it!
But we will never know the fullness of God’s revelation if we only listen to white heterosexual Christian men. This story reminds that, if we want to encounter the Christ, then we better be listening to a wide range of people, unexpected people: for Jesus revealed himself to all sorts.
Even before he was born, Jesus’ calling was recognised by his mother, a young peasant, who responded to news of her pregnancy by singing that God would throw down the proud, fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty: so we better be listening to the witness of poor young prophetic mums. Jesus was recognised by men living with terrible social stigma: men suffering from demons or leprosy: and so we better be listening to the witness of people who are HIV positive, and people with schizophrenia, depression, PTSD, and other stigmatised conditions. Jesus was recognised by a Roman oppressor who wept for love of his male slave; and so we better be listening to the witness of gay and lesbian people. The truth of the gospel was recognised by an Ethiopian eunuch; so we better be listening to the witness of people from other places, from other cultures, and with diverse gender identities.
And Jesus was recognised by the Samaritan woman at the well, a woman whose reputation was shot, and yet whose witness was so profound that a whole city believed her, and followed her to the place where they encountered the Christ: and so we better be listening to marginalised women with chequered personal stories; and, if we too want to encounter the Christ, we better be putting these women into positions of leadership, and following them wherever they go.
I can’t change the Vatican; I can’t change the Sydney Anglicans; I can’t change other churches in this city. And I don’t know how to queer up our own church; I don’t know how to make this congregation diverse. But I do know that we must pay attention to these stories, and be ready for whoever the Spirit sends our way: ready to listen, and ready to follow, and ready to see if they lead to Christ.
Lent is a time of dryness, but the water Christ gives becomes in us a gushing spring that will never run out. So let us be ready to hear the testimony of those who recognise him, whoever they are; let us be ready to follow them, wherever they lead; and while we wait, let us continue to worship God in spirit and in truth. Amen. Ω
A reflection on John 4:1-42, given to Sanctuary, 19 March 2017. Image by He, Qi. Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46094 [retrieved March 18, 2017]. Original source: heqigallery.com.