The Woman at the Well and the Not-So-Impressive Gospel of Jesus

Given on the 3rd Sunday of Lent, in response to John 4: 5-42.

I have good news.  Today’s your lucky day, because today I’m going to give you all a very exclusive, behind-the-scenes look into the world of sermon preparation. You might think of what I’m about to tell you as being sort of like the church version of All Access Hollywood, but if you think that you’ll be wrong, because sermon preparation is actually quite dull. There is that reality show about the mega-church preachers in LA, I don’t know if you’ve seen the trailer or watched it at all, but it looks very exciting. They have big houses and lamborghinis and there’s high profile drama. But what usually happens at my house is that I sit around in my bathrobe with my books and my cat, drinking the cheapest coffee I can find.

The process usually goes like this. I try to read over the text, sit with it, think about what it might mean or different ways it might be approached and understood. After I’ve read it for myself I take a look at some of the commentaries, articles, blogs and things like that, just to make sure I’m not completely out of line with my own reading. Then once I’ve read it myself and read other people’s take on the text I think about what’s happening in the world and how it all might fit together. And finally on Sunday I get to monologue for about 15 minutes.

Well, this week a couple of unusual things happened as I was going through the sermon prep routine. I read the text and then I start to read the extra stuff, the commentaries and all that, and pretty quickly I notice that the extra stuff has a lot of extra stuff. I mean when people talk about the story they talk about all sorts of things that aren’t actually in the story. So that’s a little bit unusual, or at least noteworthy. I remembered, though, that there is a long tradition of rabbinic commentary. The Rabbis would retell Bible stories, they’d add details or give the characters motivations that aren’t necessarily in the story. So it’s a little bit unusual that there’s extra stuff but it’s also a fairly standard feature of the tradition. We read the story and then we elaborate on the story.

Now, about today’s story. It’s a little bit lengthier than usual, this is actually one of the longest conversations Jesus has anywhere in scripture. But it’s also a bit sparse so far as details go. Jesus has a conversation with a Samaritan woman, an anonymous Samaritan woman. We don’t know anything about her except  that she’s had 5 husbands. Jesus has a clairvoyant moment and says, unprompted, “you’ve had five husbands.” That’s about all we know about the anonymous Samaritan woman. In any case, they have this conversation, and the conversation is a way for Jesus to announce what his ministry is all about. He says I’m bringing eternal life, life and life to the full, to everyone. Not just people in Jerusalem but people everywhere. And he says the eternal life I’m bringing is like water, metaphorical water, obviously, and those who drink it will never thirst again. All of this, he says, is happening right now, even as we speak. That’s the good news, and the story says that the anonymous Samaritan woman gave a testimony to her village and it was a good testimony because many in the village believed. That’s not bad! The story’s actually pretty good all on its own.

But like I said, there’s some extra stuff. And it was when I started reading the extra stuff that something truly strange happened. I’m reading about historical context, and about the samaritan woman, and all of  a sudden I feel as if my New Testament professor is glaring over my shoulder. That’s how you know you’ve gotten your point across as a professor, when you’re able to actually haunt people.

As it turns out, some of this extra stuff is exactly the sort of thing our professor warned us about on multiple occasions. The problem, basically, is that we want Jesus to look better than the stories make him look. And oftentimes the way we make Jesus look better is by making the people around him seem worse. So a lot of interpreters  reach into the historical record, and they’ll find some material that lets them paint an ugly picture of ancient Jewish society. As my professor would say, They make ancient Jews look like the Taliban so that Jesus can look like a good feminist.

Here’s how you do this: you go poking around the old rabbinic commentaries, and you find some ancient rabbi that says some really oppressive and misogynistic stuff. Then you say, Look, isn’t Jesus great for speaking with women in public? We even say isn’t Jesus great for reaching out to these women, even though, if you look, Jesus hardly ever reaches out to anyone, usually they come to him. But the issue, though, with finding these really harsh sounding rabbinical opinions, is that there are a lot of rabbis writing and they tend to disagree. Some are more liberal and some are more conservative. And if you want to paint a really oppressive picture of Jesus’ social context you have to cherry pick the really bad stuff and claim it represents everyone. It’d be like citing the very worst hits of a Jerry Falwell type and then saying, “aren’t Christians a rotten bunch?” So sometimes, then, we try to make ancient society looks bad so Jesus looks better. Our professor said, “don’t let me catch you doing that.”

There’s one more problem with the extra stuff.  A lot of commentators assume, they read into the story, that the anonymous Samaritan woman must be disreputable. Five husbands so she must be promiscuous, or she might even be a professional. But notice, the story doesn’t give any indication as to why she’s had five husbands. If anything it’s a piece of trivia. Jesus says you’ve had five husbands and she says, basically, “Wow, how could you know that? You must be a prophet of some sort.”  You’ve seen this before, probably. The tradition makes similar claims of Mary Magdalene–a friend and patron of Jesus, but with a seedy past, they say. Even though there’s nothing in the scripture to support such a claim.  The thinking seems to be that a conversion story is more impressive, that Jesus’ saving power is greater, if the one who’s converted is especially down and out.

And that seems to be the reason for all of the extra stuff. We like impressive stories, drastic stories. We want to see a religion that has some real OOMPH to it. Something with conversion power.  And this story is much more impressive with the extra stuff. It’s not just any woman who makes the testimony that brings the gospel to her village. She used to be on quite a different path, you know. So this is the story we like. Jesus saves a particularly sinful sinner and then she gives a great testimony to her village. It’s not really the story as John tells it but it’s a good church story.  So we sometimes read things that aren’t there.

But take another look at the story. It’s a perfectly good story as is, maybe not as impressive as we’d like but it’s still quite good. The best part, I think, is that our witness, the anonymous Samaritan woman who speaks the Word to her village, she doesn’t sound too sure of herself. She’s caught a glimpse of something in Jesus but she’s not yet convinced. Here’s what Fred Craddock wrote about the passage: “If any wish to be fascinated by this woman, let them be so now. She is a witness, but not a likely witness and not even a thorough witness. ‘A man who told me all that I ever did’ is not exactly a recitation of the Apostles Creed. She is not even a convinced witness: ‘Can this be the Christ?’ is literally ‘This cannot be the Christ, can it?’”

I know it doesn’t seem like much. The woman at the well sees Jesus and then she goes to her village and gives her testimony.  She says, in effect, “I think this might be the Messiah.” She is hopeful but far from certain.

But in John’s gospel that’s enough. John seems to believe that a little bit of faith, even the first inklings of faith, can go a long way. I believe that, too. I think sometimes faith comes to us in fits and starts. And I’ve always been more inspired by people with a true enthusiasm for part of the gospel than those who speak a full gospel as if it were meaningless.

I wanted to share something with you by way of conclusion. Usually I make a point of reading the UCC’s daily devotionals. I miss some of them, but I always try to read Quinn Caldwell’s devotionals; they’re very good. A couple of months ago he wrote a devotional, and I like this one because it reminds me that the gospel is big and challenging, and yet it’s fine to start small.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away . . . See, I am making all things new.” – Revelation 21:1-6a

Do you believe this, or don’t you?

Do you believe that God is working–right now–to bring this world to its fulfillment, or don’t you? Look out your window. Do you believe that God is–right now–in the process of perfecting all that, or don’t you? Look down at yourself. Do you, or don’t you, believe that God is–right now–perfecting the very self you’re looking at?

If not, fine.

But if you do believe that a new world is coming to pass, then you have your work–and your hope–cut out for you. It means it’s time to start practicing living like you’ve been made new, as if God has dressed your soul for a wedding. Like God is living next door. Like every person you meet is being molded for glory, and just a split second from shining like the sun.

Start now. Pick one thing in the room, and imagine what that thing will be like when God’s done with it. Pick one person, and imagine that God is–right now–about to reveal the glory of heaven in her; treat her that way all day long. Tomorrow, pick another, and the next day, another…and just see if a new world doesn’t emerge.

(Amen.)

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