Fr. John Allison
March 12, 2023
Christ Church, Hudson
Today's Gospel begins as Jesus is journeying to Galilee from Judea, where he and his disciples had been baptizing and teaching and generally raising the hackles of the Pharisees. To get to Galilee, however, he had to pass through Samaria, an area that was inhabited by remnants of the northern tribe of Ancient Israel, who, though they worshiped God and read the same scriptures, were bitter rivals of the Jews. The conflict went back centuries, and we get just a taste of the differences in the Samaritan woman's mention of her ancestors worshiping on the mountain versus the Jews who worship in Jerusalem but the larger point to take away is that Jesus is doing something risky. Essentially, he's in enemy territory. Adding to that risk he's talking to a woman, alone, which in itself would have been daring for a Jewish male of the time. It doesn't help that there is a certain stigma surrounding her status as she is at the well at noon, the hottest time of the day, a time, historians tell us, not common to respectable members of the community but one more likely associated with those of a questionable moral nature. Jesus is thus crossing several significant social boundaries in this respite from his journey: religion, ethnicity, gender. Is it because he's thirsty?
Our text tells us he's tired; it's the hottest part of the day. Of course, he's thirsty. "Give me a drink," he says. Yet, there is more. The tables turn when in response to the woman's response, Jesus answers, "if you knew the Gift of God and who it is that is saying to you, 'give me a drink," you would have asked him and he would have given you living water."
It's in that exchange, and I'm using the word here exchange both literally and figuratively, that something important happens. Jesus gets his water, or so we presume, but beyond that something begins for the woman at the well, something big.
In the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius there is a practice called imaginative reading, in which we try to place ourselves in the text from the viewpoint of the different participants in the story. I find this immensely helpful because, and this may just be me, but my default mode in reading is to identify with the protagonist, with the main character, who in the case of the Gospels is---Jesus! In this case, as I read this passage over and over, it began to become more and more apparent that that was a problem. I was having a hard time making meaning of any of this, at least meaning that seemed vital and alive. It was then, that I stepped back and looked again with fresh eyes. Who is this woman at the well? We know some details from her life but what is she thinking? What is she feeling? How is she changed by this encounter with Jesus?
She must have been quite surprised to find a Jewish man sitting by the well when she went to draw her water for the day. She says as much when she questions the propriety of him, a Jewish man, asking her, a Samaritan woman, for water. Is she frightened or apprehensive about talking to this stranger? If so she gives no indication; in fact, she goes so far as to challenge Jesus when he says he would have given her living water had she asked. Though occupying a lowly place in society she doesn't seem timid. Would I have been so bold, alone with this stranger?
When Jesus promises that those who drink of his water will never be thirsty, she understands him literally. "Give me this water," she says, "so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water!" She lives a hard life. She has been thirsty. She knows the weight of the water jar and long walk back to her home in the heat. She knows what it is like to be tired, to ache from work. She knows what it is to have real need, a need so basic as water. She knows Jesus has something she needs and she asks for it; she doesn't question the possibility or be held back by doubt. Her need is deep, so deep she feels it in her body, so deep she dares hope.
When Jesus tells her details from her life, that she has had five husbands and that the man she is living with now is not her husband, her understanding of who this man is begins to shift. "You are a prophet," she says. Then as this recognition begins to sink in, as her understanding of who Jesus is becomes clearer, though still imperfect, what does she do? Does she hang her head in shame at what would have been looked down upon in her society? No. She presses Jesus on what is the acceptable place of worship, Mount Gerazim or Jerusalem? Who worships correctly, the Samaritans or the Jews? Her concern is worship, where to worship specifically. Essentially, where does God dwell? And this is a central question for the Gospel of John. We know, in Jesus. In the Word made flesh. God with us. And that is the truth Jesus reveals to her. "I am he," he says, when she speaks of her belief in the Messiah. This is the first time Jesus reveals this publicly and it’s quite astonishing that it’s to this lowly Samaritan woman at the well.
I try to imagine her dismay. How can this be? This dusty, thirsty man at the well asking for water, the Messiah? The exchange ends when Jesus’ disciples return and the woman rushes away, leaving her water jar behind and rushing back to the city. We know from her excitement as she shares the news that something has happened in her. "He cannot be the Messiah can he," she exclaims to all who will listen. There is excitement, hope, tempered with doubt, but hope, nonetheless. Enough hope that those with whom she shared the news left the city and went to find Jesus. The text tells us that many Samaritans believed in him because of the woman's testimony and that Jesus and his disciples stayed on for two days and that what happened revealed to them without doubt Jesus' identity as the Messiah.
I wonder, I try to imagine what it was that happened in this woman's heart that allowed her to see that Jesus was not just a prophet but the Messiah. She is not held back by her doubt but instead witnesses to her encounter in spite of it. "Come and see," she says, echoing the very words Jesus used to call his first disciples.
Though the Samaritan woman is never named in the Gospel, tradition in the Eastern Orthodox Church has named her Photina, which means the Enlightened One, and each year, on February 26 celebrate her as a "equal to the apostles" for the power of her witness to God's love in Christ. I find this honor significant in that it all started with her yes to a stranger. Biblical scholar Anna Carter Florence says this:
"Jesus is thirsty at the well and we are the ones with the bucket. He asks the woman to give him a drink, gives her the chance to recognize the face of Christ in a stranger. . . Can a little thing like a cup of cool water, offered in love, be the beginning of a salvation journey? Yes, and we will never know until we meet the stranger and tend to human need first."
Like Photina, may we be bold, may we say yes to the stranger in need who calls to us. May our eyes be opened to see the face of Christ when he comes to us. May we love as Christ loves us and proclaim this love to the world. Amen.