Saturday, March 26, 2011

Compassion for the Samaritan Woman at the Well

John 4 

We continue with our reading of the stories of interactions with Jesus in John’s Gospel. Last week, Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night, and was taught a new way of thinking about being born of the spirit of God.
Today, we read the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. First, we will see her in a new way, without judgment. Then, we will go with her to see our community.
It’s common to make some assumptions about this woman, who comes to the well at noon instead of early in the morning with the rest of the women in town. We accuse her, and assume Jesus accuses her. We paint her with a negative image: she has a nasty attitude, or she’s unfaithful, and no husband will stay married to her. We guess that she’s been divorced five times already, and the current man refuses to marry her.

But let’s try a different approach to her.

Imagine a woman, the youngest of five daughters
      Her father is a “nobody” in town, an average farmer who just gets by
      By the time it’s her turn to marry, there’s no dowry left
      She’s an ordinary-looking woman, not a beauty that men would seek her out

The only men who consider marrying her are elderly widowers,
      not wealthy, not good looking, not very healthy
      but willing to give her a home, to keep her off the streets,
      so she could care for them in their old age

After each one dies, she becomes a widow,
      again and again,
      she’s more and more powerless,
      less and less desirable as a wife

She sinks deeper and deeper into grief:
She goes to the well at noon to avoid the constant questions:
            How is your husband today?
She goes to the well at noon to avoid the constant accusations:
            Have you killed this husband yet?

Although the men have been willing to marry her, she’s aware of their pity.
They don’t let her forget how they took her in when no one else wanted her.

Jesus intentionally travels with his disciples through Samaria, a country most good Jews avoid. Though they have a common history in Abraham and Moses, they have been enemies for about 500 years. They have different views of which scriptures are sacred; they turn to different mountains for worship; they both expect a messiah, but have different ideas about who he will be and what he will do. The Jews have kept themselves racially pure; the Samaritans intermarried with locals.
Jesus sends the disciples on an errand to buy food – we assume this will be a challenge, since Jews would avoid eating Samaritan food. But perhaps Jesus has already taught them that food is food, and the fact that it is Samaritan food is not an issue.
Jesus goes to a well tradition holds was from the time of Jacob. He sits down to rest and wait. Perhaps he knows the woman will appear. He asks for a drink, and the woman is surprised – why would this Jew speak to her? Why would he be willing to share a cup with her? They have a conversation which Jesus directs, and as usual in John’s Gospel, the dialog hinges on multiple meanings of common words.
He offers her living water – not well water – she thinks it’s a spring he could put in her back yard. He asks about her home life, knowing full well what her life has been like. He doesn’t accuse her, he doesn’t say she has sinned, he states that her life has been difficult. I imagine this conversation lasted a long time, as she poured out her grief and misery to this empathizing listener.
He then invites her into a conversation about faith, which recognizes their common history and current division. In the future, Jesus tells her, Jews and Samaritans alike will worship the same God. God is spirit and not connected to any mountain, and anyone who truly wants to worship this God is welcome.
This amazing conversation is unexpected – women of this time are not considered theologians, nor even worthy of any religious training beyond what they need to know to keep a holy household and raise their children. Yet here is Jesus engaging this woman in the kind of discussion men have with each other all the time.
With this encounter, the woman forgets how much pain she has endured, forgets that she came to the well to get water, forgets how people of the town have treated her. She runs to tell everyone about Jesus. They listen to the woman, and invite Jesus to stay with them for a couple of days, so he can tell them about God and God’s grace.
Instead of the judgment we assume, Jesus treats this woman with compassion. That’s why she stays to listen to him. He engages her as an equal, with a heart and a mind, and a life story that has made her who she is at this moment. She comes slowly to an understanding of who Jesus is, receives him as living water, and becomes a conduit of that living water to others.

The woman runs to tell her neighbors about the compassion of Jesus, the graciousness of the Living God. How can we, who know Jesus from scripture, and from life experience, share that compassion and grace with our neighbors?
When we know who is around us, we can shape our ministry to reach out with compassion. As a Florida congregation, we have access to Mission Insight, a demographic reporting firm. I ran a report to see some basics of the people who live right around us. About half of the people are over 55, about 17% are 17 and under. The average income is about $45,000 per household.
Our lives are similar to those of the people in the neighborhood. We all have different stories, different income levels, different health concerns, and different family situations. Who are our neighbors? How can we see and reach them with compassion?
Demographic studies tell us who is around us in general terms. But, people are brought to Jesus one at a time, with face to face conversations, inviting neighbors one at a time to “Come and see.” When we encounter a neighbor, we can see them with compassion and not judgment. We can seek to understand who they are by asking about them, inviting them to tell their story.
And we can tell our stories, relating how Jesus has been compassionate and gracious to us. We can tell about the living water which leads us to eternal life, into a relationship with God, based on being born of Spirit and Truth – from above.
Please pray with me. Merciful God, we give you thanks for your compassion and your grace. Help us to see others with that same compassion, and invite them to “Come and see” you, so they may also receive your compassion and grace. Amen