March 23, 2014 by jmw
One of my earliest memories of Saturday Night Life is a sketch where Eddie Murphy impersonates the Little Rascals character Buckwheat singing classic love songs. It’s actually one of the most popular SNL clips ever. The one song I remember so clearly is this: “Wookin Puh Nub in Aw Duh Wong Pwaces.” This was Buckwheat – or should I say “Buh-Wheat” – singing that classic county song, “Looking for Love in the All the Wrong Places.”
I was looking for love in all the wrong places
Looking for love in too many faces
Searching your eyes, looking for traces
Of what I’m dreaming of
Hoping to find a friend and a lover
And I’ll bless the day I discover
Another heart, looking for love.
I think if I had to give our gospel reading a title that’s what I’d call it, “Lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.” There’s something about the lyrics to this classic song that reminds me of what’s going on in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman: the deep search for loving connection, the inability to find it in various places and faces, and the ongoing journey that cannot end until it finds love. In many ways I think this describes the journey of Lent as well.
The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman is one of my favourite stories in John’s Gospel. Like the rest of John’s Gospel, this story is rich with symbolism, metaphor and analogy – so much so that I don’t even have the time to unpack all that is going on in this passage. But I want to focus on a couple of things that I think speak to our journey in this season of Lent.
Jesus and his disciples are on their way from Judea to Galilee and they stop for a break in an area called Samaria. Samaria was a region that once belonged to Israel but had been captured by the Assyrian Empire. Not a whole lot is known about Samaria between the time that it was captured by the Assyrians and the end of the Assyrian captivity, but what we do know is that the biblical prophets condemn Samaria for its syncretism and worship of foreign gods. What we also know is that by the first century, the people of Samaria (Samaritans) considered themselves to be the true people of the God of Abraham and there was a social hostility, as evidenced in our gospel reading, between the Samaritans and the Jews that ultimately disputed the authenticity of their identity and relationship with God.
It’s kind of like in Anchor Man when Ron Burgundy and the channel 4 news team are walking home and they find themselves on the turf of Wes Mantooth the evening news team. *Kind of* like that! But my main point is that this is a setting that emphasizes difference, not communion; hostility rather than hospitality; fear of the other rather than love.
And along comes a member of the rival group, a Samaritan woman, alone at the sixth hour of the day, that is, noon. To our individualistic eyes this does not seem odd, but in first century Palestine it would be a very odd thing for a woman to go to a well alone. Furthermore, it was custom to go to the well in the morning and the evening, not at mid-day when the sun is hottest. This woman’s abnormal behavior gives us a clue that she is perhaps hiding, perhaps lonely, probably both. Later in the dialogue between Jesus and the woman this possibility is confirmed as we learn that she has cause to feel both shame and loneliness. The woman has had five husbands and even now is living with a man with whom she has no covenant or security in her relationship. It would seem that she is a loose woman with no self-control in her relationships with men.
Why does Jesus do this? Why does he ask her about her relationship history? Is he some kind of mind reader who wants to make the woman feel guilty? Does he want the woman to repent of her sinful behavior and learn the “truth” that God does not tolerate such promiscuous behavior?
Despite what you think is going on in this conversation, and despite how you’ve heard this text preached before, this is not what is going on. Jesus is not searching out the woman’s sins or trying to make her feel guilty. If he were, I think we would see Jesus say something like “Go and sin no more” as he does with others (John 8:11). In fact, the truth is that in a culture where women had little to no power in romantic relationships, this woman was probably the victim of abuse. Just another woman to be used for the pleasure of men, only to then be discarded and rejected by not only men but also her fellow sisters in the ancient version of what we today call “slut shaming.”
This woman does not need Jesus to help her feel shame and guilt; it is obvious that she already knows such pain. And this is precisely why Jesus brings up the topic. Jesus wants to meet the woman at her most vulnerable, in those places that she would prefer to keep hidden.
Not unlike Nicodemus who will only visit Jesus under the protection of night, this woman hides herself in the desert of an abandoned well in the middle of daylight. Yet, this is where she meets Jesus.
My friends, Lent is a season to confront the wounded parts of our Self; to revisit our past in truth; and journey into those hidden places that we try so hard to cover up – only to discover that Jesus is there waiting to speak to us.
But who is the Jesus that we meet in the desert of our dark places? In this story from John we see that Jesus meets the woman not to condemn her (cf. John 3:17) but to love her in the midst of her woundedness and shame. There is virtually nothing in this text that suggests that Jesus is remotely concerned about personal morality and the need to condemn the woman’s behaviour. The Jesus who meets the Samaritan woman is not a Sunday school Jesus, keeping track of her sinful deeds in order to shame her further. It is a compassionate Jesus who understands that this woman exists in complex world where wounded people wound others. Indeed, it seems that Jesus truly comprehends that we live in a world where personal wounds are not always the fault of our own, but the result of a complex web of interconnectedness.
And the only thing that Jesus seems to request from the woman is the courage to confront her wounds, the courage to be real and honest. Indeed, when Jesus brings up the topic of her relational wounds by asking about her “husband” we see that he offers affirmation in response to her honest answer: “This you have said truly.” And, later, when John tells us about the woman’s witness to other Samaritans, the only detail that he is concerned to share is that the woman told others how Jesus knew the truth about her past. I think we miss the point when we read the woman’s witness (vv. 29, 39) as if she is saying, “I met a Jewish fortune teller and he could see into my past!” Instead, I think John’s Gospel is getting at something deeper and fundamental to our humanity. In her book Resurrection Psychology Margaret Alter writes, “We human beings are psychologically chained to the past,” (p.6). Alter explains that our psychological bondage to the past is what causes feelings of shame, as well as the insatiable pursuit of acceptance and love.
But rather than remain chained to her past, Jesus invites the Samaritan woman to confront the truth of her past. It’s kind of interesting that the concept of truth and the past are interrelated: the Greek word for “Truth” is actually a compound between “not” and “forget” (a-lethe). It literally means not forgetting or not concealing. Truth, not forgetting and not concealing, is all that Jesus requires of the Samaritan woman. It is all that Jesus requires of us.
Lent is not just a time for simplicity and prayer, it is a time for the truth. It is a time to not-forget about our past; a time to un-cover the things that we would rather hide about ourselves. Then and only then can we begin to learn the meaning of Lent as a journey of truth and repentance.
But I suggested that a good title for this story would be “Looking for Love…” not “Looking for Truth…” Truth, important as it is, is only a part of something much bigger that is happening in this story. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we may perceive that this story is really all about love; more specifically, a particular way of love.
As soon a first century reader heard the word “well” she would have thought not only about water but about love. In the biblical story the well was symbolic of the union of various power couples: Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Zeppora all met at a well. Indeed, the text in John mentions specifically the fact that this was Jacob’s well. Therefore, in a crafty use of symbolism, John suggests that the Samaritan woman has come not just to draw water, but to quench her insatiable thirst for love.
But the truth is that this woman’s quest for love is like one who draws water from a well: it is a possessive love, a consuming love that must always return for more until the well eventually runs dry. It is a thirst that must continually be quenched with presence, favor, and acceptance. And the truth is that this woman’s thirst for love has resulted in all kinds of wounds and shame; not because she is especially immoral but because she exists in a culture of well-drinkers and her quest for love is bound up in the lives of many others who thirst for love in the same way. This woman has had many lovers, and her lovers too have had lovers. Attraction, power, security, vulnerability, rejection, shame. So it goes in the relational web that is our human quest for love.
But Jesus says to the woman, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10)
At this point I think it’s all too easy to hear Jesus’ words with our Sunday school ears. That is, as if Jesus is promoting himself as the divine superhero without whom the woman would be eternally lost. It is too easy to hear Jesus’ words as if he was saying, “O foolish woman. If only you knew I was the divine messiah, you would have asked me to cure your human failings with my supernatural healing.” (Or something like this.)
But I don’t think this is what Jesus is saying. I think there’s something much more complex and much more profound happening here.
First of all, I want to point out what John is doing with the motif of water in his gospel. You’ll remember from last week that Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born anew from water and Spirit. Today we see Jesus offering the woman living water (spring water) as opposed to well water. In John 7 Jesus again offers living water to those who would follow him. In John 13 Jesus washes his disciples’ feet with water. All of these references (and more) foreshadow the water that flows from Jesus’ side when he is pierced by the soldier’s spear while hanging on the cross (19:34).
The living water that John wants us to recognize is the wellspring of God’s love poured out in Event of the Cross. This is where the truth of who we are meets the abundant love of God. This is where the chains of our past meet the liberty of God’s future. Nothing is forgotten, but all is forgiven. It is the unconditional love of God that quenches the thirst of not only the Samaritan woman but all us who are looking for love not just in all the wrong places but in all the wrong ways as well.
Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche Community, writes, “Jesus came to quench our thirst for presence and acceptance, the thirst for meaning, when we feel confused. The water Jesus gives us are the waters of his light and his presence that will take away the pangs of loneliness and gives new life. Water is the symbol of the Spirit, of the very life of God that Jesus came to give us.”
When Jesus suggests that the Samaritan woman should have asked him for a drink of living water, he is proposing a different way of love: a divine love that transcends all conditions, identities, and preferences.
I think this is what makes Jesus’ response so profound. He is not only foreshadowing his death on the cross, he is offering the woman living water here and now in the form of divine love that transcends all social and cultural boundaries. When Jesus says, “If only you knew who it was who says, ‘Give me a drink’…” I don’t think he is implying his own divinity, I think he is implying his humanity – and hers. He is saying, “You see me as a Jew. But if only you knew who I AM – your brother in the Spirit, the face of God in the Other.”
Again, Vanier: “Jesus reveals to [the Samaritan woman] who she is and who she will become – a source of the waters of the life of God – if she opens up her heart to him and receives his love.” And indeed she does. She leaves behind her water pitcher, that is, the old way of love, and discovers the way of divine love that leads to two days of hospitality and reconciliation between formerly hostile groups (v.40).
To be honest, I think this is what this story is really about. Although it works on a personal level, I think that the heart of this text is the reconciliation of hostile social (religious) groups. [In fact, the Samaritan woman is probably a literary symbol for Samaria with its “five husbands” (see 2 Kings 17) ]. It is the power of this particular way of love to transcend cultural boundaries.
The truth about who we are as human beings is always bound up in our quest for love. The question is which way of love are you walking? As our journey of Lent continues, may we have the courage to revisit our past in truth; may we let Jesus meet us in our most vulnerable places. And may we leave behind our water pitcher ways and exchange the well for a spring of living water that leads to a life of divine love.