Thursday, February 21, 2008

A sermon

Telling Stories
John 4:5-26; 39-42

The Samaritan woman’s testimony to the town’s people is really remarkable when you stop to think about it: “He told me everything I have ever done.” (v. 39) Here is a woman whose reputation looms so large that she is known even by those who just happen to pass through town. People had been telling the story of everything she had ever done for years.

“Did you hear about the woman who lives on the edge of town, you know, the one who has been put out by five different husbands?”

“Yeah. I hear she’s living with another man now and that he hasn’t even bothered to marry her. Oh, the poor dear. How does she do it? It must be just awful to live that way.”

“Poor dear? Are you kidding? I hear those husbands were all well within their rights to put her out.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t. You just never know what you can believe these days. I do feel badly for her. She must be awfully lonely. I’ve started to strike up a conversation with her several times, but I don’t know. That’s risky. I’m afraid of how it might make my husband look if people knew his wife was associating with her.”

And though the stories they told may well have been behind her back, or maybe they were told in her presence, she knew what was being said, and perhaps even at some point let go of the idea that there was a different story to tell. The power of voice, of whose story gets told, has a way of doing that to us.

She was accustomed to being the one who hushed conversations when she walked into the room, the one no one spoke to when she went to the well. For years she’d gone during the early part of the day to draw water, when it was cooler, like the other women, but after awhile it became easier to endure the heat of the sun in the middle of the day than it was to deal with the impact her presence had on the women of the town. It’s hard to walk into a group of people who know you by your reputation and as a result, refuse to allow you to be a part of the community, to join in the conversations, to have relationships with others.

So it’s surprising that what struck her about the encounter with Jesus is that he told her everything she had ever done. There must have been something different about his telling.

How do you tell her story? Do you tell about a woman who had lived a hard life, maybe made some bad choices along the way, but also suffered the pain of rejection, the heavy weight of guilt and shame?

That makes for a pretty good story doesn’t it. It makes Jesus look pretty good too. The Jewish teacher sits down with a woman who had shown poor judgment in her life leading her to make some mistakes with men and offers her eternal life. He’s gracious that way, not afraid to sit with the sinners.

I think we have to be careful how we view her from our position of 21st Century western privilege. We run the risk of seeing an autonomous woman who had the freedom to make choices about her marital status, and thus her position in society, because that’s our experience, or at least we think that’s our experience. Life was clearly different for women then though. They were more likely to be viewed as property to manage than as people with freedom to make their own choices.

I think it’s pretty hard for us to know how much of her life’s condition was the result of her own choice and how much was the result of society’s proclivity to exclude. We have to be careful about how we tell others’ stories. No matter how gracious we may think we’ve been in the telling of the story, we may still fail to fully grasp its truth.

So what made Jesus’ telling of her story different?

John introduces the story of their encounter by telling us that Jesus had to go through Samaria on his way to Galilee from Judea (v. 4). It was not the custom for Jews to walk through Samaria. There was a way around that made as much sense for him to take as it did for him to go through Samaria. But something compelled him to go through and not around.

He came to the place known as Jacob’s well. He was tired and thirsty and though it was the middle of the day, a woman, a Samaritan woman, walked up to the well to draw water and he asked for a drink.

I wonder how the woman approached the well. Because I’m inclined to think she was there in the middle of the day for the express purpose of avoiding people, I imagine her working really hard to keep from making eye contact with Jesus. I picture a woman trying to sneak up to the well without being seen, trying so hard to blend into the sky around her that it startles her when Jesus speaks to her.

But, she does something surprising. She responds to him. She points out his error: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (v. 9) She cuts to the chase. "Who are you?," she wants to know.

Thus begins a conversation about ancestors, including an interesting allusion to Jacob, the one for whom the well was named, you know, Jacob, the deceiver, the one who lived by the name given to him at birth until he had a profound encounter with a stranger, maybe God, maybe an angel, who knows, maybe himself, and insists he won’t stop wrestling until he has been blessed. And the stranger responds by giving him a new name, a new story to live by. He became Israel, one who strives with God and with humans and prevails. (Genesis 32: 22-30) That is their ancestor Jacob. His story is part of Jesus’ and the Samaritan woman’s shared heritage. I don’t think it’s a mistake that this encounter happens at his well.

In this conversation about ancestors Jesus makes a curious reference to living water, and the woman takes that and runs with it. She sees his offer as an end to her striving. She will never be thirsty again. She’ll never have need for water, never have need to walk to the well in the midst of those who’ve rejected her, never have need to walk there in the middle of the day. If he will give her this living water, perhaps she’ll be self-sufficient and she can free herself from the suffering she experiences everyday of her life. (v. 15)

But the conversation takes an interesting turn here. It exposes the woman’s misunderstanding about what she needs to end her suffering. Jesus asks her to go get her husband and bring him back with her. (v. 16)

Can’t you just feel the tension in the air when he says that to her? Can you see the discomfort in her face? Can you feel her vulnerability?

Perhaps in a last ditch effort to cover up her exposed life, she tries to hide. First, she tells a partial truth: “I have no husband.” Jesus is not swayed. He calls her on it: “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband;’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” Then she does what any good theologian would do when feeling vulnerable. She turns to heady theological conversation. She tries to distract him with the one point that has divided his people from her people: “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Who could resist a good debate?

Or maybe she’s just testing him, seeing if he comes to her genuinely or if he’s just using her life’s condition to further solidify his position of power over her. Maybe she’s asking him to show his hand before she risks acknowledging the truth in his presence.

Jesus shows her he understands what separates them, but he calls her to see something different. He calls her to worship in spirit and in truth.

His telling of her story is different. He tells the truth, but he does it to liberate her, not for his own benefit - to show that he is better than she is - and in doing so, he frees her to reconnect with those from whom she has been isolated for years. His call to truth-telling is rooted in the conviction that the truth will set her free. He empowers her to tell her own story. It takes a lot of courage to do that. He doesn’t tell her to do it. She does it on her own. And she does it with urgency.

Now I’ll make a confession here. I don’t know if I’ve told the Samaritan woman’s story faithfully or not. Telling someone else’s story is always pretty risky, and nine chances out of ten we end up revealing as much about ourselves in the choices we make about how to tell the story than we do about the person whose story we tell. In hearing my telling of the story, perhaps you hear that I am a person who knows what it means to have someone else tell her story for her and in turn to resign herself to believing it’s true. Perhaps you know what that’s like.

If that’s what you hear, then I hope you also hear that I am someone who knows the powerful impact of speaking one’s own truth in the presence of someone who does not wish to use it for his own benefit. Doing so may not convince the masses to see us any differently, but in the telling, we become convinced of the truth of our own lives.

What would you hear if the Source of Life told you everything you have ever done?


J said...


Yankee, Transferred said...

I heart you.

Songbird said...

To your last question, I think I might have to sink down onto the ground.
Thanks for this, Linda. I don't usually read sermons ahead of time when i'll be preaching the text, but I'm so glad I did (and I will try not to unintentionally plagiarize...).

The Simpleton said...


Anonymous said...

This is quite lovely, Linda. You are awesome.

concretegodmother said...

i hope i'd be speechless. i hope i wouldn't be defensive or try to talk or explain. i hope i wouldn't be too dense to figure out it was the Source.


YOU are good. REALLY good!

That was a wonderful sermon.

I too, heart you!! =)