I am so excited to be sharing my stage today with Neil Rees. After nearly 30 years as in Christian missions in Spain Neil returned to the UK last year and now leads CLM church in Ormskirk. He is passionate about making Christianity real – whatever culture we live in – a subject that is the focus of his blog at eatingwithsinners.
Jesus had the habit of ignoring people’s expectations of him. Always more concerned with deeply touching a person’s life than keeping the traditions that governed Jewish society, he just would not obey the rules.
John chapter 4 finds him at it again. When he stopped by the well at the entrance to that Samaritan village, he must have known that she – the unnamed woman – was on her way. The one who read the thoughts of religous teachers surely knew what was coming next, but even his own disciples still didn’t really get what he was about. Maybe that’s why he sent them off into the town to get food – they would only have got in the way if he’d let them hang around.
“Will you give me a drink, please?”
Hello?! Jewish men just don’t do that – talk to Samaritan women like me, I mean. Period. This is not strange behaviour, it is simply unheard of. Better keep my distance…
“If you knew who I was, you’d be asking me for a drink – a drink of living water.”
What?! He hasn’t even got a bucket, never mind “living” water, whatever that might be. But it sounds kinda inviting…
“Are you thirsty for something different? This goes all the way to eternity…”
Now that really is what I need.
“Better go and get your husband then.”
It’s at this point that we need to lay aside our own prejudices and years of sermons and approach the text afresh. You see, we all “know” she’s a woman of ill repute – who else comes to draw water at midday? She’s trying to avoid the other women because they only point fingers at her and mutter stuff she’d probably rather not hear, or so we’ve been told. And she’s had five husbands, and is living with yet another now – a woman of the night, no doubt about it.
Or is she?
Whether dealing with Arab traders today or the first century Middle Easterners we find in Scripture, it’s remarkable how our own cultural experience can blind us to what is in fact going on. This woman is no prostitute. More than likely she is sterile, an unhappy childless victim of a male dominated society that valued women as bearers of their children rather than persons in their own right.
When negotiating a marriage, a man paid a bride price for a “fertile field” into which he could plant his seed with the hope of reaping an abundant crop. (Pardon the graphic imagery, but it is the most appropriate.) And if the field remained barren, he would get rid of it and acquire another. For this particular woman, one certificate of divorce followed another as five husbands had had their way with this woman, still to no avail, until finally no man was prepared to wed her – what for if she was not going to produce a child?
A son would have cared for her, but she had no such fortune. Left to her fate, the shame she bore stuck to her like her shadow as she flirted with destitute poverty. And this is where her current partner comes on the scene. Not even prepared to give her the dignity of marriage, he offers her food and a roof over her head in return for sexual favours and some basic housekeeping. Yes, this keeps her body alive, but slowly kills her soul. So she avoids the other women, not on account of sexual vice and sin but because of the pain and shame she bears. That’s where Jesus meets her, as a victim – both of physical affliction and societal prejudice and oppression – not as a perpetrator of immorality.
Jesus’ main act of healing with this woman was social. We are not told if she was ever able to have children, but she was restored to a valued place in her community.
And so, what may appear to us as a strange way to introduce himself to that village begins to make sense. The need of salvation for all did not obscure from Jesus’ gaze the healing and wholeness that this one woman longed for – restoration of worth in the eyes of the community which she belonged to.
Little has changed today. Those who are different, who don’t fit into our neat social boxes, those to whom life has dealt a difficult hand or who have taken wrong choices in life – all of us need to belong, to be respected, to know our worth. I have no doubt that Jesus is ready to meet people on that level today. Are we?