A Lenten sermon on John 4:1-42
What do we know about the woman at the well? She is a Samaritan, a religion that is very similar to and yet different from Judaism. Each one is the one true people of the one God. Their scriptures are similar, their laws are similar, but their Gods live in different places. We know that she is thirsty. We know that she is honest, and unafraid to question others. We also know that she has been married to five men and that the man she lives with now is not her husband. This is what we know.
We do not know her age. We do not know her upbringing. We do not know if she has children. We do not know what circumstances led to her having five husbands. Were her husbands warriors? Were they sickly? Was she married to a man who died before she could conceive, leaving her to his brother? Did this happen more than once? Who is the man with whom she lives now? We don’t know.
And yet… and yet so often when we hear this story, we write her story for her. More often than not, the story is of a promiscuous woman, wise to the ways of the world. She is called a harlot, a prostitute. Without knowing any of the details of her story, we have decided who she is. A story has been created for her based on very little information – and she has been judged according to this story (in which she has no say). The story is often told that Jesus talked to a prostitute, a woman of ill-repute – when those words aren’t there. Not in the English, and not in the Greek.
But isn’t that the way? Isn’t that what we do to each other all the time? We don’t know the facts, but we don’t like living in a world of gray. We don’t want to take the time to find out the person’s story, so we decide who people are before we get to know them. Before we hear their story. How often have people made up their minds about us without knowing our story? How often have we done this to others?
Thinking on this, I was reminded of the oft repeated story of the Welfare Queen. You know how this goes: woman (usually a woman of color) who has baby after baby just to keep that welfare check coming. The woman who does drugs and sells herself to pay for the drugs and yet gets food stamps on our dime. The woman who could work but just doesn’t want to, who drives a Cadillac, who is fleecing the good taxpayers of this great nation. We have all heard this story. We have internalized it. We make judgments about recipients of public assistance based on this story we have heard. We make judgments of the poor, we make judgments on women of color, all based on a story one woman in Chicago.
And yet the facts don’t bare this story out. The reality is that 75% of welfare recipients have one or two children. Most public assistance today requires you either have a job or are looking for a job. The programs states have enacted to test those who get public assistance for drugs have proven fruitless – people who are on welfare aren’t testing positive for drugs. But so many have made up their minds. People who are on public assistance must be lazy, they are on drugs, they keep having kids to get more benefits. The story lives on. We keep on judging – with few facts at hand, we make up people’s stories for them, and apply it broadly, often without even realizing it. Until or unless we have been there ourselves.
When Jesus came to the woman at the well, he didn’t see a prostitute or a promiscuous woman. He didn’t see her only as a member of a different faith. He saw beyond her marital history. He saw a woman who had been through some pain. He saw a child of God. He didn’t create a story for her — he talked to her. He got her to talk about her life. At that well, Jesus saw a woman who was thirsty for the water of life, and he offered her a drink. He offered to quench her thirst. No qualifications, no explanations. He offered her life.
What do we see when we see someone different than us? What kind of stories do we make up for those around us? What assumptions do we make? What prejudices do we allow to inform our opinions about people we don’t even know. What presumptions are we carrying with us?
We do not create these narratives out of thin air. We have experiences or have heard of others experiences and these stories create the framework for the stories we then create about others. We know people who have been married five times because that was his or her choice, because he was promiscuous or she had no respect for marriage. So it makes some sense to us that the woman at the well would be cut from the same cloth.
Here’s one problem with that: do we really know why someone has been married five times, or for that matter, why people are promiscuous? Sure, some people may just not be wired for marriage or may have some giant moral flaw. Others may have been abused, may feel empty, may be searching for completion in the love of people. We don’t know. Some people do actually abuse the system. Others may be trapped there as a result of upbringing, lack of education, lack of resources, mental illness, or who knows what else. We don’t know.
So, how do we stop? How do we release ourselves from the prisons of pre-made narratives into relationships that could profoundly change our lives? How do we let go of the urge to put others in boxes so quickly?
What if the woman at the well had decided that Jesus was just another guy hitting on her and had walked away?
Jesus shows us the way. He shows us the way in everything he does. In the way he approaches the woman at the well. In his invitation to Zacchaeus. In his defense of the woman about to be stoned. He approaches every person he encounters with the knowledge that each person is a beloved child of God. Just think of how that orientation might change your everyday life. Think of how it might feel to let go of the judging of others, to let go of the constant judging of ourselves, to trust in others’ good intentions and let go of the fear of being taken advantage of or lied to. To just go with it. To love others in this way is to accept the water of life that Christ offers. To drink the water is to be changed and to experience life eternal right here, right now. This is grace. This is God’s gift to us. Amen