Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 1/7
Rev. Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, July 23, 2017
You are — I’m sure — acquainted with the notion of echo. If you ever been in a place and you notice that there is an echo and you slow your voice and you wait for it to come back. You shout ECHO and see if it comes back to you. Yeah, shout it child! A wave goes out and if you are lucky a wave will come back again and again. There’s a hearing and a re-hearing.
Our text today is an ancient story. It is not original to this passage. It’s an echo of the ancestors, our ancients. It is also biblical comedy; it’s also irony; it’s also a love story; but mostly it’s a very old story. A stranger comes to Jacob’s well at high noon. The part we left out is Jesus did not have to go that way. He took the long way to go through the land of Samaria. That’s not the shortest route. It’s not as-the-crow-flies from where he was to where he was going. At this well he meets a woman who has come to draw water. He is thirsty, she is thirsty and there is a forbidden interaction between them. It’s not the way things were done.
The original hearers of this recanting, this story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman must have wondered to themselves: am I standing on familiar ground? This story sounds familiar. And as I told you in the past, there is nothing new in the New Testament. This scene and the characters in it would have awakened resonance of another story that happened beside a well, a romance lodged deep in the memory of the community. Genesis 29 tells us the story of Jacob, the sojourner, the lonely boy coming to the well at high noon and he beholds his kinswoman Rachel. Genesis adds dryly to the story: and her father sheep. Just as aside, if we want to talk about problems in our biblical text, this is one of them that you would mention a woman and sheep in the same sentence. But back to our story in the story of Jacob and Rachel, boy meets girl, boy kisses girl. What happens is he waters her father’s sheep and then kisses Rachel and he weeps aloud. It tells us how lonely he was and she kisses him back and there is a little bit a romance there, a little bit of chase and with a huge assist from Leah, they create a family of tribes, children of Israel, they save the nation from destruction. That’s the way a love story is supposed to go. Somebody saves somebody but we are not exactly sure who saved who. Did Jacob save Rachel or did Rachel save Jacob? Or did the sheep save them all? We are not really sure because it’s all there in the story. That’s the way a love story is supposed to go.
In John’s version of the story — of course — it takes a little bit of a different turn. There is no sheep really — not the shearing kind – there are Samaritans and they need to be watered too. But in this conversation at the well it takes a while to get to the sheep, the Samaritans. There are some sharply spoken words at the side of the well and the conversation assumes the character of a confrontation, a fight that is charged with significance much greater than romance or making babies. He is a teacher from above brimming with heavenly insight. She is a woman of the world and she has now become hardened to the jokes that are told about her in the village. Like Jesus, she is thirsty but she thirsts for something she cannot name. What could these two at the well have in common to talk about? Yet they are talking. Isn’t it ironic — don’t you think — two levels of understanding thirst here as well as a gulf between them? The poor woman, just from the community she grew up in; just from the images she has, she has no idea how she thirsts. And there’s a certain comic hopelessness to her attempt to comprehend and argue with what this man is saying to her.
In the midst of the story there are those of us too, who are invited to hear this, who struggle with our own blindness and try to sort out what this text is saying. We are genuinely seeking from our darkness some sense of light. We are thirsty but can’t quite say for what. It is the sort of irony that causes us false starts in life. We chase after anybody with a good word because surely they know what they’re talking about and it takes us a long time to find out they may not. We chase after anybody with a crowd around them because obviously you’re saying something good and we find out that nine out of ten people is not a good predictor that they have something we need. We chase after something that tastes good and then we find out later on that it has other effects on us that we don’t really want. We thirst, we hunger but eventually a path to understanding opens and we have to talk our way through it like this woman at the well had to talk her way through her argument with Jesus.
But when he offers her living water she begins to get an inkling that something is happening here, but she scoffs at him and says: you don’t even have a bucket. That’s biblical comedy right there. But when she hears of water welling up to eternal life, suddenly the comedy is no longer important. The arguments are no longer in her and she says: sir, give me this water. Then the comic relief comes to an abrupt end with a slap on your face statement of: go, call your husband. What do you say to Jesus when this isn’t even your fifth husband and you’re not even married to the man you are living.
Without the awkward details of this woman’s sexual history, all we have is a menial dialogue about truth and enlightenment. It’s just a nice head conversation. We could pass it by be none the worse. But with these details of this woman’s sexual history, we have a reality check that grabs us all and saves our lives. Let us be very clear about the tone of the text; Jesus is not judging her; Jesus is not slut-shaming her. That is the read of our cultural religion and its stunning obsession with controlling female genitalia. Let’s get even clearer here. Female genitalia do not become looser from intercourse. No more than male genitalia become smaller from intercourse. This is just silly. But again, it is our cultural religion and their obsession with the physical body. It is silly and Jesus is not silly.
The tension of the text remains. What’s happening here is Jesus is offering up comment on the culture, out of which this woman came. It’s not all that different from the culture in which he came in the first century Palestine. A woman had no rights, no voice. So out of necessity this particular woman had attached herself to men. She may have loved them but it was an issue of necessity, either you have a man or you have nothing and you had nowhere. You tried to find somebody to take you in and a whole lot of women couldn’t and ended up prostitutes just trying to survive.
The story of Jesus and this woman of Samaria turns out to be a love story after all. For only someone who knows you for who you really are — in your situation as it is — and loves you as you really are and not as you pretend to be. This is the beauty of this text. This woman is fully known and she is fully loved as she is; where she is. If Jesus was slut-shaming her, he would’ve given her instructions: you go home and dump that guy and get out. He said none of that. He was simply observing her life. Only one who loves you can look at your past without blinking. And when something we regard as shameful, when something we regard as regrettable, when something that has a hold on us gets brushed by the love of God, about all we can say is thank you. And we are set free. The water in our dry and barren souls, the water begins to come. We Christians know a lot about love, not make-believe nonsense love, real love. I look at you and see you for exactly who you are love. Because of this text, because he told me everything I ever did; all of it!
Like our Samaritans sister, we tried to believe, we struggle with what to believe. We were looking for a list on how to believe. Nine things, I believe all of them! Because we turned belief into a twenty-first century word having to do with intellectual awareness and that we ascribe to anything you say about Jesus. That is not what belief meant in the first century. Belief in the first century — that beautiful Greek word pisto — simply meant what is important to you becomes important to me. If I believe in you, what is important to you becomes important to me. So to believe in Jesus means what is important to Jesus becomes important to me. But we don’t really hear that because our cultural religion doesn’t tell us that; our culture religion is all in the head. And so we get comfortable with words that sound religious, but we don’t connect them to a relationship with Jesus. We talk about salvation as a nation, but mostly that means buckets of money we can take to the bank. We have elevated listening to ourselves into an art form but we don’t bother listening to the one who can tell us everything we’ve done. We’ve elevated television watching to a binge form but we don’t watch the one who shows us the way to God’s kingdom. We make family a substitute for salvation as if the church had never heard of God’s family. And most of all, we love ourselves so much that we invest in technology that we are sure is going to make our life fulfilling because we are connected to one another. But we overlook our connection or lack of connection to the one who finds his way to us in the heat of the day.
We are surely comical people. We might expect that the conclusion of this story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman to be that Jesus accompanies her into the village: to advocate for her, to validate her, to speak on her behalf. But that’s not what happens. He tells her: you go, you go, you tell, you use your voice. What better gift is there to someone who has no voice: go; tell; use your voice. We attach ourselves to God and our voice finds resonance. That’s the way to know if the water welling up in us is living water because our voice will find resonance and were no longer content to be dry in a barren land. We must speak up and change our world, our village. This is a commentary on what it means to be loved too. Do our relationships increase our voice, our resonance? Are we heard for what we are saying? Do they deepen the timber of our voice or do they undercut us. Do they talk over us? Do they ignore us and walk away?
This is where it gets a little bit weird in the text. We might expect that the giver of voice and water, our hero in the story, to ride off on a white horse, in view of the few baffled Samaritans like a prophet or like a Greek hero; victorious in life, only to later be taken into heaven. But instead, this one from above chooses to submit to the foolishness of the cross. He moves out of this story and down the road and he becomes silent as the suffering servant. He gives voice to you, but he becomes silent, a failure in the eyes of the world. With unbearable irony, this keeper of living water will say to Roman and Jewish spectators: I thirst. Chew on that for an afternoon. Jesus says: I thirst. And once he is dead, he is poked in the side and outflows blood and water.
I think that’s the best evidence that this is a love story. We are not quite sure where it begins and we are not sure where it ends and there are too many levels happening in this passage and connections to make and meanings to comprehend and double entendres and ironic twists; to many of them for me — or I think anyone else — to offer a final word about its meaning. But we must latch on and we must start talking about this passage in our lives because that’s the ending of all three of these stories — you do know that — the story from Genesis 29 Jacob and Rachel. Tell your children and grandchildren and all the nations of the world what God has done through you. To the woman at the well, go and tell! He told me everything I had ever done. To disciples trying to figure out what to do next after Jesus’ body has disappeared and then reappeared to them, go and tell, make disciples. In all honesty I think maybe the best way for me to end today is to just stop talking and to let you pick up the conversation inside of you and let you pick up the conversation with one another and talk about living water welling up in you.