Sunday, March 13, 2011

He Told Me Everything I Have Ever Done!

Third Sunday in Lent
March 27, 2011
John 4:5-42

She came to the well every day at noon, when the sun was hottest. The other
women in the village had long since gone back to their households, lugging the heavy water that sustained life and health in a dry land – as millions of women still do, daily, in poor and developing nations all over the world. Coming to the well at midday meant that she could avoid the dulling pain of being shunned and frozen out of the cheerful group that would meet each morning at the well, to carry the water in the cool of the day.

Some traditional depictions of this story portray this Samaritan woman, someone who was very much an “other” to the Jews, as a sort of Bible-story version of Zsa Zsa Gabor or Elizabeth Taylor – a “use ‘em and lose ‘em” character with all her many husbands, a “woman of the world.” But more recent – and careful – scholarship, that takes the anthropology and social structures of that time and place into account, gives us a different kind of picture of this woman at the well.

Women were valued for their childbearing abilities. They could not initiate a divorce; but their husbands could. It is much more likely that she was “barren” – that she could not conceive, and so had been dumped by one husband after another when it became evident that she would not be producing any children. Hers must have been a life of one disappointment after another, hopes dashed on all sides. The reason she would come to the well when the other women weren’t there is because they would shun her, not for being a “loose woman” as the traditional interpretations of this story portray it. They shunned her because she was bad luck – a “barren woman” – whose curse of barrenness might rub off, somehow. It wasn’t personal – they were just playing it safe – guarding their own hopes, protecting themselves from their own disappointments.

Then, one hot noonday, there is this man at the well and his surprising talk of “living water” – surprising that he would talk with her at all – and his talk is all about the water of eternal life, of hope and inspiration and encouragement and promise. Words of hope and promise – to one who knew all the bitterness of bitter disappointment. This message of eternal life is not even dependent, as the promise made to Abraham was, on the reproduction of progeny. Jesus tells her: “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

What words of comfort and release! When she goes back to the village and tells the people: “He told me everything I have ever done!” it’s not because he has recited to her the diary of her serial monogamies – he’s spoken compassionate and healing words to her about her journey through all that disappointment and beyond, in order to arrive at a new kind of place – the source of living water.

This revelation is so overwhelming that she jumps at the chance to share the good news with the very townspeople who have disappointed her so much. The text takes note that she even forgot to take her water jug home with her!


Some traditions honor this Samaritan woman – nameless in the text – as the “first evangelist” because of her eagerness to share the message of Jesus and his “living water.” In Eastern Orthodox church tradition, she has a name: in Greek: “Saint Photina” as in: “photograph” and “photosynthesis” and in Russian, she is “Saint Svetlana.”

This name gives her an identity. She is a “bringer of light.” She joyfully carried the “living water” of the good news of eternal life in Jesus Christ – the “Light of the World.” May we model ourselves on her grace-filled example.

This reflection was prepared by Lisa Bellan-Boyer.

A reader noted that the woman's refers to "everything I ever did" (v29), not "everything that was done to me." Lisa & Paul Bellan-Boyer collaborated on this elaboration...

People that suffer do not do so passively, even when the suffering is brutal and they have little freedom or agency left.

Being human, people who suffer have responses and reactions that are expressed in behavior: they "do things."

Placing hope in things and people that disappoint, getting depressed and giving up, acting out in anger and frustration; hiding away and becoming protective and secretive, these are all kinds behavior that Jesus might have described to her when they were having their talk at the well. Jesus does not name in the text the "things she's done." It's not the concern of the text and it's not our business. It was her business, and she knew that he knew her. (See John 3:17 and John 8:11 - Jesus is not in the condemnation business so familiar to her and to us.)

There's another little problem for us if we focus on the woman's deeds. She says "He told me everything I ever did," but the text does not seem to include all that detail. We might guess that John's telling is not a verbatim account of a pastoral conversation, and imagine that there is a more detailed interaction behind it. But that is in the realm of imagination.

When she said "he told me everything I ever did," does the text indicate what she meant? Was she referring to his recital of her marital history? Or did she mean that Jesus was the one, the first one, the only one who recognized and spoke to her hope?

She tells us which is important to her. "I know that the Messiah is coming," she says. The Messiah is the one who will reveal everything. Especially who we are, who we really are, who we are called to be. He sees her - and she sees him.

For a very well researched, imaginative, and believable example of the relationship of suffering to behavior, in a woman of the ancient world and from the Bible, see the Anita Diamant novel: The Red Tent, about the life of Dinah, the sister of Joseph, and the women in Jacob's camp.
 

4 comments:

Scarboro Paul said...

Thanks Lisa. I am just starting to work on this text as I am preaching a week from Sunday. I especially like the bit from the Eastern Orthodox folks at the end of your comments and the painting by He Qi, one of my favorite spiritual artists.

Thomas Renz said...

I am sympathetic to this reading but get stuck with "everything I ever did" in verse 29. I am not aware of any parallels where this might shade into "everything I suffered" which would be more appropriate on the view that she was sinned against more than sinning. Any thoughts?

Paul Bellan-Boyer said...

Lisa replies...

Thomas, thanks for your question.

People that suffer do not do so passively, even when the suffering is brutal and they have little freedom or agency left.

Being people, people who suffer have responses and reactions that are expressed in behavior: they "do things."

Placing hope in things and people that disappoint them, getting depressed and giving up, acting out in anger and frustration; hiding away and becoming protective and secretive, these are all kinds behavior that Jesus might have described to her when they were having their talk at the well. Jesus does not name in the text the "things she's done." It's not the concern of the text and it's not our business. It was her business, and she knew that he knew her. (See John 3:17 and John 8:11 - Jesus is not in the condemnation business so familiar to her and to us.)

For a very well researched and believable example of the relationship of suffering to behavior, in a woman of the ancient world and from the Bible, see the Anita Diamant novel: The Red Tent, about the life of Dinah, the sister of Joseph, and the women in Jacob's camp.

Thomas Renz said...

Thank you, Lisa, for very helpful reflections. I agree that we need to be careful about making "what she has done" our business in a way that distances us from her (and Jesus!).