Brief synopsis of the readings: In Exodus we begin when the Israelites have left Egypt. Far from being grateful they turned on Moses, accusing him of dragging them out of Egypt to die of thirst in the desert. God intervened and provided water in the land they now call Massah and Meribah. John’s Gospel speaks of a woman Jesus interacts with at a well. She was Samaritan and was surprised that Jesus would speak with her. Jesus told her that while she could draw water from the well he can give her living water that would quench her thirst forever. Jesus then asked about her husband and she admitted that she didn’t have a husband. He acknowledged that he knew she had five husbands and is living with a man who isn’t her husband. The woman recognized Jesus as a prophet but Jesus told her he was the Messiah. At that point Jesus’ disciples (who had gone into town to purchase food) saw this and expressed surprised that Jesus spoke with her, a Samaritan woman. She went back into town and described her encounter and many Samaritans believed.
Today’s readings talk about water and it’s a complicated issue. In the 21st Century most of us can turn on a tap and get all the water we need. We drink, wash, and shower oblivious to the fact that our existence depends on fresh water. In school we learned that two thirds of our world is covered by water, but it’s primarily salt water. Every day some of that water evaporates into the atmosphere, moves over land, and comes down as rain or snow providing our only reasonable source of necessary fresh water.
But it doesn’t rain or snow in equal measure. We have rain forests and deserts, places that receive more than they need and others that don’t get enough. And if you’re a Jew or Christian or Muslim you recognize that much of the early days of your faith took place in deserts, places where access to water was not a given.
I’ve spoken about this before, but I’m amused with the first reading. A few chapters earlier Moses liberated his people from slavery in Egypt and it’s fair to expect gratitude. They weren’t grateful. They blamed Moses for dragging them into the desert to die of thirst. And when God provided water for them they asked: “Is the Lord with us, or not?” Seriously? Did they not understand that the same God who liberated them from Egypt, who parted the sea for them to escape, who promised them a life in a new land, would allow them to die of thirst in the desert?
Again and again as Christians we fail to see God’s intent to destroy the walls that we build up and God’s demand that we do the same. Today’s Gospel speaks richly of the walls we build. If we look on this encounter between Jesus and this unnamed Samaritan woman as simply about a cup of water we miss much of the details.
Samaritans at the time were hated by the Jews of the time. They saw Samaritans as heretics who were beneath contempt and they were not supposed to even speak to them. When Jesus saw this woman he was supposed to ignore her. And if it were not enough that she was a Samaritan, we can recognize that she was also shunned by her own people.
As I described earlier, they lived in a desert and they needed to walk to a well to get the water they needed. Carrying water was womens’ work and most of them did their job early in the morning before the heat of the day. But the woman Jesus encountered was there on the sixth hour, the middle of the day, and she was alone. Her only reason for being there was that she was an outcast. She was not welcome to join the other women. She was looked down on not only by Jews but even her own people.
Given this it’s astounding that Jesus not only spoke to her, but he asked her for a drink. That may not mean much at first blush, but he empowered her. He told her that she was not only able, but worthy to provide him with water. He looked at her not as a Samaritan woman who was shunned by her own people, but a woman who could provide water to the Messiah. Jesus looked beyond her being a Samaritan. He looked beyond her having five husbands. He looked beyond her living with a man who was not her husband. He looked beyond all the things that we can’t (or don’t want to) look beyond.
I hope we can all look back on our life and see times when we’ve been the woman at the well. When I was a young teenager I rode bikes with my next door neighbor Andy. Well into the ride we stopped at a convenience store to buy soda and we saw a sign on the door that said “Only one unaccompanied minor allowed in the store at a time.” When we both entered the store we were yelled at by the woman at the counter who told us that one of us would have to stay outside. She told us that more than one minor raised the risk of shoplifting.
We both left, enraged because we were assumed to be thieves because of our age. The woman at the counter (and the person who made the sign) knew nothing of us but decided we couldn’t be trusted. That happened 45 years ago but it still stings.
More to the point, it forced me to recognize that I’m now the woman behind the counter. Because of my skin color, my grey hair, and my wealth nobody is going to see me as a possible thief. That’s good but it calls me to be more.
Jesus looked at the outcast Samaritan woman and didn’t see her as a sinner. He saw her as a woman in need of mercy and redemption and he gave it to her. Jesus didn’t do what he did because of her, he did what he did because of us. I believe that many of us had the experience of being the Samaritan woman but we need to recognize that we are called to be Jesus.
We live in a world that demands that we fear, hate, or exclude this Samaritan woman but we believe in a God who demands that we instead reach out to her. From calls to “build the wall” to beliefs that our fear excuses our prejudice we are called to do better. This woman didn’t decide to be born a Samaritan. We don’t know anything about her marital history or why she wasn’t welcome to draw water with the rest of the women.
But we do know why Jesus reached out to her: It doesn’t matter if she deserved God’s love. It matters that God loves us without condition. God loves us when we complain in the desert and God loves us when we are shunned by those who claim to lead us.