Brief synopsis of the readings: In Exodus, shortly after their liberation from Egypt, the Israelites turned on Moses. They were in the wilderness and out of their thirst they complained that they were liberated only to die there. Appealing to God, Moses asked what he should do. God instructed Moses to take some of the elders and strike a rock at Horeb with his staff. When he did water began to flow; the rock was named Massah and Meribah because of the peoples’ grumbling. John’s Gospel describes Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus was at the well in the middle of the day when a Samaritan woman approached; his disciples had gone into town. When Jesus saw the woman he asked her for a drink. She was surprised that Jesus spoke to her; Jesus told her that if she knew who he was she would listen as he can provide living water. She recognized that he was a prophet and Jesus told her that he is the Messiah. She told many other Samaritans who believed her and they asked Jesus to stay with them. They proclaimed Jesus the savior of the world.
When Christians speak of “the woman at the well” we all recognize it; it’s something we read every Lent. This may be a benefit of Lent but today’s readings give the preacher almost too much material. As I read this while I was preparing I focused on one aspect of the Gospel: the need to break the rules from time to time.
Frankly if you’re looking for a reason to break the rules Jesus is often a good place to start. As a child he wandered back to Jerusalem when his parents thought he was with them. At the wedding feast of Cana he was incredibly rude when his mother told him they had run out of wine. He healed people on the Sabbath and didn’t always keep kosher. And today he spoke with a Samaritan woman, a person who was an outcast even in her own community.
A little background: from reading between the lines in the Gospel we know this was not a popular woman in her village. Gathering water was women’s work and most women walked to the well shortly after dawn when it was cool and they went in groups. If this woman was alone at the sixth hour she was not welcome to go with the other woman and she came at midday when the sun was the hottest. Jews and Samaritans hated each other and the rules dictated that they should not talk; Jesus couldn’t have picked someone more an outcast.
He broke the rules but he did for good reason. This isn’t going to be a reflection on how rules don’t matter. We have rules to facilitate expectations of each other and to ensure we are all pulling in the same direction. But rules serve a higher cause, or at least they are supposed to. A mindless obedience to the rules may ignore the reason they were put into place in the first place. The Declaration of Independence lays out the reasons why the colonies needed to declare independence from Britain. Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested 29 times for breaking various laws about protests.
I say this because there are times when we can avoid doing what must be done or show a lack of courage by hiding behind the rules. Other times the rules allow us to be lazy. Years ago I worked for a church where the parish secretary was all about the rules. It’s not generally known but churches have “parish boundaries.” Technically we are supposed to attend the church closest to where we live but in practice priests are happy whenever someone shows up for mass regardless of where they live. But if someone came to this church office to register the secretary would first ask them where they lived. She then pulled out a local map with the parish boundaries marked in red; if the person didn’t live in the parish boundaries she refused to register them for the parish. She never thought she was driving people away, she just thought she was enforcing the rules.
And so let’s circle back to this outcast Samaritan woman who Jesus wasn’t supposed to talk to. Jews were not supposed to have anything to do with Samaritans, there were rules about how men and women were supposed to interact, and if the women of the village ignored her, why shouldn’t we? But Jesus stood for inclusion, for looking at us with a wide angle lens, and here was someone who was clearly “the least of my people.” All these rules may have made some sense earlier on, but at this point all they did was divide people. Rules that tell us to avoid certain people or decide we already know all about them, well, we need to be suspicious. At the time of Jesus there had been hundreds of years of bad blood between Jews and Samaritans but the reasons for that split had long ago stopped mattering. And there was certainly no reason to burden this woman with that split: she was innocent of all this.
She was also a conduit to a larger group. She figured out pretty quickly that Jesus wasn’t just an ordinary person, but the Messiah everyone had awaited. Empowered by this information she was able to go back to her village and become an evangelist for Jesus. Frankly I’m amazed that she was able to tell anyone about Jesus given her status. But that’s one of those things about God, choosing people we never would have chosen. The fact that she was so successful shows that the villagers were ready to hear Jesus’ message.
Finally, if Jesus was like us in all things but sin he also had free will. The rules could have made things easy for him: he could have ignored her and nobody would have thought anything of it. If he were complacent, or lazy, or just wanted an afternoon off he could have just sat there until his disciples returned. But the woman at the well, the others in her village, Jesus’ disciples, and we learn to include everyone. No exceptions.