So often, when I approach the stories of John’s gospel, I find myself deadened to the beauty of them. Having heard them over and over, I quickly forget the astonishing nature of the person of Jesus and the ways he engages others. Today’s story exemplifies his transforming, grace-filled love in ways that, when I do attend, seep deep into my bones and fill me with life.
In the Samaritan woman, we see Jesus’ love for us again, despite our shame, and the broken fragments of our history.
In Jesus, we see a ministry of grace and truth, reconciliation, and elevating those who are overlooked, despised, and outcast.
The Samaritan woman was cast out, many times over, and lived on the margins of society. Racially, she was considered impure. The Samaritans had been at war with the Jews for 500 years, with enmity running so deep that Jews frequently avoided passing through Samaria at all. As a woman, she was not to have any dealings with men on her own, and certainly not with a Jewish rabbi. Finally, as a person marked by a bad reputation, she was isolated. Although women would almost always go in groups to get water from the well early in the day, her choice to go alone at noonday indicates her deep isolation. Many commentators suggest that she is isolated because of her living situations, including 5 husbands, and a man who is not her husband.
Jesus is quick to go places that are labeled unsafe or impure. As Bishop Steve Breedlove pointed out in his sermon at Synod in November, in Jesus’ radical grace, he sanctifies these places and people by his very presence. He humbles himself — taking a seat on the well, and asking to receive from the Samaritan woman. This was not a playful charade or an attempt to provide from his own resources. Instead, he engages her from a place of humility and need. He asks for something only she can give — a drink of water. While she (perhaps defensively) points out all the reasons he ought not, Jesus invites her into theological conversation.
Despite her shameful background, the Samaritan woman has a posture and readiness to meet Jesus that is characterized by light and truth. Her posture convicts and inspires me. When Jesus comes to me, how often I obfuscate and ignore him. The Samaritan woman, in her readiness, engages deeply and theologically. In fact, she is one of the first (and only) people to name Jesus as the Messiah.
As I sit with this story, I am challenged. I see my own lack of attention to God in the world around me. While Jesus comes to me over and over again, I so often ignore him. While the truth of his character is evident, I ignore that he is the Savior of the world. Instead, I sit with my shame and brokenness and attempt to wrestle them on my own.
In this Lenten season, my practice is to bring my own shame and hurt before Jesus — to picture him sitting there, to know he engages me, and covers me — sanctifying me by his very presence. One of the tools I’ll be using to do this is A New Liturgy’s Lament and Examen albums, prayerfully placing my hope, my shame, and my life before Jesus.
Further Resources on The Samaritan Woman: Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes (Kenneth Bailey); John for Everyone (NT Wright)
Elizabeth Sallie is commonly known as ESal around Advent. She delights in natural light, iced coffee, liturgical seasons, and hanging out with teenagers.