The Samaritan Woman at the well is one of my favorite stories. There’s the foreign woman, who talks to Jesus, and is welcomed, and runs and tells the good news–in one little story, you get a blue print of most of the great gospel stories.
In 2017, however, there’s this one lines that juts out. “It’s not because of what you say that we believe, but because we have seen for ourselves!”
Ugh. Come on, villagers. Is that even necessary? Must you take away from this lovely moment by taking away any sense of accomplishment or joy the Samaritan woman might have felt? That line is at once so cutting and so human, and you can’t help but feel echoes of it in our current climate.
The seed of this sermon was a Facebook conversation with two seminarian friends, as we lamented the revelations coming out of the White House, as aide after aide described having to monitor the president’s every mood swing and temper, lest he become bored and tweet something inflammatory. Meanwhile, an ongoing talking point during the recent campaign had been whether Hillary Clinton was emotionally stable enough for high office.
Part of being inspired is that the Scriptures reflect to us the consistent frailties of what it means to be human–along with apparently the prejudices we still haven’t shaken after 2,000 years.
Here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
March 18, 2017
John 4: 5-42
From time to time, there are these social media experiments. Have you heard of these? The most recent was last week. Two coworkers, a man and a woman, who run a small consulting firm, decided to run a test. The woman had been telling her male colleague for months about the sort of angry emails she was accustomed to receiving, and he didn’t believe her. So they agreed: they would switch names for a week. He would sign her name on emails; she would sign his. And they would see what happened.
The result is in a way predictable: the man discovered that he became the target of a lot of abuse when he signed a female name. He discovered, to his shock, that most clients suddenly became unreasonably difficult to work with. They questioned his competency, his judgment, and the way he did everything, when he signed emails with his coworker’s name. One asked him if he was single. When he switched the names back, suddenly the clients were fawning all over him–complimenting his questions, his wisdom, and his job performance.
Here’s what’s odd to me about this story–not that the emails changed based on who the clients thought was writing them. What’s odd to me is that the male colleague didn’t believe his female colleague. Why didn’t he just believe her? Wouldn’t she know if she was encountering this sort of thing? Wouldn’t she be the expert in it?
Why didn’t he just believe her? Why did he only believe when he saw it for himself?
There is, for whatever reason, a disinclination to believe those without power–even when they speak from their experience. A base assumption that they must not know what they’re talking about, because only the powerful know how the world really works. We see this crop up in a lot of places–studies show that women who report pain to a doctor are less likely to be taken seriously, and their pain is less likely to be treated. Likewise, black people who report pain or discomfort in a medical situation encounter a similar problem. Their pain is discounted or explained away by the medical professionals. Even though they are the ones experiencing it first hand.
We ascribe authority to those to whom we are used to having it. Y’know–experts. Doctors, professors, learned people. And quite frankly, people who overwhelmingly tend to be older white men–as for such a long time, doctors, professors, and all learned people just were. Those are the people we are used to seeing in positions of authority, and so when someone else tries to speak, even when they speak from their own knowledge–we look askance at them. That’s not the authority we’re used to.
So let’s turn to the woman at the well.
Now, she’s not anyone’s idea of authority. She’s not anyone’s idea of an expert. She’s an outcast in her community, for one reason or another. She’s a Samaritan, so the nice Jewish boys who hung around Jesus really thought she was off. And also, of course,–she has the girl cooties, which were a bigger deal back then than they are now, if you can believe it. But there’s something strange that happens when she talks to Jesus.
She meets Jesus at the well, and they strike up this conversation; he asks her for water, and she asks him for the living water he talks about. Then, they move onto what seem to be more salacious topics–how many husbands she has. But notice, when Jesus tells her that ‘the one she has now is not her husband’, she replies by declaring him a prophet, and asking him where the proper place to worship is. That’s not normally how you respond if a stranger is accusing you of having some loose morals.
The Israelite prophets–Isaiah, Hosea, Ezekiel, etc– all used marriage as the metaphor for Israel’s relationship to God. God was the faithful husband–Israel was the wife who kept wandering around to different partners. So given the Samaritan woman’s response–they are not actually talking about her own love life–they’re talking about the theology of the Samaritans as a whole.
Basically, Jesus is hanging out at a well, chatting theology with a foreign woman. This is a big deal.
And when they show up again, the disciples realize this, because they apparently freak out, but internally! All inside! Meanwhile, the woman runs back to her village, and tells her neighbors all about Jesus. They don’t believe her–instead they go to investigate. And when they discover Jesus is as she says, they tell her that it’s not that they believe because of what she said, but because they have seen for themselves.
Elsewhere in this same gospel, Jesus tells Thomas that the truly blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe. How different would this story be if the villagers had just believed the Samaritan woman’s testimony of her own experience? Here is a woman savvy enough to discuss comparative religion with Jesus. She knows what she’s talking about–yet she goes unlistened to. Only Jesus cares enough to listen to her story, her authority.
Often, in the gospel, the good news rests solely on the authority of the most unlikely person. The Samaritan Woman telling her village about Jesus is almost a test-run of the women at the tomb, running back to tell the disciples about the risen Christ. In each case, those seemingly without authority are called on to speak to what they know and what they have seen. And others decide whether to listen.
Jesus models for us a way of listening to the experiences around us, when he struck up that conversation at the well. He listened to her story, to her thoughts and her experience, and by doing that, gave her the confidence to tell others what she had found in Jesus. It was through her voice, that the village came to know something new of God.
We miss so much when we discount the authority around us. Scripture teaches us that God most often uses those who go unheard to do his loudest speaking. So it is on us to learn to listen. Listen to those who speak from what they know. What they have seen. The pain and the joy. The struggle and the triumph. Because Jesus sends Samaritan women into our midst all the time, telling us some great news.
The question is whether we are prepared to hear her.