This Sunday we heard the Scripture reading of the Samaritan Woman – John 4:4 – 30. This woman is alone at the well, a damaged, hurt woman, bearing many invisible scars. Being alone at the well is unusual in itself – the well is place of gathering, of communal gossip and laughter, women complaining about their husbands, chatting about the new babies being born, offering advice to one another, women gathering in the cool relief of the dawn or dusk. I can imagine that this samaritan woman has trecked to the well in the heat of the day to avoid the scorn of the other women. She would prefer to stand in the heat and wear her damaging labels in silence, than face these women. She would prefer to bear the scorching sun rather than the scorching tongues of the women.
Has anyone not been in her place before? Has anyone not been judged by others, labelled, degraded by people orcommunities? If you have never experienced this, hold on to that – you’re very lucky! This Women was an outcast – She was hurt, broken, alone. She was married several times – but divorce back then certainly isn’t what it is now. Divorce was initiated by the husband – often for trivial issues. And the woman was then left to fend for herself. Society was dominated by man – women couldn’t easily find Work, couldnt support herself without men. Bruce Prewer says it well: “A man could divorce his wife on the smallest pretext. He only had to attest “something unseemly in her.” To make a divorce effective, all the husband had to do was to call in a male witness, and write out the dismissal notice.A divorced woman, unless she had independent means, lost all status and value in the community. She was seen as a rejected woman. She was a disgrace. Her own family was loathe to receive her back in their household. Her very existence became precarious. Options for employment were severely limited to being a menial servant. And such positions did not come up very often. High class women were not likely to employ a divorcee, and put temptation in the way of their easily-tempted husband. There were no unemployment benefits in those days. In reality the options were: Find work as a servant, marry again very quickly, become some man’s mistress, work as a prostitute, or starve.
So this Samaritan woman has done what she could to survive – remarry, and in that way be supported fed, clothed, had a roof over her head – until she was thrown out on the street by the next husband. No wonder she didn’t want to marry the man she was currently with. She was an outcast by society’s standards – can you imagine what she was labelled? Unclean, Cursed, prostitute. Probably many others. Nathan Nettleton writes about labels:
“A face value, what the label says of you is true of you so what’s the use of fighting it?
Just bite your lip and crawl back into your box
just hide your tears and let a little bit more of you die for a little bit seems to die every time you are reduced to a label even if the label fits or fits a part of you or used to fit you and every time as you crawl back into your box embarrassed, humiliated, ashamed but fighting to keep it from showing the box feels a little more like a priso and a little more like a coffin and a little more like a gravefrom which there is no escape in which there is no life. But you get used to it after a while you don’t even feel any protest inside you just get used to it you just accept the label you just become who they say you are you just forget what else you might be you just cave in you even begin to use the label of yourself first with an air of jovial self-mockery but after a while just with an air of resignation and eventually without even that it’s become just a name the name by which everyone knows you no longer shaming, no longer grating just a long worn name” And when Communities place labels on people, be they positive or negative, the people begin to live these labels- they become the labels. This woman, hurt, isolated, alone, wounded, began living the labels of home-wrecker, the village- scapegoat.
I have been labelled things like this at different times. As a single mother in this Sexually promiscuous society, you are labelled in many ways. Hartwell church of Christ, and the church l came from previously treated me differently, and slowly the labels shifted. Slowly my hackles went back down as instead of hearing demeaning and poisonous labels, I heard life-affirming and enriching ones, which slowly changed how I lived, what I lived out of.
This is what Jesus does- Jesus immediately placed the Samaritan woman in a position of power- he asked her for help- she immediately had a purpose, meaning in that moment. Instead of being mocked and ridiculed, she was needed, to help, to serve. It’s brilliant when you think about it – all people generally want to do is help others- the Compassionate side of people is generally there. This woman’s Compassionate side was crushed + bruised, not in use for a while – how do you feel when You can’t help others? I generally feel helpless, useless. Imagine feeling like that for years. Suddenly this stranger wants help -he needs her help. Jesus enters into discussion, bringing to the fore her story, her situaton, without judgement or bitterness, but perhaps with kindness, sympathy, Compassion. For the first time in a long time her label is lifted. Jesus speaks to her as an equal. There is dialogue- Conversation. Someone bothers to see who she is beneath the labels-strong, intelligent, Compassionate. The love of Christ, the compassion, the nonjurdgmental conversing begins the journey for the Samaritan woman into finding out who she is as a beloved child of God. This is what the love of Christ can do. It can open up people to a world of possibilities and opportunities which are larger than their own. So then we have the water – new life, nourishment, fulfilling and satisfying thirst, cleanliness. All metaphorically and literally. The well is a Centrepoint of the Story – it is the water in which Jesus asks to drink. They both meet in their humanity around the well. He needs water to drink, she needs the living water to satisfy her thirst. 13-14 Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.” 15 The woman said, “Sir, give me this water so I won’t ever get thirsty, won’t ever have to come back to this well again!” I’d like to think of the church as a well. I’d like to think that we offer compassion, nourishment, and others a place to Commune, to gather around a nd laugh, chatter, offer support.And I think we do it without thinking sometimes! But, if we are the well, I think we also need to be aware of who it is that may be coming only during the heat of the day, not wanting to Come in the early Morning or at dusk. Perhaps we can try to meet them in the heat of the day. What might this look like? People not sure enough of their own voice, not sure they are welcome – perhaps they are a bit different… It’s a journeying withsomeone-it is not necessarily something that will happen in one time.
May you continue to see the presence of God in your midst.