Like the woman at the well, I was seeking
For things that could not satisfy.
And then I heard my Savior speaking—
“Draw from My well that never shall run dry.”
Fill my cup, Lord;
I lift it up Lord;
Come and quench this thirsting of my soul.
Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more.
Fill my cup, fill it up and make me whole.
We are going to be singing the song “Fill My Cup,Lord” (the song above) in church on Sunday. It comes from the story in John 4 about the Woman at the Well. It happens to be one of my favorite stories in Scripture. When I went to China fifteen years ago, I got three wall hangings of the work of He Qi, the Chinese artist who depicts religious stories in paintings. The three I bought were based on stories I love, the Good Samaritan, the Road to Emmaus and the Woman at the Well.
I love this story because it is a story of Jesus breaking boundaries left and right. But I really love it because it is about grace and about Jesus being the friend of sinners.
I will be preaching on the text Sunday, but as this Sunday grew near I felt a bit of hesitation. You see, over the years it seems to get harder to preach this story. Over the years, I’ve heard people reflecting on the story and well, challenging one aspect of it: the role of the woman.
This woman (who is unnamed) comes to draw water in the middle of the day. In very warm climates, you would not be out when the sun is at its hightest. No, you would draw your water in the early morning or the evening when it is cooler. The fact that this woman comes at noon indicates that she is some sort of outcast. During the conversation with Jesus, he asks her to go and fetch her husband. When she says she has no husband, Jesus replies that she is correct. She has had five husbands and the man that she lives with now is not her husband. Now, traditionally people have thought that she might have been doing something that was considered sinful. However, another story has come forward in recent years that rejects seeing the woman as a sinner, but more as a victim of some sort. The Bible never really tells us what this woman has done, if anything. The passage raises question about this women and what has led her to be an outcast, but we are never told what happened.
What I loved about this story is that God can work through someone deemed a sinner. The kingdom of God is for this person as well. Friend of sinners indeed.
But that view is starting to fall out of favor at least in mainline circles for this newer viewpoint. There is no mention of sin. There is no repentance. They argue that the traditional understanding of the woman at the well is full of misogyny and moralism. Here is what David Lose said in a Huffington Post article in 2011:
She is not a prostitute. She doesn’t have a shady past. Yet when millions of Christians listen to her story this coming Sunday in church, they are likely to hear their preachers describe her in just those terms.
Her story is told in the fourth chapter of the Gospel According to John. She is a Samaritan woman who Jesus encounters by a well. Jews and Samaritans don’t get along, and women and men in this culture generally keep a safe social distance from each other. So she is doubly surprised when Jesus asks her for a drink. When she makes a remark to that effect, he offers her living water. Confused, but intrigued, she asks about this miraculous water. He eventually invites her to call her husband, and when she replies that she has no husband, he agrees: “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” (4:18).
And that’s it. That’s the sentence that has branded her a prostitute. Conservative preacher John Piper’s treatment is characteristic. In a sermon on this passage, he describes her as “a worldly, sensually-minded, unspiritual harlot from Samaria,” and at another point in the sermon calls her a “whore.”
I don’t think I’ve ever seen her as a prostitute, but I guess I could see people thinking that. So if this isn’t the correct interpretation, then why is it being used? The continued oppression of women:
So if this seems at least as probable an interpretation as the more routine one, why do so many preachers assume the worst of her? I would suggest two reasons. First, there is a long history of misogyny in Christian theology that stands in sharp contrast to the important role women play in the gospels themselves. Women, the four evangelists testify, supported Jesus’ ministry. They were present at the tomb when their male companions fled. And they were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Yet from asserting that Eve was the one who succumbed to temptation (conveniently ignoring that the author of Genesis says Adam was right there with her — Gen. 3:6) to assuming this Samaritan woman must be a prostitute, there is the ugly taint of chauvinism present in too much Christian preaching, perhaps particularly so in those traditions that refuse to recognize the equality of women to preach and teach with the same authority as men.
A second reason preachers cast this woman in the role of prostitute is that it plays into the belief that Christianity, and religion generally, is chiefly about morality. Treating the Bible as one long, if peculiar, Goofus & Gallant cartoon, we read every story we find in terms of sin and forgiveness, moral depravity and repentance. But this story is not about immorality; it’s about identity. In the previous scene, Jesus was encountered by a male Jewish religious authority who could not comprehend who or what Jesus was. In this scene, he encounters the polar opposite, and perhaps precisely because she is at the other end of the power spectrum, she recognizes not just who Jesus is but what he offers — dignity. Jesus invites her to not be defined by her circumstances and offers her an identity that lifts her above her tragedy. And she accepts, playing a unique role in Jesus’ ministry as she is the first character in John’s gospel to seek out others to tell them about Jesus.
I can understand why the traditional view can be so unsettleing. Christian leaders have used scripture to belittle women. I definitely would not call the woman a whore with the certainty that John Piper seems show. We really don’t know what she has done, if anything. So , we need to be careful in thinking we know the woman’s “sin” if there even is one. Plus as Lose and other Bible scholars have noted, she might have been involved in a Levirate marriage.
That said, Lose’s alternative understand of this story, one where the woman is offered an identity and dignity seems to be weak tea for me. Don’t get me wrong, the fact that Jesus treats woman with dignity matters. The gospels present a Jesus that felt women had a role in his kingdom and it was more than cleaning tables.
But there is something missing in Lose’s interpretation. Maybe the problem is that this is the kind of stuff I would expect to hear from nice, tolerant liberals. It has nice words to say about inclusion and about treating women with respect. But do people need to go to church to hear this? Inclusivity is important, but I can learn that from a Coke ad. I don’t need the church for that.
I agree that the woman does get to be a missionary to her people, which is groundbreaking. All of this is good, I just don’t know if it really says anything about the love of God or what this all means for the church.
As I said before, we don’t know if this woman had sinned. What we do know is that she was viewed a sinner by the townsfolk- which is why we see her getting water at noon instead of the morning or evening. Whatever happened, we know that she is an outcast and outcasts are normally made to feel like sinners even if they’ve done nothing wrong.
I think it matters if this woman appeared to be a sinner (note that I said appear. I did not say she was a sinner.) If that’s the case, then the story changes. This is then not about offering dignity but it is about Jesus, the friend of sinners, the one who is willing to impugn his own reputation to love the sinner and the outcast. THAT is what makes this story so amazing. Regardless if this woman was a sinner or not, Jesus radically loves this woman, even to the point of causing people to talk.
We all love to talk about Jesus being a friend to sinners, but we get a little nervous when Jesus in the Bible or Christians today, actually try to be friends…to sinners.
Lutheran pastor Delmer Chilton recounts a story that place right after his ordination; one where the newly minted minister ends up in the midst of some “working girls:”
I was ordained many years ago in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in a church not far from Fort Bragg. An old college friend drove several hours to be there. After the service that evening, he gave me a ride to the house where I was staying with another friend during the clergy conference that was to begin the next day. Our route took us through a part of town where “working girls” offered their services to GIs. We came to a stoplight, and they spotted me sitting there in his open-bodied Jeep. I was wearing a black suit and clergy shirt. Several of them came over to the car and began talking while we waited for the light to change to green. I said to my friend, “Get me out of here or this might be the shortest clerical career on record.”
He laughed as we drove away and then he said, “Well Delmer, I’m just a lowly English teacher, and you know I don’t go to church very much, but the way I read the Bible – aren’t those the very people you’re supposed to hanging out with?” I’ve known the man a long time and I still hate it when he’s right.
The reason the Woman at the Well resonates with me is that Jesus was willing to be seen talking with someone that at the very least was an outcast and still loves her. Because of that radical love, this woman was able to witness to her neighbors and they too saw Jesus as the Messiah.
In the end, this story really isn’t about the Samaritan woman. She does factor in and is important to the story, but the story is really about a God that is willing to love someone, anyone so radically that one might think God is off God’s rocker. If God is a friend to outcasts and sinners, then God is surely a friend to me. We can rest in the hope that we have a God that passionately loves each one of us.
Hmmm…I think I might have written my sermon for this Sunday….
JESUS MAFA. Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48282 [retrieved March 21, 2014].