Our sermons throughout Lent are on “Giving Up Your Own Way.” We’re following the Revised Common Lectionary and considering those things God calls us to give up – not just for 40 days, but for all of our days – so that we can take up the way of Jesus Christ. This week’s sermon is on “Giving Up Superiority.” Read or listen below.
The girl was thirsty, and the water was right in front of her. So she walked up to the water fountain, stood on her tiptoes, and started to take a drink. It would have been a normal, everyday occurrence, but for the sign that read “Whites Only.”
No sooner had the water crossed her lips than the young girl, Olive Thurman, felt a hand grab her shoulder. It was her father, the great African American scholar, philosopher and theologian, Howard Thurman. He and his wife had taken their two daughters on a vacation. From their home in Washington, D.C., where Dr. Thurman was Dean of the Chapel at Howard University, they had traveled throughout the Southern United States. And now Dr. Thurman was experiencing the pain of explaining to his daughters just as his parents had to him years earlier, that in the South, in the 1930s, young black girls couldn’t just disregard the signs – not at the drinking fountain or bathroom, not at the swimming pool, not at the rest stop playground where the swing-set was for the white children who were traveling with their families. (1)
Thurman told this story throughout his life, and described each time the heartbreak he felt in this moment with his thirsty little girl, tears forming in her eyes at this realization. And he cried right along with her and his sister, at the tragedy of having to be the one to teach them to see the way of the world, and of seeing the moment when his daughter first saw and consciously understood the signs that separated the somebodies from the nobodies.
We feel the distance of decades from such a time. But for those young girls and their father, it was a formative experience, as they learned how signs and systems, constructed over time, can separate us, and sort us into categories: somebody/nobody, superior/inferior, inside/outside, those who can drink from the fountain and those who can’t.
Maybe you’ve been a person who has felt limited or restricted. Maybe you’ve been kept from the water in some way. Or maybe at times in your life you’ve been the one keeping others from drinking deeply, from drawing what they need. It’s been our way throughout human history – at wells no less than water fountains.
Jesus had a unique talent for ignoring the signs and stepping over the barriers. He almost seemed to enjoy it. So in our passage today, one sign reads “Samaria,” and the gospel of John says that Jesus “had to go there.” Had to? He was on his way from Judea back to Galilee, which would lead most people to take a left and follow the Jordan River, a steady downhill much of the way until you reach the city of Jerusalem. Or you could take a right, as many others did, walking along the coastline of the Sea on a scenic route that ends in the hill country. “Jesus had to go through Samaria.” It’s quite a way to say it, since he didn’t “have to” at all, and most people like him didn’t. Jesus must have wanted to go that way.
Passing through that country, he stops at a village and finds his way to water – a well – where most Jews would have seen the sign that marked it for Samaritans only. It wasn’t a physical marker, exactly, but no less constructed through the years of tension and shared hatred. Jews and Samaritans had regarded one another as religiously, racially, and socially inferior for around 700 years. His disciples can see the signs clear enough. They go on ahead to buy food, and I wonder if they didn’t just invent the errand to take them away from this Samaritan well.
But Jesus stays. Tired from the route through Samaria, he sits and rests as a woman from that village comes to draw her water for the day. Unlike others Jesus has encountered in John, the Samaritan woman doesn’t know who Jesus is, other than the fact he’s a thirsty Jewish stranger. But he seems to know her. And we come to understand her, too.
We know her tasks, her well, her water jar. We can imagine the beads of sweat on her forehead in the midst of the heat at noon, when the story says she arrives. It means she’s arriving at an uncomfortable and inconvenient time. She seems to be avoiding the crowds that would have gathered at the well in the cool of the morning. We come to understand that she’s isolated from that. Lonely. Outside.
Some years ago I read about a group of missionaries that visited a remote village in Zambia, deciding quickly that the thing most needed was a water system that would replace the village’s primitive well. With running water, they reasoned, agriculture would be more efficient, children would have more time for education, the women of the village could focus on other things rather than the burden of carrying water. So engineers made the plans, faithful supporters contributed the funds, and a motivated mission team installed the system. But as the village began to adapt to life with the water system, over time a local aid worker saw what the missionaries had not foreseen. The life and energy of the village started to change. People were talking to one another less. See, much more than a source of water, the well was a source of community, where people – especially women – gathered through their days to share their labor, their lives, their stories. One elder in the village said, “I’m grateful for the water, but I miss the days when the well brought us together.”
Much more than a source of water, a well is a source of companionship – a place to be reminded that others share the same work. But not at noon. Not in the heat of the day. The Samaritan woman was isolated from the well. Oh she had a jar and could draw the water she needed like anyone else for cooking and washing. But when it came to community, belonging, relationship – the other things that can truly sustain a life – the well was dry for her.
Even the gospel writer renders her nameless. She’s distant from her community, and also from Jesus on the basis of her gender, religion and social standing. She’s come to recognize this inferiority herself, saying in v. 9, “Why would you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria.” She knows she has a place. It’s by herself. At the well. At noon.
But notice how in this place seemingly removed from everyone else, Jesus finds her. There’s good reason for him not to talk to her – I guess there always is, wherever he finds us – but he initiates. He starts to tell her about water that can gush up in her as eternal life – living water, that will quench what is dry, and run amidst the cracks of her life. Every time he sees a convention that would keep him from her, he crosses it. Even when she’s the one holding up the signals that ought to turn him away, he keeps initiating, until finally he tells her everything he knows about her. 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).
In other words, there’s nothing she can say. He knows it already, and still he sits close by.
It’s so dramatic we still have trouble believing it. In our interpretations, we often find some way to make her different than us – other, used up, shameful. Throughout history, the woman has been blamed for her divorces. John Calvin basically characterized her as a disagreeable and disobedient wife. Or worse, many depict her the harlot, with an illicit history. Fred Craddock says countless evangelists have had a field day with her, as though the darker the nails, the shorter the skirt, the heavier the makeup the greater the testimony to the power of Jesus. (2)
When in fact, there is nothing in the passage that makes this the inevitable conclusion. There is nothing other than our own assumptions. Jesus never invites repentance. He doesn’t speak of sin at all. She could have been widowed or have been abandoned or divorced. She could now be living with someone that she was dependent on. There are any number of ways, in fact, that one might imagine this woman’s story as tragic. Yet we often assume scandal and shame. It’s as though we need her to be other than us. It’s as though we want her to deserve her lot in life.
We’ve done it to the woman for centuries. We do it still.
I think about the times I do it to her when maybe she’s standing in front of me at the grocery store, and I’m in a hurry as she pulls out food stamps. And I think to myself, “That sure is a nice watch for someone who needs food stamps to buy groceries.”
Am I doing it when I hear her accent, and draw an immediate conclusion about her – reflexively making all kinds of assumptions about who she is, and what she believes, and that she must be misinformed, or uneducated, or not as sharp as I am?
I do it to her when I go about the concerns of my life casually forgetting those women for whom water is still life – who still walk miles or trudge through the noondays of their world to gather the water needed for their families.
Maybe you’ve been the woman, feeling less than, or other than, on the outside of things looking in, or cut off from the water and the community that surrounds in the heat of the day with them sun bearing down.
This woman’s story is the enduring story of inside/outside, somebody/nobody, superior/inferior. It’s what those early members of the Jesus movement were struggling to understand, as they considered the parameters of the movement in Jesus’ name. John, writing years after Jesus’ death, is wrapped up in a community grappling over who gets in and who is kept out, who they are and who they’re not. And most of them were Jews, like Jesus and his disciples and his earliest followers. At first, they had no reason to assume that following Jesus was anything other than a Jewish task. But then Gentiles started to show interest: a Roman centurion, a Greek merchant, an Ethiopian eunuch, a Samaritan woman. Then the apostle Paul stirs things up even more by suggesting that God had called him to preach to the Gentiles and invite them in. It was a real crisis for the early movement.
And then they read this story and meet this woman. She could be anyone – anyone over whom, for whatever reason, we have assumed superiority, whether moral, or social, or economic, or religious, or intellectual. And now we’re supposed to sit at the same well. It’s always been an issue for us.
But it wasn’t for Jesus. Jesus has little regard for our limits. He came, remember as he told Nicodemus, because of God’s love for the whole world that prompted God to sent the son for whosoever should believe. Jesus has always descended from the powerful and elevated places to meet people where they are. As Paul describes in Philippians, he did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped – did not claim or secure the superior position that was so rightfully his – but made himself nothing, emptied himself – became hungry, and tired, and thirsty like us. And then being found in human form humbled himself unto death. Even death on the cross.
This one who descends to the places where we are all to be found resists every chance to turn from this woman. He can see that she has experienced life as dried up. Parched. Brittle. And he tells her he knows. “He told me everything I’ve ever done,” she said. It doesn’t mean she’s been shamed, but instead that she’s been been acknowledged, seen, known.
In the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, a psychologist was asked to visit one of the many refugee camps of Rwandans in Tanzania. She was informed that the women of the camp, while safe from physical danger, were not sleeping. As she visited with the women, the psychologist learned that they had been told by camp officials never to speak of the things they had seen. They followed this instruction, but they could not sleep.
In response, the psychologist found a tree on the outside of camp and named it “the story tree.” Every morning, in the cool of the day she would stand under the canopy of the great shade tree and wait. The first day, no one came. The second day, one woman came, shared her story, and left. Another showed up the following day, then another. Soon, crowds of women were gathering under the story tree to listen and share their tales of loss and fear and grief. After a few weeks, the psychologist wrote that she knew the story tree was working, because all of these women were able to sleep again. (3)
That’s what happened at the well with this woman of Samaria. In the brightness of the noon hour, there’s this canopy of shelter where she is recognized for the fullness of who she is. That’s what saves her. By her own words, she is entirely known by Jesus. And this experience of being fully known enables her to know him fully.
She even asks him where God is to be found, “On this mount or another?” To which he replies, “I am.” It’s the first time he says this to anyone. He hasn’t even told the disciples but here he is, telling this Samaritan woman, “I am the very presence of God,” when according to every sign, signal, and construction he shouldn’t be there to begin with.
Sometimes this happens still. The divides fall. The barriers between who we are understood to be and who God calls us to be are suddenly removed. It happened those years ago to the daughters of Dr. Howard Thurman, standing there next to a sign that rendered them less than, when their father took them up in his arms and said, “Listen, you little girls are really somebody. You are so important and valuable to God that it takes the governor and lieutenant governor and the whole state police force to keep you little girls from that water.”
It happened for a Samaritan woman one day long ago. Jesus told her who she was, what God saw in her. And the promise comes across centuries to you and me this morning. “Come and See,” she shouts to all of us, as she did to her village. She finds she has a voice she hasn’t used in a while, and so this one among the first to hear in the gospel of John becomes the first to tell, echoing the gospel’s core invitation: Come and See.
John says that, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony.” But then something even more remarkable happens. They start acting on that belief. The Samaritans invite Jesus and his friends to stay with them. And they do, for two days. Jews and Samaritans are eating and drinking together, cooking together, sharing the labor, carrying water, swapping stories, watching children play, and lying down under the same roof at the end of the day. 700 years of signs and markers, conventions and constructions, transcended by Jesus and this woman at a well.
It seems Jesus had to go through Samaria, after all, because that’s where he found all of them. And that’s where he finds us still.
We are brittle, and dry, and sometimes divided, separate, with so much holding us apart. We need this water – need to drink deeply and learn again the truth of who we are. You may wonder as she did where this water is to be found? But remember that it finds you, as it found this woman. When it does, don’t hesitate. Walk right up to it, past anything that would hinder, disregarding any structure that would halt, because God in Christ has never had any regard for our barriers. Not the one who descended to us, emptying himself, even unto death on a cross.
From that cross on that final day, it was right around noon, Jesus says once more, “I thirst.” He was giving up every vestige of status and superiority, so that all of us gathered round might never thirst again.
1. Cited by Tom Long, Testimony, p. 63
2. “The Witness at the Well” in Christian Century (March 7, 1990)
3. In Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley, Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals, p. 3