TEXTS: Exodus 17:1-7; John 4
Here is the evidence as I see it presented in the four Gospels. In the midst of a patriarchal society, a patriarchal religion and a patriarchal government, we find situations in which Jesus elevated women, spoke to women out of turn, had women among his closest followers, defended women, and showed true compassion for women. All of this was outside the norm for Jewish society in his time. If we apply all this to our current understanding of what it is to be a feminist, I truly believe that Jesus was a feminist in every sense of the term.
Jesus was, of course, a non-conformist on a greater scale in just about every aspect of the society that surrounded him. He seemed to live to break societal rules and norms and standards. He didn’t seem to care a twit about public opinion nor about societal or religious customs, even while being deeply respectful of all people and of his Jewish faith. In other words, in all aspects of his life Jesus was the kind of guy who, by his very nature, stood everything that was tradition based, everything that was customary on its ear, along with all those people who centered their lives upon tradition and custom. He was the ultimate non-conformist.
The story that we find in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John is a perfect example of non-conformity. Jesus is found traveling through Samaria when most Jews would go to great lengths to go around Samaria. As he neared a Samaritan town, he plopped himself down beside Jacob’s well and soon strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan woman. Now it was not customary for Jewish men in that age to speak to women with whom they did not have a prior relationship. (faux pas #1) Of even greater concern though was that Jesus was speaking to a Samaritan woman, a member of a tribe of people for whom the Jews had a tremendous animosity, a people who claimed to worship the same God as the Jews, but who had their own ways of worship and their own holy place. This was a people who had conspired with the Greeks centuries earlier against the Southern Kingdom, a people whose temple had been destroyed by the Jewish High Priest during the Maccabean period.
Let us though at least attempt to push aside all the political, cultural and religious milieu in which the story takes place, if only for a moment, and look at the center of the story and the gift that Jesus offers the woman, and, as the story concludes, all who are with her in her town. Last week I proclaimed in my sermon that many of the stories in our Gospels involve encounters between Jesus and others, and that, almost universally, the people who encounter Jesus search him out because they are in need of something. This week we have a story where it is actually Jesus who seems to have a need, Jesus who seeks out another person. The need that Jesus had is simply that he was thirsty. (And sadly we are never told whether the woman ever gets around to give him what asked for.)
Jesus quickly turned the situation around though, offering the woman water that was better than the water from the well where they sat. Jesus offered living water that could touch more than simple physical thirst, living water that could quench the spirit, living water that could satisfy in such a way that the person who received it need never be thirsty again.
Now I will grant the Samaritan woman this, that even though it is obvious that she didn’t completely understand what Jesus was offering, she did a much better job of “hanging in there” with him than did Nicodemus in last week’s story. The Gospel of John leaves Nicodemus wandering off totally bewildered, whereas the woman did at least continue do engage Jesus and brought others from her community to see him. The Samaritan woman even did a better job of “hanging in there” than did Jesus’ own disciples in today’s tale, for when Jesus spoke to them of Spiritual food, they seemed totally mystified. Nicodemus couldn’t get out of the physical world and neither could the disciples. While it is obvious that the Samaritan Woman didn’t completely understand Jesus on a spiritual level, she did at least continue the conversation, she did testify to Jesus’ words and invited others to join her, to point that others from her town were able to proclaim, “It is no longer because of what you have said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and now know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
As I studied this story, began to wonder how deeply today’s world and its people are mired in the physical, in the concrete, that even those who profess Christ in this age as Savior might find it difficult to grasp the Spiritual wonders that Jesus proclaimed, the spiritual wonders that still surround us each and every day of our lives? We get caught up in the daily grind of work and family and societal responsibilities, bringing home a paycheck, keeping up with the Jonses, being the sort of persons that are deemed acceptable to the civic standards of our day, to the societal standards of our day, to familial standards and even to the religious standards of our day? (And you will notice that I didn’t say to the standards of our faith, but rather to the standards of our religion. Those are two different things!)
We spend great amounts of energy striving to “fit in” even as we are continually assailed by advertisements that call us purchase and /use products and services that will help us fit in. I have been fascinated recently at ads that encourage us to be individuals, even to be unique, by purchasing their product; when the bottom line is that the success of those very ads is measured by people purchasing the product in such numbers as to render the purchasers anything but unique. If I don a certain item of clothing promoted to me as something that will make me unique, and a million other people purchase that same item of clothing for the same reason, then I am indeed not at all unique, but rather just “one in a million”.
What I’m trying to say is that Jesus offered the Samaritan woman and the people of her community, as well as his own disciples and everyone he spoke to or performed signs for, an opportunity to rise above the concrete, above the physical, above the rutted rat race roads that they trod day in and day out. Jesus offers us the same opportunities, the opportunity to be born again, the opportunity to drink deeply from the living water of joy and grace, love and peace that God offers through him and through all his words and signs.
One of the continual messages that Jesus proclaimed while on earth, was that every person, that each one of us is deeply loved by God for who we are and not for whether we conform to traditions and rules, whether we belong to a specific tribe or sect or economic level or even because of what we wear or how we present ourselves. God loves you specifically because you are you, no other terms need apply; just as God loves others because of they are who they are without restriction.
Jesus offered living water to a woman of a tribe of people who were despised by the Jews because they worshipped in the wrong way and in the wrong place and with the wrong customs; and because they followed the wrong leaders. In the eyes of the Jews the Samaritans were worse than Gentiles; Samaritans were sub-human; Samaritans were not worth wiping one’s feet upon. Yet Jesus offered the gifts of God to them and offered those gifts freely and without cost or requirement, saying, “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem; when people will worship God in spirit and in truth.“ Jesus offered living water; living water that was and is continuously available to those who believe. The problem lies in that to drink deeply of the living water of Christ, we must let go of all the physical things that fill our hands now. And I be the first to attest fact that letting go of all those things that we grasp so tightly can be a very difficult thing, for the clutter of our lives is not only piled in our hands, but in our minds and souls as well. And that clutter isn’t just sitting on the surface waiting be swept away by faith, but rather finds itself deeply imbedded in our very being so that it must be dug out, maybe even surgically extracted before we can let go of it. Yet through prayer and ritual, study and discipline, we can embrace the spiritual as we let go of physical.
It is my fervent prayer that each of us can find, through the grace of God, that spiritual centering that allows us to rise above the physical and that we can drink deeply of the living water that Christ offers, that we can glimpse that glorious kingdom of God, and that we can one day fully participate in all that God’s kingdom offers.