Note: I’m reprinting this blog post from 2014, the last time these passages came up in the lectionary. I’m at a writing conference right now, and try as I could, my mind refused to fill up with any new ideas. So here for your reading pleasure, are my thoughts from three years ago.
I have always loved the story of the woman at the well, and not just because it’s the only place in the Bible where Jesus passive-aggressively calls a woman a whore to her face. I love it because it’s one of the big passages people use to point out that Jesus was a feminist. It’s hard to see that from today’s perspective, though. I mean, from a modern point of view, this whole exchange has a little too much of a “Yo, Woman, make me a sandwich” vibe. And there’s plenty of racist subtext as well–I mean, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation comes from the Jews?” You can almost see him blowing on his nails and buffing them against his tunic.
Of course, we don’t talk about this aspect of Jesus. We tend to focus on the ways that this exchange is counter-cultural for the time. The disciples are astonished that he’s with a woman when they come back–so that gives an inkling of how radical it was for him even to talk to her. And I get that and appreciate it, but it certainly seems that he wasn’t thinking of her as his equal.
So far, this Lent has me wondering a lot about whether and how God grows and changes over time, and I find myself wondering how differently the exchange would go if it were happening today. I hope Jesus still wouldn’t be pulling this “we’re superior to you half-breeds” thing, let alone the whole, “You’ve been with five men. Who do you think you are, Liz Taylor?”
But I wonder whether Jesus is fronting a little bit. Is it possible that he doesn’t really care about whether she’s a woman, or a slut, or a Samaritan? After all, she’s the one who seems to have a chip on her shoulder about it all–“What are you asking me for a drink for? You, a Jew, and me a Samaritan?” And she’s coming at high noon, a time of day when she can be pretty certain that the well will be empty. Like, maybe she’s avoiding all the more respectable first-thing-in-the-morning women who fix her with those mean girl glares. The ones who abruptly end conversations as she walks by and then giggle to each other as soon as her back is turned.
Is it possible that she, like many people who are the victims of racist, sexist, bigoted thinking, has internalized the message enough that she’s the one who doesn’t believe he should be talking to her? Does she believe that Jews and men and most women really are superior to her?
I think she does–or at the very least, she’s so used to hearing about her own inferiority that she can’t imagine someone else not thinking of her that way. And I think most of us are like the Samaritan woman. We’ve internalized all the things that our culture has said to us about how we don’t measure up.
I know that, for myself, I can never be beautiful enough, thin enough, fit enough, talented enough or successful enough to deserve the space I occupy on this earth. I sometimes feel like until I can fit into a size ten dress again, I don’t have any right to expect to be treated as an equal. Everyone around me seems to have it more together than me, and I sometimes feel like if the people who love me really knew how weak and unworthy I am, they would all turn away from me and never look back. I am a privileged white woman living what most of our parents would have called the American Dream: handsome, successful husband, three glorious children with brains, looks and talent, decent house in one of the richest counties in the country. If I can feel unworthy of the air I breathe, should I doubt that the Samaritan woman felt the same?
And Jesus would have known it. I bet he would have seen it while she was still half a mile away from the well, walking with her head down, back hunched over, willing people not to notice her. Maybe he thought, “How can I ever reach her? She doesn’t think she’s worth reaching.” The Samaritan woman and I, and most of us, I think, are filled with reasons that we aren’t worthy–I’m not a real Jew, I’m not a man, I’m weak–and I’m weak in the ways that everyone around me says are the worst ways to be weak. What, Jesus, could you possibly want with me?
So what does Jesus do? Well, he doesn’t lead with the living water stuff–and I think I know why. I think if he said, “Hey, give me a drink from the well, and I’ll give you such water that you’ll never be thirsty again,” she would have just blown him off. She would have thought, like so many people think so often, “If he really knew who he was talking to, he wouldn’t ever make that kind of offer to the likes of me.” Or worse, “I can’t take that offer–what if I get it, and then he finds out who I really am, and he makes me give it back? I couldn’t bear the pain of that loss–better not to ever have it in the first place. You can’t miss what you never had.”
So Jesus, wonderful sexist, racist Jesus, does what he is so good at. He goes beyond the superficial politics of what “you Jews” say about “us Samaritans,” and he names what’s really bothering her. He lays her deepest secrets bare, and he does it right away, so that when he offers the Samaritan woman his living water, she knows that he’s making the offer–oh, miracle–to her true self. Not the chip-on-the-shoulder, tough-as-nails shell that she wears as facade and armor, but her warty, slutty, weak, and undeserving half-breed self, who he somehow–really? Really.–thinks is worthy of this gift.
After that, who wouldn’t go running through town, saying to anyone who would listen, “He told me everything I’ve ever done! He knew the real me, and he still talked to me! He can’t be the Messiah, right? Would the Messiah talk to me like that? But who other than the Messiah would ever talk to me like that?”
So many of us feel like a Samaritan woman. We struggle and toil, fighting uphill battles to whatever wells we have available, just to get a little refreshment. Our wells can be anything–accomplishment, exercise, alcohol, junk food, or the good opinion of people who don’t know our truest selves. We visit our wells daily, and draw just enough to make it til tomorrow. We think we don’t deserve to expect more. And every time we go back to the well for another draw, Jesus is sitting there, waiting. He already knows what we don’t want him to know. He’s fully aware of whatever it is that we think disqualifies us from a refreshment that will sustain us indefinitely–one that will allow us never to have to sneak to the well again–and he’s waiting to give it to us, as soon as he can make us believe we deserve it.