Dear Working Preacher,
This is a story of freedom, even transformation. Not, however — and as far too many interpreters assume — from a life of immorality to one of morality. So let me say this as clearly as possible: I do not think the Samaritan woman is a prostitute. I don’t even think that she has a shady past. Moreover, I don’t think Jesus forgives her. Rather, I think he calls her not to repentance but to life-giving faith. Allow me to explain.
The signature line that has been, in my opinion, misinterpreted throughout much of the Church’s history is when Jesus says to her, “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” (4:18). Yet if we read more closely we discover that neither John as narrator nor Jesus as the central character tells us her current state is a result of sinful behavior. Jesus at no point invites repentance or, for that matter, speaks of sin at all. She very easily could have been widowed or have been abandoned or divorced. Five times would be heartbreaking, but not impossible. Further, she could now be living with someone that she was dependent on, or be in what’s called a Levirate marriage (where a childless woman is married to her deceased husband’s brother in order to produce an heir yet is not always technically considered the brother’s wife). There are any number of ways, in fact, that one might imagine this woman’s story as tragic rather than scandalous.
The difficulty with the all-too-common interpretation is that it interrupts and distracts from the rest of the story. Immediately after Jesus describes her past, she says, “I see that you are a prophet” and asks him where one should worship. If you believe the worst of her, this is nothing more than a clumsy attempt to change the topic.
But if you can imagine another scenario, things look different. Keep in mind that “seeing,” in John, is an important theological activity. “To see” is often connected with belief. When the woman says, “I see you are a prophet,” she is therefore not changing the subject but making a confession of faith.
Why? Because Jesus has “seen” her. He has seen her plight of dependence, not immorality. He has recognized her, spoken with her, offered her something of incomparable worth. He has seen her — she exists for him, has worth, value, significance, and all of this is treatment to which she is unaccustomed.
And so when he speaks of her past both knowingly and compassionately, she realizes she is in the presence of a prophet. For this reason only does she risk the central question that has divided Samaritans and Jews for centuries: Where is the proper place of worship? This is no awkward dodge or academic diversion. This is a heartfelt question that gets to the core of what separates her from Jesus. And when Jesus surprises her with an answer that is simultaneously more hopeful and penetrating than she’d expected, she leaves her water jar behind to tell her neighbors about this man.
And here, I believe, is the part of the story that witnesses to her transformation. For in terms of John’s story and world, this nameless woman has pretty much everything stacked against her: she is a Samaritan in this Jewish story, a woman in a male-dominated world, has lived a challenging and probably tragic life, and is very likely dependent on others. And yet after her encounter with Jesus she leaves her water jar — perhaps symbolic of all the chores and difficulties of her life — behind to live a new and different life and to share with others what God has done for her.
What, I wonder, holds us back from living into the future God has prepared for us and sharing the news of what God has done? What, that is, are the jars we would like to leave behind, trading our past tragedies and present challenges for the living water Jesus offers?
Perhaps it’s a dead-end job or the difficulty of finding one. Perhaps it’s an unfulfilling relationship or no relationship at all. Perhaps it’s a past wound or fear about the future. Perhaps it’s an illness of the mind, body, or spirit. Perhaps it’s grief or anxiety or guilt or sadness.
It could be any number of things. So perhaps this would be an opportunity to ask our people just what it is with which they struggle. You’ll know better than I whether it will be more effective just to take a moment to call to mind some of those things quietly or whether it might be helpful to have folks write them on cards in order to be more specific and concrete.
Either way, after folks have an opportunity to name these things, we could then pray for them. “Dear God,” such a prayer might run, “you want for us only good things and yet sometimes we have a hard time accepting your gifts and being the people you have called us to be. Help us let go of those things that hold us back, remind us of your unfailing love, and create in us the hope and courage to drink the living water you offer and live into the future you have created. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.”
Naming our challenges and praying about them won’t change everything of course. But it will give us a chance to invite God more deeply into our lives, to practice connecting our faith in Jesus to the realities of our lives in the world, and to gain some experience with prayer.
This woman has so many things stacked against her. Yet she nevertheless leaves them behind and shares the story of what God did in her life. She does so, we should note, at first rather tentatively. The grammatical construction of the question she poses to her neighbors — “He can’t be the Messiah, can he?” — actually anticipates a negative answer. And yet those first tentative, perhaps even anxious, steps take her away from her past and into a future she could not have imagined.
So also, we pray, with us. We may not trust God knows our challenges let alone will change them. But as we pray, as we gain practice in handing over our difficulties to Jesus, we also may grow in faith and confidence, in time leaving our jars behind and telling others what God has done for us.
It’s a tremendous honor and a holy calling to preach into the very real challenges and difficulties our people face. I’m so grateful that you have accepted this call, Working Preacher, and committed yourself to this task. It’s not always easy work, for sure, but it is good work … and never more important than now. Thank you.
Yours in Christ,