One of my favorite programs on NPR is This American Life with Ira Glass. Each week, Ira looks at some facet, theme or condition of human life in our society from a variety of points of view, each piece of the story called Act I, Act II or Act III.
As we try to understand what today's gospel is saying to us, let's look at This Samaritan Life in five acts, so we can we shift our standpoint in order to enter this well-known story from the inside. The story's Acts each reveal a piece of that message.
To do that we have to leave behind our customary perceptions and interpretations, which usually focus on how wonderful Jesus was to offer mercy and forgiveness to this really naughty woman who had violated the marital taboos of her society. The Samaritan woman is usually cast as a fallen woman of somewhat ill repute, although the truth is, we never know what her real life circumstances were. We don't know whether the author of John's gospel used the number five as a way to exaggerate her lack of character or to illustrate the largess of Jesus' ability to forgive sin. We never learn if she was divorced, widowed, barren, all of the above or even a slave with no choices in her varieties of marital status. We only know she was on the margins of the margins of her society, judged and excluded.
If we take a new look at "This Samaritan Life" by its Acts, we can discover a whole lot more that can speak to our own lives. Let's call the subtitle, "He said, She Said."
Bear in mind that in the ancient Mid-east culture a woman could easily have had five husbands through no fault of her own. It is important to remember that women at that time, as is still the case today in many places, had no control over her own life. Girls were betrothed at very early ages and then embedded into their future husband's homes and extended family, assuming the spousal role at the age of maturity, about 12 or 13. Women were not allowed to divorce. If widowed, a woman had to be married to a brother of the deceased husband, or some other male relative. Barrenness was grounds for divorce.
Let's assume that the woman at the well was betrothed at 5 years old to a 45 year old man, not an uncommon practice. She is raised in his home but when he dies in blood feud, the girl, then 9, is married to the deceased husband's older brother who is 65. Three years later he dies from an outbreak of infectious disease in the village, leaving this preadolescent a widow twice over when she is just 12,. Since there are no more brothers, she is married to the 35 year old nephew of the deceased brothers/husbands. She is married to him for ten years but producing no children, he divorces her. She is now 23 and has no worth since she can't have children. However, she has acquired usefulness as a cook and housekeeper. Therefore only very old men, who are uninterested in offspring would have found her a suitable wife because of her caretaking ability. Remember, there was no way for a woman to survive if she wasn't under some man's protection: father, husband, brother, or son. There was virtually no employment possible to support herself. Women just couldn't exist alone. So a really old guy in the village marries her because she has a great reputation as a cook and baker. Wives were cheap labor then. He dies in eight years and his also elderly neighbor eagerly marries her for her housekeeping and culinary skills. Seven year later he too dies at 80. The woman who will meet Jesus at the well is now 38 years old and has chosen to work for a man who already has a wife that suffered a stroke and needs a housekeeper to take care of them. She lives with them, unrelated and unmarried, but at least with a roof over head, despite the village gossip about the live-in relationship.
Possible? I think so. It is actually quite a realistic scenario for the time.
I suggest that this story is not about forgiveness of the sins of a disreputable woman, as it is usually interpreted. It is a story about acceptance and validation. It is about call and mission. See what you think.
Act I has four exchanges, each one taking the relationship of Jesus and the woman to a deeper level of understanding.
The Setting: Jesus is hanging out at Jacob's well. He is alone.
He is tired, thirsty and travelling in Samaria, a land that is inhospitable to Jews.
The Samaritan woman probably had a name, but since it was not given, let's just call her Anon.
Anon fearlessly approached the well to get water, even though a lone, strange man was sitting there. That took some guts because men and women simply did not share the same public space at the same time back then. She should have deferred to his presence, especially since she had no male protector with her. She should have waited to approach the well until after he departed, but she did not.
He says: Give me a drink. Jesus initiates a conversation with the woman giving a direct command. He breaks two taboos. Not only is he a man speaking to a woman not related to him and in a public place, he is a rabbi, bound by purity laws to avoid defilement. But Jesus asks to drink from the vessel of a Samaritan woman, thus violating those purity laws.
She says: Anon. immediately challenges him, questioning him about his breaking all these cultural taboos of racism, sexism, and purity. I'd say that was pretty gutsy for the time.
He says: if you knew who I am you would ask me for a drink, so I could give you Living Water.
What just happened? Jesus began with a simple request for a drink, encounters a sharp witted woman, and probably an unexpected response, that tells him he is dealing with a woman who is fearless for her time. He shifts to the rabbi role instead of the traveler, beginning a theological discussion with her.
She says: you have no bucket. This first part of her three part response to the last exchange is literal. She knows the purity laws. He shouldn't drink from her vessel no matter how thirsty he is. Secondly, her intellectual curiosity and interest piqued, she says, So where exactly does this Living Water come from? She catches on to the theological hook Jesus cast. Thirdly, Anon again challenges Jesus about his lack of humility since he seems to be setting himself above Jacob, the revered ancestor. That would be another cultural taboo Jesus was breaking, setting himself apart from the group. She says, Are you greater than Jacob?
He says: in a fast three part response right back to her,
Drink real water and you'll get thirsty again and never be satisfied;
Drink of the spiritual water and you will never be thirsty again;
The Spiritual water will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.
She says: right back at him, in a direct command,
Sir, give me this water so I will never be thirsty again,
then with a practical realization mutters an aside, "and so I won't have to ever haul water again."
What happened here? Anon buys into the theological ideal of eternal life from spiritual living water, but still she knows just how heavy those water jugs are to carry from the well, back into town. She has a foot in both the spiritual and the temporal worlds.
He says: Go call your husband and come back. Jesus is sending her, commissioning her.
She says: truthfully, accepting and owning her reality, I don't have a husband.
He says: I know your reality, describes it in detail and affirms that it is the way things are and that she is a truthful person. (How does Jesus know this? Is he a psychic or has he picked up on local gossip while traveling through the area?)
She says: recognizing his knowledge of her reality, "You are a prophet."
Then Anon throws out a theological argument of her own to Jesus. She says: "you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem" not on the mountain, where Samaritans believed worship should take place.
Ok, what's happening here? Anon knows theology. Obviously, she is referring to something Jesus has said, but not in this conversation, unless the author left out some parts. Maybe she heard him speak at some earlier time as a teaching Rabbi travelling through Samaria.
Either way, she has theological questions and she is not afraid to question the Rabbi. Anon has become a student, not a woman simply doing household chores.
He says: Jewish and Samaritan beliefs about where worship should be held are different. Jesus launches into a lengthy theological discussion centered on explaining those differences, but then shifts his focus saying it doesn't really matter what the Jews and Samaritans are squabbling about because true worshippers must worship God in Spirit and truth and ends with the declaration that "God is Spirit."
That's a lot of information for a Rabbi to be sharing with a woman who occupied the margin of the margins in a marginalized society!! But the the Rabbi has a student to teach and the disciple has her teacher.
She says: in her three part response to Rabbi Jesus' words, that
She knows the Messiah is coming
She knows that the Messiah is called the Christ, and finally,
She knows that when the Messiah comes, he will show us all things.
And isn't that what Jesus just did for her? He revealed all things to her about her life.
The Climax of Act I: Jesus chooses to reveal himself to her.
He says: "I am he, the one who is speaking to you."
Wow! Jesus told her his reality, his truth, knowing that she was a woman of faith, who would "get it."
Act II The disciples return to the well and see them talking. Unlike the woman, Anon., they do not challenge Jesus about his boundary breaking behaviors of social taboos, although they had thoughts about it. Anon immediately departs, leaving her water jar at the well. (Too lose property of the man whose house she lived in would likely have gotten her a beating in those days.) That abandoned water jar signifies that her prior mission in life has abandoned. Her original mission was to get water, a mundane task, but she has left it behind. Anon accepted Jesus' reality and off she went back to the city with a new mission, to spread the word of Jesus' arrival.
Think about this. Anon goes back to the city to tell her partner, (who is likely to be angry about the fact that not only is there no water, there is also no water jug,) but also to tell the people of the city about her experience. Think about it. These would be the same people who would have seen her as a complete outcast in their society due to her life experiences with marriage.
Act III Marching right up to the people,
She says, "Can this be the Christ?"
Amazingly, they not only believed her but they believed in Jesus as the Messiah, because of her testimony. I find that astounding! Something in her was stronger than their judgments and the social taboos. I imagine that the light shining from her face and eyes would have been dramatic, a transfiguration of sorts, that would have been impressive to see. After a lifetime of being powerless, abused, and used, she was known, accepted and validated, even give a new use for her bright mind. I'd have been shining too.
Act IV Meanwhile, back at the well, the disciples are with Jesus.
They say: to Jesus, "eat."
He says: that they do not know the reality of what nourishes him.
They say: (in disbelief that it could happen,) Hey, could someone have fed him here in Samaria?
And that's as far as they get. This exchange is a big contrast to his earlier conversation with Anon because she caught on to the spiritual importance of his words. The disciples don't.\
He says: his food is to do the will of God and he launches into a long theological teaching explaining that the time for the harvest has come.
The disciples just don't get it, unlike Anon who grasped what Jesus told her.
Act V The Samaritans hike out to the well and meeting up with Jesus, invited him, (the enemy and the stranger,) to stay with them. They offered their hospitality, which in the ancient mid east was a pretty big deal, as it is even today. Moreover, Jesus accepted the invitation and stayed for two days and many more believed because of what he told them.
There is a tag verse at the end of this passage that reads like a disclaimer. It discounts the value of Anon's words. Scripture scholars often point out additions to manuscripts as scripture was transcribed, additions that would reflect the cultural practices and mind sets of the times, but which were not part of the earlier versions. In this case, Anon seems to be devalued and put back in her place as a shameful woman, unimportant to the story.
But I believe, this familiar story of the Samaritan woman at the well is a rich source of new insights for us. We never do learn if she was divorced, widowed, barren, or even a slave with no choices in her varieties of marital status. We only know she was on the margins of the margins of her society. But she is the one who assertively encountered Jesus, claimed her right to question, to challenge, to listen, to be taught, and she was the one Jesus revealed himself to and sent to bear the news of his arrival. She is the one who left her possession behind to go carry the good news about the arrival of the Messiah to people who judged and excluded her.
Why? Because Jesus believed in her. Jesus accepted her. Jesus taught her. Jesus revealed his identity to her. Jesus commissioned her.
Maybe we are not so different from Anon? We have had lives full of misadventures, sorrows and pain. We have been judged and we have judged. We have all been on the margins at some time, for some reason. Anon meets Jesus as a person who has suffered much in life. It is not forgiveness she gets from him. It is acceptance and a new purpose for her life.
And Jesus believes in each of us. Jesus accepts each of us. Jesus teaches us. Jesus reveals himself to us in scripture and in Baptism, in Eucharist and in Love. And Jesus commissions us to spread the news of the eternal water, ours for the asking.
This Samaritan Life: He said; She said.
Think about it.