by Piet Knetsch
Judgment! Don’t you just love it. JUDGMENT! It’s kinda fun determining which people are so decidedly inferior to me. There are so many, come to think of it. White trash. Rednecks. Uneducated. Republicans. Baptists (southern ones!). Conservatives. Trumpies. Missourians. French. Catholics. Italian. (Nobody measures up to a Dutchman, you know!) Yeah, JUDGMENT. That feel good, bible thumping attitude that some (lots?) Christians love to adopt. Including me, by the way. I’m good at it! Are you?
I was thinking about that after reading/hearing this story, this theatrical marvel from the Gospel of John. I’m told it’s the longest single story in the whole New Testament. So, maybe that makes it somehow important?
I always like to remember that with any story which we just pick out of the bible, all by itself, that we have to remember – always remember – the context. So, what’s going on before this story picks up? Well, Jesus just seems to work nonstop, doesn’t he? Imagine being one of the guys trudging around with him day in and day out? I can’t speak for you, but I would have some really bad days if I were among those twelve. Ridiculous schedule. Lousy dirt roads, no bricks or asphalt anywhere. Sandals worn down to nothing.
He and the twelve have been in Judea, and the disciples have been baptizing folks, Jesus supervising. The Pharisees, ever watchful about the rules, want to have a talk with Jesus about who is baptizing, is Jesus doing more baptisms than John, etc. ! Jesus decides that this is a good time to move on, and so he heads for Galilee. The direction that is chosen – not sure why – happens to go through Samaria! Let’s put that in terms that we can understand. It would be like going home, and having to go through Iran to get there. Kidding me? Disgusting Samaritans – disgusting Iranians. Know what I mean? JUDGMENT??? The Jews and Samaritans have centuries of dislike, no – of hatred for one another. And that is the path Jesus travels, which takes them to the city of Sychar. Imagine the tension in the twelve, the anticipation of opposition, of fear, animosity, even bodily harm. I can almost see the look on Peter’s face!
This is the context, the background against which the crux of our story takes place. This story which we have over-simplified by just referring to it as “the woman at the well”. That is the scene for this great drama, this complete play with beginning, middle, and end. A story fit for the stage.
Jesus is alone, for once (no doubt he loved to get away from those guys once in a while, and maybe he just made up the story about needing lunch!) Jesus is tired. He goes to the town well, desperately wanting to just sit, rest, get a drink of water. One might think Jesus is at a low point, a point of exhaustion, drained of emotional and physical energy. He truly wants to be alone! No people, please. No disciples for just an hour or so, please!
A woman. A Samaritan woman. We don’t even learn her name. No surprise, she’s “just a woman”. For the sake of this account, I am giving her a make-believe name, to make it simpler. I am giving her the name of Ruth.
Likely, Ruth is frightened of men in general, terrified of Jewish men in particular. She has no expectations whatsoever. She is coming only to perform her daily ritual, the task of hauling water, perhaps carrying it on her head the way people still do, to this very day, all over our world. Ruth arrives at the familiar well, but there is a stranger present, one she has never before encountered. Not only is she astonished, she is surely scared. The man is a Jew. He therefore must hate her, judge her, dismiss her. In my imagination, Ruth moves toward the well very slowly, the tension showing in her body. She HAS to get the water, and yet —-
Then it happens. Unexpectedly, almost miraculously, this Jew speaks to her! He speaks to her!!! He tells her – no, actually, he instructs her: “Give me a drink”. (in the written story, it’s not till now that we learn about the disciples having gone to find food.) Ruth had to be so shocked, so taken aback! The Jew speaks to her! He asks her for water. “What, you – a Jew – want water from me, a Samaritan, a woman?” What she is really saying is, “don’t you judge me, don’t you automatically despise me?” And then Jesus launches into this very convoluted language about water, about something he calls “living water”. Ruth comes back with a beauty of a response: “Water, living water, whatever. You don’t even have a bucket, so how do you expect to get this water of yours?” Jesus continues with what had to be like babble to this simple, totally uneducated woman. All she can truly be expected to hear and understand is that there is this ‘living’ water which means you will never be thirsty again. “Sounds great! I want some of that stuff, I can stop coming here to carry water, and never get thirsty again”. There is no way Ruth could grasp the deep theological thoughts that this Jew, this stranger, is sharing with her! The question is – do we understand it, or are we like that woman at the well?
Thunderbolt. “Go call you husband, and come back.” Ruth starts to tell him that she has no husband, when he says: “Yeah, I know, you’ve had five of them, and now you’re living with a guy who’s not your husband!” Do you remember that passage in Matthew when Jesus speaks of divorce? Well, Jesus does not seem to apply his harshness here. He says nothing about Ruth being an adulterer, immoral, unacceptable! He passes no judgment! Instead, he asks her to come back with her man. So he is willing to do more teaching, in spite of being so tired! Then Jesus again launches into a theological treatise, and she again can only respond with: I have heard about a Messiah coming, who will teach us many things. The simple direct reply: I am he.
The disciples return, having somehow located food at a nearby Samaritan Casey’s. They find Jesus, in the company of this low-life Samaritan woman, and the twelve are silent! They just stand there gawking, their body language filled with disdain and with: judgment. The woman, no doubt totally intimidated, chooses to go home, leaving her water container behind!! She goes off to tell others, but surely this woman’s reputation can’t be very good in town! Five husbands? Living with man number six?? And yet her testimony about this Jewish stranger she met at the well, is compelling. A number are curious enough to go see this Jew, this natural enemy who knows about and spoke to Ruth. Those Samaritans then wind up inviting Jesus to stay, and he did so for two whole days. Imagine what the 12 men thought of all of this! Judgment! By the end of the visit, the Samaritans who hosted Jesus accepted him as Savior, having heard not from Ruth alone, but with their own ears.
Jesus offers living water. Like Ruth, the woman, we are astonished, we don’t really comprehend it fully. We attend worship in church, perhaps hoping that something extraordinary will take place while we’re there. In effect we come and then Jesus, as he is apt to do, asks things of us, and perhaps even makes a strongly worded request. Here’s such a request: “give me a drink”. We might just want to turn away, to reject Jesus because he is a Jew. Not like us, not like you and me. Judgment! In the story, this Jew offers what he calls “living water”. He says this to a woman, to Ruth, a five-time loser, who in her time and in her community must surely have been an outcast of sorts, a low life, a slut. Judgment. But this same woman, regardless of her level of comprehension, fearlessly goes to that community which has disdain for her, and testifies about this Jewish guy who appears to be a prophet! This Jew surrounded by Samaritans who hate Jews, whose curiosity gets the best of them and they stop and listen, listen and learn. Before you know it, this ordinary low-class person has lit a small fire, and the 12 disciples suddenly sit at the table and break bread with people whom, just yesterday, they hated so vehemently.
That’s how it is, most of the time. Faith rarely (if ever) is formed because of some sermon. More often it happens through incidents, accidents, totally unexpected encounters. These happen when we suspend judgment, and see only the humanity and the beauty in each person, especially those whom we previously despised. That’s when we’re fully prepared to give water to a thirsty Jesus, worn out from his work with us mortals – including those 12 imperfect but oh so committed disciples. May we suspend judgment, and open our arms to those whom we previously despised. Amen.