Clearing Ground: The Woman at the Well

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on March 6, 2016)

Can an outcast find acceptance and love from Jesus?

I think if I frame the question that way, most everyone would say “Of course!” Part of why we so easily believe it to be true is the bible is full of examples like the one we are looking at today, the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Of course we believe any outcast can find acceptance and love with Jesus Christ.

In this Lent series of clearing ground, I want to probe a little deeper than just that question, however, and go to this one: How can an outcast find acceptance and love from Jesus?

Because this is what we need. We need, as the church of Jesus Christ, we need to do our part so that more and more outcasts live in the acceptance and love of Jesus. For that to happen, the outcast must face some things, must clear some ground to be ready to accept the change Jesus wants to bring. For that to happen, we the church must face some things, must clear some ground as the ones who often are the ones who did the “casting out” that created the outcasts.

Turn with me to John 4. Let’s look at this woman and try and understand who she is and how she got to this place. Let’s look at the communities that cast her out and why. And then let’s not forget to look at Jesus, the one from whom we take our direction, let’s look at Jesus and what he is consistently doing here.

Now he [Jesus] had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’ (John 4:4-7, TNIV)

Over the last two weeks, we’ve looked at David and Solomon, kings in the golden age of Israel and Judah.

After Solomon died, the 12 tribes of Israelites who had been united under those two kings split into two kingdoms: the northern kingdom of Israel with 10 tribes, and the southern kingdom of Judah with two. David and Solomon’s descendants stayed on the throne in the southern kingdom, and Judah stayed independent longer. We think of Judah as the winners, the good ones.


But the truth is at the time of the split Israel was more powerful. They controlled the wealthier trade routes, they had more people…an objective historian would probably say that the northern kingdom were the ones who were the “winners”, the heirs of David and Solomon’s kingdom; at least the political heirs.

The northern kingdom eventually established their capital at Samaria, where they ruled until conquered by the Assyrian Empire a little more than 200 years after Solomon. Think about that; they lasted about as long as the United States has existed. When they were conquered, many were taken away into exile, while others from foreign lands were resettled in what had been the northern kingdom.

By Jesus’ time, 700 years later, these were the people known as the Samaritans. A few of them were descendants of the remnant of Israelites from long ago, but of course over 700 years there was a lot of inter-marrying with those who had resettled there. Culturally, they thought of themselves in some ways still as Israelites. The Jews, of course, saw themselves as the true believers, the true spiritual descendants. Yet they, too, had experienced exile and occupation almost 600 years before Christ.

You can see the tension-who has the true claim as rightful spiritual heir?

That’s part of the subtext as we read John 4. Yahweh, the Jewish God, is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Here’s Jesus, in Samaria, but also at Jacob’s well, on the plot of ground Jacob had given to Joseph.

What a contradiction! Is he on the pagan, enemy ground of Samaria? Or is he “home”, so to speak, home on the ground of Jacob, whose name became Israel? The tension is front and center in the way the setting of the experience is told.

Out comes this woman to get some water at noon, in the heat of the day. This in itself speaks volumes to how much of an outcast this woman is. Normally people came at dawn and dusk to the well, but she is either too scared or too threatened to come then, and instead comes when she thinks she will be alone.

We will find out later in the story that she is living with a man after having five marriages fail-three was seen as the absolute limit for Jews and for Samaritans. So she is an outcast among the outcasts… spurned and rejected by five men…so unaccepted socially that she can’t come to the well when everyone else does.

From the Jewish perspective, how could she be more rejected? Not even the “dogs of Samaria” (one of the other gospels records this as a normal saying of the time), not even the horrible Samaritans accepted her.

I don’t think it is too difficult to imagine that this woman had integrated rejection into the core of her self-identity.

How would you not? We might jump to blaming this woman for being immoral, but women could not initiate divorce in that culture. Marriage was the key to property and provision for a woman, and she had been rejected 5 times. It doesn’t make her blameless, but I want to draw our attention to the way that rejection can feed wrong choices, desperation, and a lot of pain.

I remember a good friend who I knew in high school. She was someone we all enjoyed being around, kind and with a wonderful smile. There were whispers of a difficult home life, but none of us really talked with her about it. Not long after we graduated, I started hearing stories. Too much drinking. Living with a guy. Eventually people just quit talking about her.

Almost ten years ago, I saw her and heard a part of her story, and it was really difficult to see where life had taken her. Of course she made choices that didn’t help that, but as I heard more of the truth behind the whispers we had heard about her dad, as I listened to the incredible self-doubt and her inability to see herself as having any value…a different picture came together in my head.

I saw how being rejected crushed her self-worth, which caused her to make desperate choices, which were not good choices. I saw how that led to more rejection, more bad choices, and over a couple of decades the result was painful to look at. She couldn’t really accept any more that she had value. The rejection and the guilt haven’t really been overcome, certainly not by me trying to speak occasionally to her about her value over the last few years.

Having my friend in mind as I read this passage helped me to see it in a little different light.

I’ve always seen the responses of the woman at the well as evasive, distracting, not going along with what Jesus was trying to communicate. But now I get a glimpse of what I think might have been going on underneath. Because she had always been rejected and excluded, she expected it from everyone. In a sense, her defense mechanism is to call out the rejection before it can happen, to see everything through the lens of division, difference, and rejection.

As I read some more of the story, would you try to see if my theory holds up? See if you can see the ways her experience of rejection causes her to highlight the differences, to almost look for ways to be offended and rejected, to almost pick a fight first so she doesn’t have to be hurt unexpectedly. John 4, verse 7.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’ (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) (John 4:7-9, TNIV)

Of course that’s true. Jews don’t associate with Samaritans. But notice her immediately seeing this in terms of us/them. Notice that she sees herself in the lower, rejected places. “You Jews” don’t associate with “us Samaritans”. You’ve rejected us. Not “we can’t stand each other”. Not “our people are enemies”. Those would imply some equality, some sense of strength. No, she frames the whole encounter as the rejected party.

Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.’
‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds.’ (John 4:10-12, TNIV)

Perhaps Jesus’ kind response throws her off.

What Jesus is doing, essentially, is saying that he would give her a gift from God. That’s crazy! A man shouldn’t even be talking with a woman in public; Jewish men wouldn’t even talk to their wives or sisters on the street. A Jew wouldn’t give anything good, especially any kind of gift from God, to a Samaritan. How can this be?

So she does what outcasts often do. She self-sabotages. The thinking goes, “Look, you’re going to reject me anyway sometime, so let me make it easier for you.” She challenges Jesus. “Ha! Like you’re greater than OUR father Jacob.” (Actually, this is also wonderful writing by John here, with great use of irony. Of course we know Jesus IS greater than Jacob, but she’s using it as an insult.)

And then she lays claim to all the stuff that just must make a good Jew furious. She picks a fight. “Jacob gave the well to US. We’re Jacob’s true descendants, Israel’s true descendants. You can’t give me anything; this is my well and you’re the foreigner.” She’s using words that are dangerous, words to start the rejection process she’s used to as soon as possible.

But Jesus won’t play that role.

Jesus answered, ‘Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’
The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.’ (John 4:13-15, TNIV)

Verse 15 is yet another time I wish the bible recorded tone of voice. I kind of think she’s still fighting, still all prickly, sarcastic. “Yeah, sure, right…go ahead and give me this awesome water. Right.”

Now Jesus starts down a path that she thinks is familiar. He brings it home. He makes it clear he knows her past.

He told her, ‘Go, call your husband and come back.’
‘I have no husband,’ she replied.
Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.’ (John 4:16-18, TNIV)

He knows her past…but he’s not yet using it against her. He seems…matter of fact. He even seems to affirm her for telling the truth. She’s not sure what to do with this, so she goes back to trying to divide, trying to draw out the rejection.

‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.’ (John 4:19-20, TNIV)

“You people.”

We have always worshipped here, but you people say we are wrong. Not only did the Jews claim the Samaritans should worship at the temple in Jerusalem (which, by the way, is no longer Solomon’s temple…that was destroyed long before). The Jews had done more than claim the Samaritans were wrong. In 128 BC, Jews under John Hyracanus attacked and destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim. It was built as a threat to Jerusalem’s spiritual power, and so it was destroyed. This well, Jacob’s well, was right at the foot of Mt. Gerizim.

That’s what you people have done to us, the woman says. We’re Jacob’s descendants just like you, but you reject us and destroy us and say we worship all wrong. You vilify us and say we aren’t true worshippers, and if you ever see us as a threat, you come after us and act like a bully.

It’s as if she is picking a theological fight to avoid talking about her own shame in her past. And I’m sure that’s part of it. We do this, don’t we? When our shame gets exposed, we lash out, we fight back, we’ll change to some of our tried and true fights, even our theological disagreements so that we don’t have to face our own shame, our own wrong, our own need to get things right with God.

I am sure that is part of what is going on here for the woman at the well. But what’s new to me looking at it this week is how a lifetime of being rejected pushes her to try and just get Jesus to reject her as well. She’s not a willing “convert”, so to speak. She is fighting everything that Jesus is trying to do, trying to get him to reject her, because it is all she has ever known.

The truth is, our world is good at creating outcasts, wounded outcasts.

Samaritans and Jews were both guilty of this, trying to each make themselves feel better by casting out the other, by threatening the other. By this point in history, the Samaritans were the outcasts, and the Jews had more power. But before, it was the Samaritans who had the trading routes and the power, and the Jews who felt threatened by their temple…which of course is why they felt they had to destroy it.

Two thousand years later, our religions and denominations, our groups and our political parties, haven’t improved very much. We’ve been wounded by people who think differently than us, so we cast them out, separate from them, look down on them. We create mutual outcasts, each with our own wounding and righteous indignation.

It makes it so very difficult to be in relationship. And, honestly, it makes it so very difficult to hear the good news of God that is offered to all of us, even the worst outcasts. Listen to Jesus bring it home, fight through her distractions and offer her hope. [READ 21-26]

‘Woman,’ Jesus replied, ‘believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.’
The woman said, ‘I know that Messiah’ (called Christ) ‘is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.’
Then Jesus declared, ‘I, the one speaking to you–I am he.’ (John 4:21-26, TNIV)

Jesus is so wonderfully unique, so utterly above our squabbles and divisions.

Look at all the things he does here. He does pick sides; he does say “we understand what you don’t”, he says that salvation (in other words, ME) comes from the Jews. But his sides are not exclusive. His sides do not reject or cast out. Instead, Jesus offers an invitation to a new way of encountering God that is open to all true worshipers.

And then he gives crystal clear truth: “I, the one speaking to you…” I am the Messiah.

Think about how radically inclusive that statement is. Jesus has refused being that clear to the Jews up to this point, yet here he is saying it without equivocation to a Samaritan woman!

While the woman has been consistent in pointing out the differences, seeing the world as two divided camps, seeing herself as unworthy and trying to hurry up and get him to reject her as everyone else has…Jesus has been just as consistent in a completely opposite way.

He initiates the forbidden conversation. He’s the one who crosses the dividing line, even though he’s the Jewish man with the power. He initiates by admitting his need for water, and giving her the ability to help him.

Jesus refuses to get angry or reject her. He is relentless in getting her to face her real and true self; that she has been rejected and she has made poor choices. But not in order to shame her; he pushes her to be honest because he wants to offer her a way out, an insight into a new way of knowing God.

Jesus is not defeated by our denial.

How good for us this is! Our shame doesn’t scare him. Our poor choices don’t hurt him. Our attempts at distraction don’t stop him from pursuing us with truth, love, and acceptance.

Jesus will even break the “good” rules in order to open doors of relationship with any of us outcasts. Jesus is the one who is bringing a new way for us to know God and Jesus will not be stopped by us or by the divisions we create as a church. Jesus pursues even the outcasts we make.

How can the outcast find acceptance and love from Jesus? 

We know Jesus will pursue. As an outcast, we need to be aware of the ways we self-sabotage, pick fights, distract from the truth work Jesus wants to do in us. That’s how we clear ground, by working through our own defense mechanisms that keep us from letting Jesus lay our shame bare and bring healing.

As a church, we need to be aware of the ways our own hurt and shame and rejection cause us to make outcasts, sometimes to try and make ourselves feel better. We need to clear ground. We need some of us to follow Jesus’ path, and cross boundaries and initiate relationships with outcasts, so that they can find acceptance and love from Jesus. May it be.

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