Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
The scandal of Jesus’ extended conversation with a Samaritan woman here in John 4 should not be underestimated. There’s a reason the disciples are so surprised to find the two talking in broad daylight when they come back from their grocery run. For one thing, as the text itself admits, Jews and Samaritans rarely had anything to do with one another. For another thing, and this appears to be even more upsetting to the disciples, she’s a SHE! A Jewish man wasn’t supposed to be seen speaking in public with a woman. It simply wasn’t done. Yet the longest conversation Jesus will have with anyone in all of John’s gospel is precisely with this not-Jewish non-male. This is shocking stuff! And the woman herself is clearly as surprised as anyone: “Why are you talking to me?” she asks.
So surely at least part of what we’re called to notice in this text is how very interested Jesus is in this marginalized person, this outsider, this woman entirely without power or privilege. In all four of the gospels, when we look for Jesus we often find him among those snubbed by the rest of polite society – he’s there with the tax collectors, the prostitutes, people with broken bodies, people with deeply disturbed spirits. In fact throughout both testaments, we find God’s saving work directed toward the underdogs of the world – the little brothers and the tiny nations and slaves and exiles. The disciples haven’t known Jesus for long at this point in the gospel, yet they already seem to know enough not to voice their question out loud – “What could possibly have possessed you to talk with HER?” Their objections reflect the cultural conventions of their day. But what they will witness again and again as they follow their teacher around will knock those conventions on their heads, as Jesus crosses over long-established human boundaries to make the grace of God available to all.
So this text speaks powerfully to those who feel like outsiders themselves, those the world doesn’t particularly respect, those who fear they have nothing to offer, or fear that what they might offer would never be accepted. Jesus refuses to entertain any of the prejudices that underlie those fears. Jesus promises to take every child of God seriously and to extend God’s grace equally to each one.
That being said, I think it’s important for congregations like ours to be honest with ourselves about where we fit into this kind of a scenario. When we talk about the scandal of Jesus reaching out to marginalized members of society, let’s be clear about the fact that most of us in this room are not. Some of us are women, yes, and even today, even here in the US, that means we are not universally acknowledged to be the equals of men. And some of us may not particularly be in positions of great power. But on the whole, many of us in this congregation do stand among the powerful and privileged. Many of us in this room – whether or not we’re among the richest members of American society - have more money than the vast majority of our world’s population could ever dream of. Most of us own a car, and live in nice apartments and homes, and some of us take morning showers in rooms that would sleep 3 or 4 people in other parts of this world. We are leaders in this church and in our communities. We have a voice and a vote in the decisions that affect our lives, from congregational meetings here to PTA meetings in our schools to the polls on election day. We really don’t know what it is to be marginalized in the way that this Samaritan woman was. Where she was an outsider, we are the insiders.
So I think we would do well to ask ourselves periodically who the real outsiders are in our society. Who would Jesus’ scandalous conversation partners be in the 21st century? Who would he be likely to hang out with here in Seattle that we don’t? Again, Jesus refuses to entertain any of our prejudices about who is worthy of God’s grace and who isn’t.
Let’s return to the Samaritan woman’s story as it continues to unfold in John chapter 4, beginning around verse 16. Jesus says to her: “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answers him, “I have no husband.” Jesus says “You are right in saying ‘I have no husband’ for you have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband.” Now if you were to survey the vast majority of commentaries and sermons on this passage over the years you would come away convinced that this woman is a member of Hollywood’s husband-of-the-month club. That she knew how to love ‘em and leave ‘em. And therefore that Jesus is here calling her on the carpet for her sin. But none of that is actually in the text. As Frances Gench puts it, this woman’s “portrait has been clouded by considerable interpretive litter.” It would be wise for us to sweep all that away and instead to keep clearly in view what we know of women’s rights (or lack thereof) in ancient Israel.
Many people assume, for instance, that this woman has been divorced five times, although divorce is never actually mentioned in the story. But even if she were a five-time divorcée, remember that divorce was exclusively a male privilege in that day. So if it was a case of love ‘em and leave ‘em, she was the one being loved and left. The other possibility is that she was a widow, trapped in the custom of levirate marriage – an Israelite tradition in which her first husbands’ brothers would be required to marry her, each in turn, after her husband’s death. And as for that one she’s with now that isn’t even her husband, I suppose it’s possible she’s finally given up on the whole marriage idea and is now simply living with someone she loves. But it seems far more plausible, given what we know of that culture, that whatever man she’s with simply won’t give her the dignity or security of marrying her.
“Significantly, the reasons for the woman’s marital history intrigue commentators but do not seem to concern Jesus. Nor does Jesus pass moral judgment on the woman because of her marital history and status. All such judgments are imported into the text by interpreters.” What Jesus seems to do, rather, is name her wound and identify himself as the healer of wounds and the giver of life.
You see, behind the labels – Samaritan, woman, divorced, widowed – he sees the brokenness of the person. We know about labels. We know about brokenness. And we know how the one can often hide the other. There’s the overachiever . . . who secretly suffers from panic attacks. The successful businesswoman . . . who’s an alcoholic. The proudly independent widower who volunteers in every organization he can. . . and who is lonelier than he ever thought possible. Everyone’s favorite couple, life of every party they attend, neither of whom can remember when they get home at night what they ever saw in the other. The super-mom, around whom a whole neighborhood of kids seems to orbit. . . who lies awake nights paralyzed with fear of what the doctor might find when she returns for her second mammogram. Labels can be derogatory. They can be flattering. Either way, they can often be misleading.
But as the woman at the well discovered, Jesus cuts right through these labels and finds us where we really are. Perhaps frightened. Perhaps excited. Deeply disappointed. Deeply content. Or, like the Samaritan woman, broken—either because we have sinned ourselves or because we’ve been sinned against.
The promise in this morning’s text is that the One who knows and names our wounds not only accepts us, however flawed or broken we may be, but also equips us for the good work of proclaiming God’s love in the world. When the Samaritan woman ran home to share her news with friends and neighbors, it wasn’t to tell them that her social status had suddenly changed for the better. She was still an outsider, still a woman who’d been married to five men. But she had just met someone unlike anyone she’d ever known. Someone who knew her better than anyone she’d ever met. And so she dropped her water jar and ran back into town with an invitation and a question: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done. He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
We’re not talking here about quick fixes. But any time Jesus speaks to us, touches us, begins to heal a wound or offers us that gift of living water, satisfying our needs in parched places (Isaiah 58:11) there’s a story to tell. Whenever a broken spirit feels itself being mended, even a little, that’s something worth celebrating. And when we meet the one who can tell us everything we’ve ever done – and tell it in such a way that we feel valued and honored in the process—that’s something we want to share.
The Samaritan woman’s words of invitation are so simple, really: “Come and see.”
Come and see the One who would rather create a scandal than have anyone feel unwelcome in God’s kingdom. Come and see the One who sees the person behind the label. Come and see the One who breaks through boundaries to touch our wounds. Come and see the One who calls us into genuine, honest relationship with the living God. Come and see the one whose well holds living water for all of the parched places in our lives. He can’t be the Messiah, can he?
Come and see.
 Gench, p. 16.
 Gench, p. 17.
 Gail O’Day, Women’s Bible Commentary, 296.