Jesus was in Samaria. It was an interesting destination for a devout Jew. Jesus was heading back to Galilee. He could have gone a different way, a way that didn’t take him through this enemy territory. The hatred, the animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans was long standing. There was little respect. The Jews thought the Samaritans had abandoned the true faith – and so, mistreated them. The Samaritans, therefore, hated the Jews. But, the gospel writer said that he had to go to Samaria, meaning that God sent him there.
So this story begins with the story of an outsider—Jesus! He left his own people and culture. Do we think of God as an outsider? Or do we carefully box God into our perceptions of where God is and where God should be? Do we think of God being present and active with those we might call our enemies? But God, through Jesus, ventured into a place where he, Jesus, would be feared and hated.
Then, Jesus, this outsider met another outsider. As he sat by Jacob’s well, a Samaritan woman came to draw water. This woman was an outsider in her own community. How do we know that? She came to draw water in the middle of the day – in the heat of the day! Now, drawing water was women’s work. But, the women would have gone early in the morning – or in the evening, when it was cool. They would have gone together – it was a communal activity. This woman came alone. It tells us something. She was not welcome to join the other women. So, she came alone – in the heat of the day.
Did she see him as she approached? Was she fearful? She, after all, would quickly be recognized as a woman of little or no worth. She was Samaritan –and she was coming in the middle of the day. Did she wonder if she should turn around and go home, coming back when no one was there? Perhaps, in that climate, she was desperate for water. Perhaps the choice didn’t seem good, no matter what. Go to the well where an enemy sat, or go without water.
Jesus would have known that she was an outsider, that she had no status. So his request that she give him water is even more astounding. In Jesus we see God who meets us when we feel that we are unworthy of God’s notice or of God’s love. We see God who is present when we think that we have wandered far from God’s ways, far from God’s grace. “Where can I go from your spirit?” the psalmist asked. “Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” This Samaritan woman, who by every religious standard, was unworthy, found a welcome in Jesus who sat by the well – in her country.
This follows the story of Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus, the leader of the Jews who came by night so that his visit would go unnoticed. This story has parallels except that it takes place in the harsh revealing light of day. Yet, Jesus treats this outsider, this woman, in much the same way he treated Nicodemus. He invited her to consider what God was offering – even to the Samaritans! “If you knew the gift of God and who it is who is saying to you, ‘give me a drink’, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” At first, she is bound by her earthly realities. Nicodemus couldn’t understand how one could be born anew. The woman hears living water and thinks of running water – a higher quality water than what she could draw from the well. When Jesus says his living water would mean no more thirst, she sees the possibility of never having to draw water again. She would be spared the heat of the day. Perhaps it would mean she could live out her days away from harsh judgment of her community.
Jesus told her to call her husband. And she answered honestly: “I have no husband.” Her history reaffirms her marginal status. She had had five husbands and, as Jesus pointed out, the “one she had now was not her husband.” The historical response of the church has been to dismiss her even further. She was “living in sin.” Perhaps that is unfair. Maybe it was the world’s unfairness which had driven her to the margins. A woman didn’t choose to be married. The five husbands could have been brothers who married their siblings’ widows – an expectation. Yet, if all the brothers had died – or if a brother chose not to fulfill his duties—she would have been left with few options. Jesus did not judge. He stated the truth – and continued to converse with her.
She asked questions. She explored faith. She struggled to understand. And, he patiently listened. He considered what she said. And, amazingly, he revealed to her who he was. “I know the Messiah is coming. When he comes he will proclaim all things to us.” “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Now, unlike Nicodemus, the leader of the Jews, this Samaritan woman took that proclamation and shared it with those who despised her. She is the first evangelist (good news bearer) in John’s gospel. Now she didn’t proclaim a detailed theological understanding of who Jesus was. She shared her experience. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
I was at an event on Friday with Ray Jones from the Presbyterian Mission Agency who is working in the area of helping congregations be vital, that is healthy, thriving, worshipping communities. He talked about how the church often loses its sense of being sent into the world. Evangelism isn’t standing on a street corner or twisting people’s arms or telling people what they need to believe or reciting some theological system or viewpoint. Evangelism is developing relationships and talking and listening and telling, in the midst of that, what we have known of God’s presence in our own lives. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” This proclamation was bold – bold because of the messenger. An outsider found her voice and told her own story – revealing God’s presence.
While she was gone, the disciples returned to Jesus. They couldn’t believe that he was talking with a woman –a woman—and not only a woman but a Samaritan woman who was obviously not held in esteem even by her own people. Yet Jesus told them to look around – and see that the fields were ripe for harvesting. God’s concern spread beyond the borders. God’s concern and God’s attention focused even on their enemies.
It is a story filled with outsiders. Jesus was an outsider, both in his own country, but even more in Samaria. Most of the disciples were outsiders in their own culture. The woman is even more of an outsider. The Samaritans who hear the good news and believe were outsiders. Their example of belief and believing was remembered and told.
Ray Jones reminded us that too often the church loses its outward focus. Churches, when they are started, are filled with people who reach out and invite others to “come and see” what’s happening. Churches grow. But, eventually, the church gets caught up in its own life and its willingness and ability to reach out falters. Oftentimes in today’s world we fall into the “build it and they will come” approach – and forget the example of the Christ who “had nowhere to lay his head,” the Christ who travelled, who crossed boundaries, who was a willing outsider who connected with other outsiders. I am reminded of one of the prominent pastors of the day, Nadia Bolz-Weber. Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor. Yet she is hardly typical. She is known as the tattooed pastor. Her background is not traditional. She had been a stand up comic – and an alcoholic. She is the first to tell you that she would not have reached out to God. But God reached out to her. In response, her ministry continues to cross boundaries from the safe zones of traditional Christianity to the edges of our own society where people are struggling to survive. Her ministry is with and for those the established church keeps at arms length – the outsiders. She is, in many ways, the Samaritan woman who found in God not a remote, judgmental deity, but a compassionate spirit who spoke the truth to her while loving her. From her and the Samaritan woman we might learn that the very voices we might readily dismiss may bring us closer to God’s grace and glory.
And from Bolz-Weber and the Samaritan woman we see God who meets us where we are – not with disdainful judgment, but with compassionate truth and the invitation to be made whole. We meet God who comes to broken and the lost and the marginalized and the forgotten and the disdained and the hopeless and the voiceless – and each of us and all of us. We meet the God who says, “Fear not. You are seen; you are known; you are loved.” And we meet the God who says, “Go. Tell your story. Invite others to see me and to experience my love for them.”
Fear not, outsiders! Fear not outsiders! With God there is no “outside.” We are always welcome in God’s presence. There is no sin, no secret that has the power to separate us from God’s deep, abiding love. And those we see as strangers, as outsiders, or as threateningly different can and do bear the good news to us.