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The Bucketless and the Bold

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John 4:3-29, 39-42

Whenever I preach on this text, I always have to start by explaining who this woman was not because the church has done terrible things to her over the years. We hear that she’d had five husbands, and culturally, our minds go one of two places: either Elizabeth Taylor, with her seven husbands, or some woman who had five children by five different men. We hear “five husbands” and we make her, at best, fickle, a woman who valued marriage so little that she just got divorces left and right, and at worst, a slut.

What interpreters and preachers missed for years was that in Jesus’ time, women could not get a divorce. Only men had the power to divorce, and they could do so for any reason, simply by taking the woman to the public square and saying “I divorce you” three times. Women couldn’t just “enter the marketplace” and get a self-supporting job. Often the best option the woman had was to return to her father’s house, which was humiliating but safe. But if her father was dead, or refused to take her back, she went to her brothers, who might or might not be willing to take her on as a dependent. And if she had no brothers, she had few options left. “If this woman had had five husbands and now had none, it meant that either five husbands had died or five men had married her and then abandoned her in divorce.”[1] Or some combination thereof.

As for her living with a man who wasn’t her husband, we don’t know the nature of that relationship or what their arrangement was or if she had any other choices. It could have been what was called a Levirate marriage “where a childless woman is married to her deceased husband’s brother in order to produce an heir, yet is not always technically considered the brother’s wife” [2] especially since the brother probably already had his own wife who might not have been very excited about the arrangement.

Plus, Jesus does not mention sin. He does not tell her to repent, as he says to others. He does not say that her sins are forgiven. There is no mention of sin.

So when we consider the cultural context, we cannot simply dismiss this woman as of loose moral character. I don’t know when we started doing this. I have been unable to find out when preachers started sullying her character, but I do know that the Eastern church never abandoned her. In Orthodox Christianity, this unnamed woman is given a name (Photini, which means “enlightened one”), a Feast Day (February 26) and a title (“Evangelist and Apostle.”)[3]

This view of her as an enlightened evangelist is closer to the original point of the story. But that is not to say that John’s readers would have heard it that way, at least not at the beginning. As I’m sure you know, Jews and Samaritans did not mix. So the disciples would have been shocked to find Jesus talking with a Samaritan—and if that weren’t bad enough, talking with a female Samaritan! “Consider these pieces of conventional wisdom that were current in Jesus’ day: ‘A man shall not talk with a woman in the street, not even with his own wife, on account of what others may say. He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself. If any man gives a woman a knowledge of God’s Law, it is as though he had taught her lechery.’”[4] So Jesus had plenty of reasons not to speak to her, even if he was thirsty, yet he crossed those boundaries to reach her.

And she crossed back. She could have ignored him. She could have hurried away from the well, refusing to speak to this unknown boundary-crosser. She could have let him use her bucket but refused to speak. She may not have had lots of power over her own life, but she did have that much power. She chose to speak. Even more, she chose to speak with boldness, with audacity.

She questioned his wild claims, pointing out that he doesn’t even have a bucket. And when she realizes he is speaking metaphorically, and when she realizes he is a prophet, she goes toe-to-toe with Jesus in a theological conversation about the differences between their people’s beliefs. For a powerless, marginalized person, this woman had some audacity! I hope you caught a glimpse of that in our telling of the story a few minutes ago.

I also hope you’ve been enjoying the way we’ve been telling the story the last few weeks. I decided that I wanted to tell the story rather than read the text during Lent. I don’t know about you, but I find it easy to tune out when somebody reads the Bible. This is especially true if I know the story well, but even when I don’t, my mind tends to wander. I hoped that by learning the story by heart, or by presenting it in a different form, I might be able to help you hear the story, and I hoped that the story might sink in more.

This desire started a few months ago when I listened to the first episode of a podcast called “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.” One of the hosts of the podcast explained how the project came about. He had gone to seminary, which surprised his family because they weren’t particularly religious. But he was drawn to studying the Bible, diving into it and seeing what he could find. But it never felt right, he said. He said that he ultimately was disappointed because The Bible wasn’t “his story.” He wasn’t raised on the Bible; it wasn’t a formative text. The story that he had grown up on was the Harry Potter saga. That was his story; that was the series of books with which he most connected. So he started approaching Harry Potter’s story as though it were scripture. What might the books say to him if he approached it as if it were his Bible. It’s a fascinating project, but it made me wonder about you.

Is the Bible your formative text? Can you connect it with your life? Can you find your story within it? That’s not possible if you don’t know the stories. And although hearing me preach about them helps, it doesn’t internalize it. You have to wrestle with the story yourself to get your blessing.

So I have given you all the background information you need to interpret this story. You know who the woman is and who she is not. You know about the boundary-crossing of Jesus and the audacity of the woman. So now it’s your turn to connect this story with your story.

I want you to gather yourselves into groups of three or four people. You have two questions to address:

  1. When have you had audacity? In other words, when have you stood up to power, or spoken your mind when it was hard? Or when didn’t you, and you regret it? OK, that’s your first question: when have you shown audacity?
  2. Your second question for discussion is: when have you crossed boundaries to connect with someone different than you? Or what boundaries do you need to cross?

[Time in groups]

Both Jesus and the Samaritan woman crossed boundaries to reach one another and to engage in real, meaningful, life-changing conversation. The woman was not the only one changed.

Jesus, too, widened his way of thinking. A few chapters later we are told that the religious leaders accused Jesus of being a Samaritan possessed by a demon. Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon.” He didn’t defend himself against what was, to a Jew, a big insult. He didn’t feel the need to say that he wasn’t a mongrel, like the Samaritans, he wasn’t heir of only part of the scriptures, like the Samaritans. He let their insult stand because to him, it was no longer an insult. Stories like this can change us, open and widen us, if we let them.

“Stories are the everyday currency through which we make sense of and share our lives.”[5] I’m glad we get to share our lives together. I’m glad our stories are intertwined.

I want to share one other thing with you. A couple of months ago we ordered some yard signs that say “We stand for justice, equality, and love,” followed by the name of the church. Someone who has that sign in their yard received a note in the mail. The person didn’t sign their name, it had no return address. The note says Hello this is jus a simple note of thanks. Every day, lately anyway, days seem dark and bleak. We are bombarded with negative news and messages. BUT also every day I see the sign in your front yard and I am reminded that love is still alive. Thank you for planting the seed of that love for all to see. You have made a difference.” Preprinted on the card were the words “Peace on Earth” and underneath they wrote “Ever Hopeful,” as if it were their name. Ever Hopeful.

Let us be audacious and ever hopeful. Amen.

[1] Claypool, John. “Light and Warmth.” Chicago Sunday Evening Club, January 23, 1994.

[2] Lose, David. “Misogyny, Moralism, and the Woman at the Well.” www.huffingtonpost.com.

[3] http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/lent3a.html

[4] Hoezee, Scott. Center for Excellence in Preaching. Lent 3A March 13, 2017.

[5] Lose, David. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1582

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