Posted: Wednesday 18th July 2018
The Woman at the Well
The Samaritan Woman at the Well.
15th July 2018
(Adapted from a sermon I preached at Westminster Abbey. 8th July 2018)
Rev’d Simon Buckley
The story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well is a particular favourite of mine. It doesn’t have the drama of Jesus calming a storm or healing someone of a lifelong illness, it lacks the spectacle of the transfiguration and it contains nothing that might be traditionally considered a miracle. But for the woman herself this chance meeting was miraculous, it was as incredible, unexpected and as life-changing for her as any of Jesus’ works of healing had been for those who received them.
Jesus was on his way from Judea to Galilee, a journey that took him through the territory of Samaria – a despised place inhabited by disreputable people from which respectable Jews kept a safe distance. You probably know the sort of place because every country, county or city has it’s equivalent Samaria, even today. Growing up in Merseyside, Toxteth was the place everyone shunned, when I lived in Birmingham it was probably Handsworth or Lozells. It’s the same the world over: in Sao Paolo there are the favelas, in Cape Town Long St, the list could go on and on. In Samaria’s case it wasn’t that the place was poor or run down, or that the homicide rate was high – it was just that the people had some traditions and ideas about God that marked them out to the Jews of Jesus’ time as being unacceptable, their district as one best kept away from.
And there’s the first miracle. That Jesus goes quite naturally where others fear to tread.
And near a Samaritan town in the heat of the mid-day sun Jesus, as we heard, sits down to rest and asks a woman who comes to draw water to give him a drink. She is utterly taken aback that a Jew should speak to someone like her, wouldn’t she, after all make him ritually unclean by using her own jar to give him the drink he’s asking for? Who is this man who would risk such contamination? No wonder that when the disciples see them together, later in the narrative they are shocked to see him talking to her- but they don’t say anything, they probably just looked at each other and rolled their eyes in despair “now whose he talking to?”. He was often seen with the people others shunned, the lepers, the tax collectors, the prostitutes.
You see that’s the second miracle. That Jesus would cross any barrier of gender, class or religion and simply speak to anyone.
And Jesus and she begin to chat, and very naturally in the course of the conversation Jesus suggests she bring her husband to join them. She winces at this, “oh no, it was all going so well”, so she just says she’s not married and hopes to move on. But Jesus both knows and is unfazed that she has actually been married five times and is currently living with someone she’s not married to. We don’t know why they’ve not married – maybe she feels she’s had quite enough weddings and can’t face another one (after all- how many sets of bath towels does anyone need?), or perhaps her current gentleman friend has looked at her track record and thought that “any man she marries doesn’t seem to live very long –I’m keeping things as they are”, we’ll never know.
But there’s a double miracle in that: firstly, that Jesus knows this stranger’s history and secondly, knowing it, takes her totally unconventional, to some scandalous life in his stride and they carry on talking.
As she spends time in Jesus’ company she becomes aware that he knows her as well and maybe better than she actually knows herself and so she invites her friends to meet the one who she is wondering might just be the Messiah. And coming, they too, recognise Jesus as the Saviour of the world- not just because of what the woman has told them but through the conversations they each shared with this man who crossed all barriers to engage with them just as they were.
It’s a remarkable story and it is one that continues to speak clearly to me and it has strongly informed my ministry and the mission I believe we at St Anne’s are called to live out.
Because when I told many people that I was coming here as Rector, the response of those who didn’t know Soho but had only heard of it, was often to recoil- Soho isn’t that a seedy place full of slightly dodgy people? Well maybe that’s why the Bishop of London thought I’d fit in, I don’t know. But Soho has consistently been a place with a ‘bit of a reputation’ and a place throughout history in which people who haven’t been welcomed elsewhere have made a home- Huguenots in the 17th century and later Jewish tailors fleeing antisemitism, next prostitutes, artists and bohemians, and then the LGBT community. Soho was for many years one of those areas regarded as London’s Samaria. An unhealthy place inhabited by suspect people that respectable people avoided. Now of course the once disreputable is fashionable and popular and Soho as we know too well is now neither as edgy (or dare I say, as much fun) as it once was! But the point is that the places and people that ‘respectable’ people- and often those who call themselves Christians view with most disdain or even disgust, are the very places and people that Jesus was drawn to like a moth to a lightbulb.
And Jesus goes to them, just as he did to the woman at the well, not to denounce them or challenge them with placards, as some Christians held up beside the Pride march last week. Jesus goes full of openness, understanding and compassion; without judgement but ready to hear unflinchingly the reality of each person’s life story: their past and their present as he loves them into their future.
You see, I believe this story tells us exactly why the Gospel is good news for everyone. Because Jesus Christ to whom the scriptures witness went and gave himself to all people without distinction, choosing to sit with the ones the most religious people said were least deserving, worthy or upright. Isn’t that good news for us that there is nothing in our lives: nothing we’ve done, nothing about where we’re from or indeed who we are that need stand in the way of us encountering Christ for ourselves and sharing the honest reality of our lives with him and being fully accepted as the Samaritan woman was. Our God is one who, as Psalm 139 reminds us has intimately known and loved us since before we were born, who knows and understands our every thought, word and movement.
The gospel is good news and good news for all, but that doesn’t make it easy news. So don’t get too comfy!
Because if we who are baptised are to live Christ-like lives, then this story also challenges us to think about how we interact with others.
It asks us:
What are the personally convenient barriers in our lives that Christ is calling us to break through?
Which groups in society who are demonised by the media or popular opinion do we need to meet without judgement and get to understand?
Who are the people that it’s easy to fear that Christ would rather we came to know and love?
How do we relate to those people whose life experience, culture, sexuality, faith, skin colour or politics are different to our own?
At a time when our world is becoming increasingly segregated and polarised, with the rhetoric of hate being legitimised by world leaders resulting in groups of people being irrationally stigmatised in the cause of national or self-preservation this gospel which is ultimately good news for all, will also be very uncomfortable and challenging news for some.
The capacity to love all people across boundaries and without distinction can only come from us knowing that we ourselves are unconditionally loved and accepted by God first. That was the miraculous experience of the Samaritan woman at the well, I pray that it may it be our understanding too.