She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.
That pretty much sums up the story of the Samaritan woman at the well as John lays it out for us in his typical abundance of detail. Although maybe not in the way it sounds.
She was not warned. Not this particular time. She really didn’t need a warning. On this day. She was a woman, after all. She had been given a warning her entire life. You are to have nothing to do with this man because he is a Jew. You are to have nothing to do with this man because you are not related to him. You are to have nothing to do with this man because you are alone. And she, as we can see, is more alone than most. She knew, from a lifetime of warnings, that when she saw this Jewish man sitting at the well of her ancestor Jacob – who himself knew a thing or two about being persistent – she should just walk away. Nevertheless, she persisted.
She was not given an explanation. Not this particular time. She really didn’t need an explanation. On this day. She was a woman, after all. She had been given an explanation her entire life. Well, not so much given an explanation as being burdened with and trapped by a set of expectations – spoken and unspoken. Because she was a woman and according to the culture of that day, not worthy of an explanation. A woman should be about the business of doing what she can to make a man comfortable, not uncomfortable. Her needs, like the needs of all outsiders, are secondary to the needs of insiders – no matter how those groups are defined. The customs and traditions of the day are not to be violated or even tampered with, no matter how burdensome they might be.
The spoken and unspoken warnings, the written and unwritten rules of the day pointed to one thing: That’s the way life had always been. That’s the way life would always be. That’s as much explanation as the woman at the well, the vast majority of women at the time, would get. That’s as much explanation as the woman at the well, the vast majority of women at the time, should need. That’s as much explanation as the woman at the well, the vast majority of women at the time, should expect. So she knew, from a lifetime of explanations, that when she saw this Jewish man sitting at the well of her ancestor Jacob – he who had worked 14 years to be allowed to marry his favorite wife Rachel, so you could say was persistence was a family trait – she should wait, out of sight, until he left. Nevertheless, she persisted.
It has been said that well-behaved women seldom make history. It is spot on in this case. Because if the Samaritan woman on this day had been well behaved, if she had not been, we might say, such a nasty woman – because you have to know that’s what the apostles were thinking when they saw her violating all manner of cultural and ethnic and religious protocols by talking to Jesus, even if they didn’t say it out loud, because Jesus most likely gave them that look; you know the look I’m talking about, the one that says be quiet if you know what’s good for you – if she had heeded the warning of the ages, had paid attention to the explanation of the culture, had allowed the expectations spoken and unspoken of her society to guide her actions, then she wouldn’t have walked up to the Jewish man sitting at the well of her ancestor Jacob, wouldn’t have challenged the warnings and explanations she’d gotten all her life and we wouldn’t be talking about her today. Or ever.
We never would have known about her. If she had lived up to – actually down to might be more accurate – her lifetime of warnings, explanations, expectations, if she’d gone home, if she’d waited in the shadows, off to the side, out of sight, out of mind, out of the story of Jesus, until he left, we never would have heard of her encounter with the Jewish rabbi because there would have been no encounter. Only because she persisted do we know anything about her.
Do we want to know anything about her? Do we want to be a church, do we want to be part of a church, that wants to know and listen to people like her? Do we want to be a persistent church, one might even say a nasty church, one that makes it its mission to stand with the marginalized of its culture, its community, one that stands with those who stand against the cultural warnings and explanations and expectations of the day if they are harmful, if they try to take away anyone’s humanity, or do we want to be a church, do we want to be part of church, that avoids such outsiders because, in our eyes, they have little to contribute to our understanding of the world, of our mission?
Do we want to be a church that says to those who have been seen as outsiders – however that is defined – treated as second class people by the culture and society that we are here for you, we will help you resist, we will help lift you up or do we want to be a church, be a part of a church that says why are you talking to that person, that wants to keep an arm’s length from such outsiders – however they are defined – because somehow they diminish us, because somehow we think that resistance, public, open resistance is not what Jesus is calling us to do.
Do we want to be a church, do we want to be part of a church that is open to all voices, that is willing to listen to all stories as we seek out the authentic Jesus Christ in the world, even if those stories challenge us, shake us up a little bit? Or do we want to allow only officially sanctioned voices, hear only culturally approved stories that would tell us that Jesus came only for us, that do not challenge or shake us, not even gently, silence those voices that come from the outside?
As we wrestle with the story of the Samaritan woman today, we see her ignoring the warnings, turning aside the explanations, persisting. Jesus himself lifts up her story for us. But there are plenty of places in the world where stories are being told that don’t get heard. There are people resisting, challenging systems put in place to benefit one group at the expense of another that we know nothing about. Why? Because those stories are not told by the right people.
One of the most remarkable parts of our story today is that the woman goes on to tell her story, the story of Messiah, the story of God come into the world, to the rest of her village. But even that is not as remarkable as what happened then. The people listened. Just as Jesus listened to her. They listened with their ears. They listened with their hearts. They listened with their spirits. They took her seriously. Just as Jesus took her seriously. They honored her by carrying her witness, her testimony to all the region. Jesus stayed with the villagers for two days because they wanted to hear more about him and his work and his plans after they listened to the woman they at one time would have ignored, would have taken pains to ignore.
Jesus modeled to his disciples and to all of us how we are to be in relationship with those who exist on the fringes of their societies. He persisted. He remained present with her, just as he does with everyone, especially those looked on as the lost and the least. He persisted. He listened to her story, entered into her story, just as he does to everyone and to all stories, especially those that come from the margins. He persisted. He took her seriously, just as he does everyone, especially those who have been or are being pushed to the outside by societal and cultural forces beyond their control. He persisted. He honored her, just as he does all people, especially those who are told in many different ways there is no reason they should expect such treatment.