Maybe you’ve heard the same version of this story that I heard. Jesus meets a sinful woman, sets her straight, and once she’s clean and pure and ready to bear witness to the rest of her town, he uses her to his glory. We know she was a sinful woman because she’s coming to the well at full noon. You should come early in the morning, before it’s hot. She comes to be alone, because everyone talks about her and her five previous husbands and her illicit shacking up. She must be some kind of dirty, vile sinner indeed.
I’m no longer impressed by this version of the story, even though I’m pretty sure I’ve preached sermons on this exact interpretation. I need to leave room for scripture to keep surprising me. If every time you come to the Bible it confirms what you already believe, you’re doing it wrong. It’s why we come into community to talk about the word. It’s why we pray for the Spirit’s continuing work to change us.
Which is why this Samaritan woman from Sychar deserves more of our time and attention. First, we have to look at the context of this story. Just last week, we heard the story of Nicodemus and Jesus. Nicodemus comes in the dead of night, and he keeps challenging Jesus on everything he says. Eventually Jesus just lectures him into silence. In part of that lecture, Jesus says, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. But those who do what is true come to the light” (John 3:19, 21a). John wants us to pay attention to who comes under cover of night and who comes in the full exposure of day.
Nicodemus came at night. Jesus meets the woman at the well at noon. This isn’t a statement on her social acceptance. It’s supposed to make us pay attention.
“But Megan! What about the thing with her husbands!” I’m so glad you reminded me. It would have been essentially impossible for a woman to have or divorce multiple husbands. Only men were permitted to divorce a woman. So, if she’d been abandoned five times already, for any reason, she was indeed very vulnerable. A woman without a husband or a father to take her in was destitute.
There’s another option. She could be stuck in the cycle of Levirate marriage. This was the accepted scriptural practice where a man’s widow would marry her dead husband’s next closest family member, usually a brother. It’s possible that this poor woman was a widow five times over and had scared off any other family who might be obligated to her. She’d found a place in the home of a man who took pity on her and kept her safe even though he wasn’t her husband. Her safety and security is tenuous at best. And yet, here she is, talking with Jesus. And he needs something from her. He’s the one dependent on her hospitality.
He shouldn’t even want to be near her. Samaritans and Jews did not get along, not even a little. It’s why Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan is so shocking – Samaritans were not considered good at all. They worshiped differently, they were ethnically diverse, they didn’t look or act like a good Jew, so they stayed away from each other. In verse 4, where it says Jesus must go through Samaria? He doesn’t. Geographically, going through Samaria is far more dangerous and arduous. Plus, he wouldn’t want to be around those dirty Samaritans.
Why must he go through Samaria? Jesus goes because the good news must be shared. Jesus must go so that she can testify to him.
This is where we come into the story. We are really good at deciding who God loves or who’s living their life right. That’s not what Jesus wants from us. Jesus just wants you. He needs your testimony, just as he needed the woman’s testimony. This broken world, beloved by God, it doesn’t get new life unless it hears about Jesus and his radical love. Jesus intentionally chooses those people and places that we ignore, shake our heads at, or spit hatred towards – he chooses those people to tell about the depth of his love.
When the disciples come back to Jesus at the well, they’re shocked. They’re also disappointed – why is he talking about food when they’re the ones who went to get food? He’s trying to tell them – yes, you’re with me, and yes, you left everything to come along, but you’re not the only ones sharing the word. You’re not the only one planting seeds. God’s work is getting done without you. Sometimes it’s even getting done in spite of you.
People of God, be ready. It’s not just the ones called disciples or pastors or whatever who tell the story with power. Jesus needs your testimony just as he needed the nameless prophetess of the word who lived in Sychar. If you don’t think you have the wisdom or the reputation or the clout to be heard, good news. You’re exactly the kind of person that Jesus wants.
And if you’re the kind of person who thinks your works speak for themselves, that your morality makes you better, that you’ve got it right? Remember when I asked you to reconsider the way you read scripture? The same holds true for the way you listen to the word of God spoken by your fellow believers around you. Because you are going to hear words of shocking grace and condemnation, truth and challenge, wisdom and holy absurdity coming from those you might least expect, those you might write off, those you like to feel better than.
Listen up, people of God. Listen to the woman’s testimony, and hear how she is not only open to being changed, but to boldly and shamelessly open the eyes of others. May be so brave, and if we’re not, may we be ready to hear the world in humility from unexpected voices. For this promise and challenge, thanks be to God.