The Woman at the Well (and my problems with how we understand Jesus)

Jes Kast Uncategorized 3 Comments

Last week I wondered why my clergy friends were talking about the Women at the Well (John 4) a week before I was preaching it. I thought to myself “Man, everyone is two weeks ahead on their preaching game! I’m inspired!” Turns out I am the one who is off and will be preaching on the Woman at the Well the week after everyone. Ah, humility, got it!

I’ve been wrestling with this text since last week (since y’all provided me that opportunity! Thank you.) Many comments on the text have provided problematic for me. At first glance, I really don’t like Jesus in this passage. This text reminds me so strongly of street harassment that I experience on fairly regular basis in New York City. (As I said on someone’s facebook wall, this may not make sense to many men especially and some will feel the need to defend themselves at first (I see you), but I invite you to take this opportunity to listen to a feminist critique of this text. An invitation to listen. Not an accusation, but a rigorous engagement with the story.)

The text reminds me too quickly of advances from men who feel entitled to women’s attention and then are offended if a woman declines the invitation or demand. Jesus plays this out on first glance, too. “Give me a drink” he demands. She pushes back “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria.” And they continue back and forth. The story ends with her proclaiming her spiritual truth that she knows the Messiah is indeed coming (what faith she has!). He concludes by saying “That’s me” which, again, feels like arrogant street harassment. I would never want Jesus to approach me that way. Just because Jesus is my savior doesn’t mean I always think he knew how he came across in how the stories were recorded in Scripture. My reading will be read as problematic for some reading this and others will just not understand what I’m saying, I’m ok with that. I know many though, especially many women and those who have been marginalized, will know what I am writing of and have experienced this themselves.  I believe Scripture is living so I’m going to poke at Scripture with my 21st century experiences and lean into the story with 1st century eyes (Thank you NT Wright).

There haven’t been many sermons that I have heard on this passage that have sufficed my spiritual longing for the Jesus I know. Too often I hear that the woman was a prostitute (which I happen to believe in sex workers rights so this view is already dismissive of people I know and minister with. Hence it’s not a Word of grace which is what I’m supposed to preach as a Minister of Word and Sacrament.) Then I hear others say how Jesus came as power under to meet her needs, which also doesn’t make sense at all to me. There is no way that culturally he could have power under her. She could not approach him ever so there is no way he would ever have less power than her. There seems to be a lot of faith in Jesus good intentions in this passage which I just don’t have even as I fully trust God my Creator.

Here is the Word of grace that does make sense to me. We want to be seen and to be known. Whether in hurried busyness that detracts us from doing hard self-reflection, or partaking in relationships that provide an adrenaline rush of sexual encounters, or we become so consumed with our work that we try and fill the voids in us with our accomplishments, we are all thirsty for meaning and being seen. We try and fill these voids in different ways, but ultimately all these good things in our life (vocation, sex, projects) are just band aids that do not in fact fill our deepest longing for living water. Living water that, as our baptismal vows were proclaimed over us an infant “for you Jesus came into the world; for you he died and conquered death; all this he did for you, little one, though you know nothing of it as yet. We love because God first loved us.” John 4 is about the living water of baptism. It is a sign and seal of the grace of God that even as we fill our lives with things that are good and try to heal the void, it is Jesus is the one who fills The Void and grants us the peace and we are marked as God’s very own in the living waters.

These are the living waters of Jesus I know. This is the Living Water I need, more than anything. The water that quenches every overcompensating bone in my body and allows me to float in grace. The living water of Jesus is for you, for me, and the one churches want to keep from the table of grace. Especially them. The greater the sinner, the more the grace. It’s absurd, isn’t it? That’s our Jesus.

That’s the living water I will preach about this Sunday.

Comments 3

  1. Like you, I’m a week behind on the Gospel Readings.
    Like you, I’m picking up on the street harassment angle.
    I just spent an hour taking apart the lesson as far as verse 29 into four columns and 8 “exchanges” in the rows. Column 1 is my supposition of her internal dialog…. alone and coming into a place where there is a man, a potential abuser, present, and wondering what she’ll have to face, grateful that she’s carrying a knife. Column 2 is Jesus’ comment, Column 3 is her reply, and column 4 my own commentary on issues like the vulnerability of women to harassment and abuse (exchange i) The second Exchange begins with her regretting having responded to him, but reminding herself that even as a little girl she had been trained to “be nice”, and how that has gotten her into trouble. It proceeds through Jesus offer of “life-giving” water to comment on the ways abusers delude themselves into thinking women really want what they have to offer.
    In the third “exchange” she regrets having challenged him about not having the tools to get the water and about his ancestry. Proceeds through Jesus’ description of the benefits of what he is offering to her basically saying, “Put up or shut up.”
    The fourth exchange begins with her internal dialogue about men “talking better than they walk” and Jesus’ demand about her getting male approval. My own commentary is that women don’t need male approval.
    The fifth exchange begins with her internally regretting having said that she is without male protection and that no male’s rights will be offended if this guy attacks her. She thinks about that knife again, and ponders taking it out of the pocket so that this guy will think twice about making a move. My “comment” is likely to be about women who are trafficked, sometimes under the guise of legal marriage contracts, which men don’t have to honor.
    In the sixth exchange, she changes the subject off of her vulnerability to talking about God. Jesus responds with a long “mansplain” about ethnic and religious superiority of HIS crowd. She lets all that go and seizes on one word, about “time” and basically says, “later” “someone else” “someone bigger than you.”
    The next exchange begins again with her internal dialog… since reference to Jacob didn’t put this guy off when talking about water, maybe Messiah (bigger than Jacob) will get her off the hook when he talks about religion. But it doesn’t work. He claims that authority. She sees a bunch of his friends arrive, fears gang rape, and runs back to her own community in town, where she’ll be safe.

    Sermon isn’t written yet. Maybe, being male, I shouldn’t even attempt it, but most of the people in my little congregation are single, more than half of those are women, and both the men and the women need to hear this.

  2. That is good water to preach, good water to share, Jes.

    It seems to me that, sometimes, God’s presence–and here, God’s presence in Jesus–is just difficult for us. Jesus was born a male human being; this was the incarnation God chose, God who so loved the world that God did not send a committee, and maleness is a limitation as well as an occasional asset, even in first-century society. So Christ, rather than using some divine morphing capability to appear as a Samaritan woman. Since he wasn’t just masquerading as a human but was and is fully human, he did something well-meaning human males often do: he stuck his foot in it. Fully human.

    And you have found the fully divine. Sounds like the Word of God being proclaimed.

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