The Lectionary reading for the third week of Lent is John 4:4-42. It is the text about the Samaritan Woman at the well and her conversation with Jesus.
I want to start by thanking my former seminary classmate, the Rev. Alison Rainey English, for posting this video on Facebook. I thought this was a breathtaking retelling of the text, so take a minute and watch it:
This video reminds me that the art of biblical story telling is one that I have much respect for. It is an art that seeks to tell a story in a new way, to reach out and shake the audience into new awareness of what is being said, much like poetry does. Perhaps this is why this particular video strikes me. (There are other similar portrayals of this text.) It makes me take notice of the woman at the well and her story that became so much of the encounter with Jesus.
I have been pondering this text in part becuase it may be used in a worship service that I am helping to plan for a conference this summer. It is indeed a rich text, perhaps one that begs for the liturgical arts be present as witnesses to it. But this text is also one that comes up time and again when we talk about crossing social boundaries to invite others to our faith and to include them in worship. Here is a woman possibly outcast in her own society, certainly a woman who has seen her share of trouble, who is also a member of outcast group talking with Jesus. Jesus who does not shy away from her but engages in dialogue with her. Gail R. O’Day makes an interesting point by naming that while this woman is often seen in some immoral light because she has had five husbands Jesus does not condemn her for this but rather allows her to become an apostle by telling her people about him (Gail R O’Day, “John” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, Westminster: Louisville, 1992, 296). The truth is we don’t know much about the history of this woman before she meets Jesus. She may have been repeatedly widowed or part of a non-Jewish marriage that was based simply on a contract that could be exited at will–but we know what she does when she meets Jesus, that she unlike many in the gospels recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and we know she acts as an apostle after meeting Jesus.
It is precisely the actions of this woman in contrast to those of the disciples that strike me as a Lenten nugget in this text. This woman is outcast as a woman, outcast as a Samaritan, outcast by having a personal history; this woman is not only welcomed by Jesus but takes it upon herself to become an apostle. This Lenten season we have thought about fault and sin, about leaving and change, and now we are faced with a text that appears to lift up a person who would not be lifted up as a religious example as one who sees and seeks the truth. The woman at the well is the other who only seeks truth and love while being denied both by society. But all that changes when she meets Jesus. For Jesus reveals the truth to her, a truth that sends her back into her community, where she might to be listened to.
Could it be that the Lenten journey is one that not only calls us to examine our own actions but to also examine our social expectations to consider who we may be missing, and the truth they have to share, when we decide who is in and who is out according to our traditions? Jesus did not exclude persons; he always found a way to bring the other in. Perhaps this third week of Lent we are called to meditate on that part of the journey. The stories we could tell, and we still have so far to go!