How would you feel or react if a woman, who had been married and divorced five times and now unmarried, co-habiting with a man, came to church today? How if she was from Africa, is in a polygamous marriage to her husband, and HIV+? That is, she is one of four wives? Would we be polite yet feel uncomfortable? Would we even talk to her?
The gospel this morning that Jesus was traveling from Judea to Galilee and journeyed through Samaria, stopping at the town of Sychar, at Jacob’s well. It is noon, and it is hot. Just then a Samaritan woman came to draw water at this time. In the earlier poem by Diarmuid O’Murchu names the Samaritan woman Photini (Christianity’s Dangerous Memories). O’Murchu refuses to keep the women in the gospels unnamed, for he has a habit of naming the unnamed women in the gospel to make them real people to us.
Jesus asked her for a cup of water. The fact that the Samaritan woman was drawing water herself indicated that she had no servants and was poor. She is shocked and baffled, “How is it, you a Jew, ask a drink of me, a Samaritan woman?” Jesus is not observing conventional Jewish purity laws and ethnic hostility with Samaritans. A Jewish rabbi alone with a woman was taboo; it was socially immoral. Jesus asks for a drink of water. This baffles the woman since Jesus as a Jew should not be speaking to her a Samaritan woman. Why was he willing to share a cup of water? For Jews, that would be unclean.
Jews weren’t fond of Samaritans. They were called half Jews, and they were hated. The rabbis taught, “The Samaritan daughters are menstruant for their husbands.” This means that Samaritan women were always in a state of menstruating, a state of impurity. Thus, their husbands were also impure. Jews were not to share cups or plates together with Samaritans. A group hates another group by applying stigmas to create the group as hateful. So Samaritans were considered half Jews, different, dangerously unclean, strange, lazy, and immoral.
When we listen in on the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, we realize that the Samaritan woman is not only an outcast for Jews, she is an outcast in her own village, her own people. It is not normal for her to draw water at noon, the heat of the day. Usually water was drawn in early morning or at dusk. The Samaritan woman is avoiding the stares of other women from her village and shaming that she suffers with her own people: married five times, and now living with a man in unmarried relationship. She is doubly stigmatized or an outcast—to the Jews and her own Samaritan people.
Jesus encountered Samaritans a number of times: In his parable of the Good Samaritan, healing the ten lepers, one was a Samaritan and who came back to thank him, and now this Samaritan woman. Imagine what fellow Jews would say about Jesus: His critics would call him “Samaritan-lover.” That’s is like white supremacist or nationalist saying: “N-word-lover,” “Mexican-lover,” “Immigrant-lover,” “Queer-lover,” and “Muslim-lover.” As long as humanity has existed, we hated people different from other and made them other, including those who included them.
So the Samaritan woman was considered perpetually unclean with Jewish stereotypes that Samaritan women are always menstruating. There were so many barriers of ethnic and gender barriers between Jesus and the unnamed, unmarried Samaritan woman. In the story, we see when Jesus’ disciples return, they were astonished as the two were engaged in conversation. They were accustomed to Jesus tearing down walls with outcasts. But now a Samaritan woman? What is our teacher doing now?
Now the two are engaged in one of the most profound theological conversations. I remind you despite all the social, gendered and ethnic barriers. If you step back and listen carefully, I ask myself who is leading the conversation? I suggest that the Samaritan woman is leading the conversation through her questioning. She is a genuine theologian or conversation partner in one of the most profound spiritual/theological conversations in John’s Gospel.
When Jesus speaks about living water, the woman inquires where he is going to get such water. He doesn’t even have a bucket. He tells, “Everyone who drinks of this water be thirsty again. The water that I will give them will never be thirst again. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” She asks for this living water that will quench all thirst.
Living water is Jesus’ revelation of something spiritual for those who can recognize God’s gift. Jesus is making the point that water is to life just as living water is to eternal life. Living water is the Spirit God confers upon us. We all at the center of our being thirst for God, and only God may quench our thirst.
Jesus finally reveals to her that he is not talking about water to drink. He tells her to go call her husband. She answers, “I have no husband.” And Jesus comments, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.’” He states the fact and does not shame or guilt her. He does not judge her nor call her a sinner but accepts her as beloved child of God.
And when she realizes this, she asks him about the most divisive pressing theological question that plagued the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. She asks him where God should be worshipped, “Our ancestors worshipped God on this mountain, but you Jews say God is to be worshipped in Jerusalem.” He notes where God is worshipped doesn’t matter because the day is already here, when worship is freed from any particular place and reoriented it toward spirit and truth.
This a modern question, radically inclusive in a time of religious boundaries: Where is God to be worshipped? In Judaism or in other religions? In nature or in a church? I found answer to that question when as young man in India when I saw how much devotion and faith that Hindus, Buddhists, Jain, Sikhs, and Muslims had. They would put many Christians in the US too shame in the amount of daily devotions.
In nature or church? Some churches have answered that question in realizing church in the outdoors. One example is the Episcopalian Church of the Woods in New Hampshire The church purchased 150 acres of forest and wetlands for Sunday worship. There is no church building. In the winter months, the community puts up a tent. Otherwise, Sunday service is outside. An interesting inclusion of Spirit and truth!
Let me reflect further on this inclusion. What is Jesus speaking about?
Where is the Spirit? In fact, neither Christianity nor the church own the Spirit. The Spirit is greater than the church; like a wind, She blows where She blows. She is institutionally free to challenge us.
Jesus calls God’s Spirit living water who quenches our thirst, not merely Christian thirst. The Spirit is the Spirit of truth that She is involved with the Earth and all interrelated life. Traditionally, God’s Spirit hovered over creation at the beginning—the big bang 15 billion years ago. The Spirit is present to the Earth and all that exists as the Sustainer of life, who co-inhabits the whole of creation, empowers and renews all things in creation. The Spirit is the life force, the divine energy that permeates and enlivens everything in creation. It is in us, each plant and each animal, the divine energy impregnating and sustaining all life. Our spirit connects to God’s Spirit present on Earth. The Spirit in us seeks out the Spirit, mutually engaging and enrichening life—luring into God’s divine love.
Here Jesus makes a revolutionary, inclusive claim: God cannot be contained in any enclosed space, for God as Spirit is spacious and everywhere in nature. Nature is a place of divine presence; it is sacramental if we are attentive and discern the Spirit’s presence.
The Earth-loving Jesus instructs the Samaritan woman that God’s Spirit is wider than the Samaritan religion or Judaism. The Spirit is wider than all the world religions, and yet it is flows in all religions where compassion and love are found. In 2002, I taught in Thailand for a semester, and I would tour Buddhist Wats or Temples on my days off. On one of those visits, I met the Buddhist Abbot, who spoke English. We chatted. I shared that I was a Christian clergy as well as a teacher of Buddhism He responded: “At the level of love, there is no difference between Christianity and Buddhism. There we share profoundly—the dynamic loving energy in the world.” At the time, I thought the Abbot had shared a wonder example of common ground between us, God’s Spirit, dynamic compassion that exists in the universe and whose love befriends us and call us to compassionate action.
I think that this Spirit of Truth, no longer is located in a single Temple or a sacred mountain but everywhere. Jesus’ words made sense to me several weeks ago, indigenous writer Casey Douma raised an important issue, “The concern and dismay (over the fire of Notre Dame) is being felt by many around the world…Now imagine that the damage to this historic and religious site was caused by a pipeline running through it, by fracking, or due to development.” She persuasively argues how the damaged sacred space of the Cathedral of Notre Dame is treasured more than Lakota sacred sites that are violated. Natural places are sacred spaces according to Jesus in his dialogue with the Samaritan woman; they remain unenclosed. The Lakota Nation understands the land as their cathedral.
At the end of the gospel, the Samaritan leaves her jar at the well and returns to town. Jesus, by his inclusive acceptance and love for the Samaritan woman, She now has become a would-be theologian and evangelist to share the good news. She says to fellow Samaritans, “Come and see who has told me everything that I have done! Could this possibly be the Messiah?” So the town’s people came out to meet Jesus. The Samaritan woman hears the word. The result is the scripture says, “Now many Samaritans from that town believed in him on strength of the woman’s word. “He told me everything that I have done!” The town’s people begged Jesus to stay with them, confessing him to be the Savior of the world.
Inclusion is radically dangerous to closed minds. Jesus’ message and behavior in gospel is radically dangerous, and the Holy Spirit, she is fiercely troublesome and threatening to closed minds. She is wider and outside of all narrowly barriers that we use to exclude whether people or God’s presence. God’s Spirit invite us to an unimagine inclusiveness as a remarkable grace and gift. Like the Samaritan woman, become an evangelist of dangerous inclusive love.