The Woman at the Well  

(The story of a nobody)    

Bible Ref: John 4: 5-42

A sermon by Revd Chris Williams

23 March 2014

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish — you know!

How dreary to be somebody!
How public like a frog
To tell one’s name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Emily Dickinson

At first glance this may not seem to us particularly shocking story to us – but it would have been outrageous to those present at the time.  First, this was a Samaritan woman with whom Jesus engaged.

So who were the Samaritans? Well, we know what the Jews thought they were. In Luke 9 two disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” – ‘them’ being a Samaritan village. There was clearly no love lost between these two groups. And you can see how thoughts and words against another group can quickly lead to actions and even violence.

The Samaritans were a Jewish group descended from Abraham and Moses – but who separated around the time of the exile 500 years before Jesus – which means they had been around longer then, that the CofE has now.  When we think of Samaritans we often think of the Good Samaritan but often forget that the power of that parable lies in the fact that the Samaritans were despised enemies of the Jews and yet it was a Samaritan, rather than a Jew who showed love and mercy.

Second, this was a Samaritan woman. At this time in history women were most definitely second class citizens. Like many parts of the world even today – men were not allowed to be alone with a woman – and particularly holy men and teachers – as Jesus was. And if it was unavoidable, then they certainly didn’t engage them in conversation – as Jesus did!

And third, this passage implies this may not have been a reputable woman – a reputable woman would have collected water in the cool of the day – not at noon – the hottest time of day. Maybe she had tried to collect water with the others but found herself verbally or physically abused – maybe she had her pots broken and her water tipped out – maybe it was just easier to come at noon – alone.

This woman was an outcast and a nobody– and we soon find out that she has had five husbands and she is not even married to the man she is with now. Even in Liss today I can imagine the tut tutting! – imagine the scandal 2000 years ago. We can only imagine the emotional and psychological turmoil that this woman was in, and the way she would have been treated by her community.

So by any objective standard this woman was a nobody to this Jewish man at the well and, seemingly, an outsider to her own community. So, by engaging with this person at this time and this place, Jesus confronts all the culturally accepted boundaries of religion, ethnicity and gender.

Now of course, we would never treat other people today in the way the Jews treated the Samaritans, would we?  – Except, all too often, we do.

Constantly our media, our culture, our politicians – even the church – create a thousand different ways in which we can view and treat others as nobodies.

A few examples to which I’m sure you could add many more:

You may remember the furore just before New Year when some political parties tried to vilify Romanians and Bulgarians as if they were about to invade us and destroy our way of life. People ‘on benefits’ have been set up against ‘those who work hard’ as if all those on benefits have chosen to be there (interestingly only 2.57% of our benefits bill goes on the unemployed, 60% to elderly, sick and disabled, 20% to working families). The church has, and does still, crusade against homosexuals – and often in the most damaging and unloving ways. In my conversations with people in this village and even in this church I can tell you that racism and sexism is alive and well in Liss. All these attitudes (and many more) have the effect of subtly undermining people – turning them from somebodies into nobodies. The danger being that these attitudes of our hearts – can easily become attitudes expressed through words and actions. Carried along by the ‘human propensity to screw things up’.

And when the disciples suggested bringing down fire to destroy the Samaritans – Jesus rebuked them – but he went much further.  Jesus challenged these attitudes by his own actions. Why?  Because he saw all people– not as labels or groups to be objectified or vilified, but as people to be loved. Because he saw no nobodies – only somebodies.

The passage preceding this is the passage we read last week – of Nicodemus coming to Jesus. This man who, on the face of it was a somebody: he had a name for a start, he was a man, a Jew, an upright religious person, who comes to Jesus by night and …is surprisingly given relatively short shrift by Jesus.

The person at the well was nameless, a woman, a Samaritan, seemingly not an upright member of her community and the encounter was at noon. Clearly John has put these two passages in close proximity to make a statement – and to show where Jesus’ concerns really lay. The last line of that Nicodemus passage says: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. And the encounter with the Samaritan woman does nothing if it doesn’t demonstrate God’s love for the world in the most down-to-earth and tangible way.

He shares water with her (both physical and spiritual), he listens to her, they talk about God and they talk about her life. He treats her with love and respect, He gives her time and attention – with no ulterior motive – and I wonder when she last received that? In fact I think it significant that this is the longest recorded conversation Jesus has with any individual in the gospels. And when she ran back to her village she shouted ‘Come and meet a man who told me everything I’ve ever done’ and surely the implied ending of that sentence is ‘…and still loves me!’

Jesus mentioned her marital situation – but never once condemned her for it (if, indeed there was anything to condemn her for). He probably recognised that women in those days were effectively the property of men and to have 5 husbands would not necessarily have been her choice – but the decision of men. And we don’t really know what the 6th man was.

Who are those people groups, of individuals which you find yourself naturally reacting against? And I suspect most of us – myself included, could provide a long list if we’re honest – which may include some of the above – or possibly a few more beside. I think it’s important for us to acknowledge our prejudices and attitudes – many of which may be very deep-seated and ingrained and repent, acknowledge them as the sin that they are.

Jesus didn’t love from a distance did he? He got up-close-and-personal! He engaged with the woman. He took her seriously. He listened to her. He didn’t condemn her and in the end he dramatically went back into her community and stayed there for two days. Jesus didn’t just engage and walk away –he entered right into the lives of these people so despised by other Jews – and loved them, as it were, from the inside, out!

How many Romanians have we befriended? How many people on benefits have you sat down and listened to, how many homosexuals have you invited to dinner, how many happy-clappy Christians have you asked to share their views (and I mention that because a number of folk here seem particularly perturbed by ‘happy-clappies’ as if it’s a disease!), how many younger people/older people have you chatted to over coffee after church (I think we could do better in this church at crossing the age barriers) , how many times have you tried to understand the enormous pressures of a single parent. And how often have you supported charities that work to make nobodies somebodies – or written to your MP to challenge prejudice?

I’m glad Jesus didn’t look down his nose at me and leave me to my just desserts. No, like that Samaritan woman, he came to me, loved me and gave me cool refreshing life-giving water. What right have I to do anything less to all those I meet and read about each day. The first line of our parish vision statement says ‘we will make God’s love known in our community’. Let’s do it.

And why do we follow Jesus? Why is he an example for us? Because we are the nobodies that he has come to. We are the ones he has crossed every boundary of decency and respect and justice to listen to – to drink with – to spend time with – despite knowing all about us – and our human propensity to screw things up. Surely it is a natural response for us to cry out to those who haven’t yet met him: ‘Come and meet a man who knows everything about me – and still loves me’.