Seeing Others with the Compassion of Christ, New Thoughts on the Woman at the Well

March 19, 2017

Bible Text: John 4:5-42 |

So Jesus and his disciples have been out walking all day. It’s around noon. “Why don’t you boys go get some lunch,” he says. “I’ll meet you on up ahead at the well.” It kind of sounds like he’s trying to ditch them – like he’s got something to do or someone to meet and he doesn’t want them around cramping his style. So off they go. And off he goes to the well and – sure enough – a woman shows up and he starts talking to her.

Now, you’ve got to understand, that Jesus is breaking all sorts of rules here. First, he shouldn’t be traveling through Samaria at all. Good Jews hated the Samaritans – thought they were some kind of degenerate half breeds and wouldn’t have anything to do with them. Second, he shouldn’t have been talking to an unaccompanied woman by himself at all. And third, he certainly shouldn’t have been talking to this woman: she had a sexual history a mile long and for it she was a total outcast, even among her own people, including the other women.

And Jesus knows all this and basically says, “Yeah – I don’t care,” and launches into conversation with her. What’s he want to talk about with her? Theology! Deep spiritual truths, just like he does with everyone. And how does she respond? Well – just like she always does. She starts flirting with him.

It reminds me of a friend of mine who tells the story of how she met her husband:

I got to church late and it was really crowded, so I had to sit in the front row. And I was wearing this cute little skirt that flared out. And this handsome man I’d never seen before came and sat next to me. And so I leaned over to him real close and said, “If you’re going to sit on my skirt, I can at least know your name.” Turns out he was the guest preacher.

I think that’s the way this woman was talking to Jesus. Let’s be honest, she knows her way around men, and when the two of them show up at the well with no one else around, and he starts talking to her – mm hm – she gets a twinkle in her eye and starts messing with him:

Oh, sir, (and she bats her eyes mockingly), give me that water, that I may never have to come back here to carry that heavy old water jar in the heat of the day.

Jesus is no fool. He knows what going on here.

All right. You want to be cute? You want to get all flirty with me. How ‘bout this, why don’t you go get your husband and we can all have a little chat together.

She’s probably a little caught off guard, but quickly pulls herself together,

Um, I don’t have a husband.

Yeah – no kidding, he tells her. You’ve had five husbands and you’re not even married to the guy you’re living with now.

And at this point the entire conversation changes. The little flirtatious game is over and – in an instant – she’s able to see what’s happening.

He knew all along who she was, and he didn’t care. He wanted to talk to her about real things – things that mattered. When, do you suppose, was that last time that had happened? Probably never. The only person who’d talk to her was the guy she was living with and something tells me he wasn’t in the relationship for theological conversations.

And then, here’s the other amazing thing, she didn’t get hung up on her shame. She didn’t get embarrassed. She had an honest-to-God prophet on her hands who clearly knew stuff about God (he certainly knew all about her!) and she wasn’t going to let this moment slip by. What’d she do? She started talking theology with him and off they go. By the end of the conversation he’d revealed to her that he was the Messiah. For five hundred years the Jews and Samaritans had waited for this moment, and who did he choose to tell? This woman.

You know, I’ve always seen in this story how remarkable it was that Jesus chose her of all people to share such significant news. And I’m used to being impressed by Jesus for being so honoring of someone at the very bottom of the social scale. But I don’t think I’ve ever recognized just how impressive she is: her strength, her courage, her ability to seize the moment when it was before her and to run with it.

Yes, Jesus did have extraordinary compassion. But the nature of his compassion wasn’t just that he was generous or charitable to this poor little waif of a soiled woman. I believe the heart of Jesus’ compassion was that he saw her for who she truly was. Beyond the flirtation, beyond the shame of her sexual past, beyond being a half-cast Samarian, there was an intelligent, capable woman that he wanted to talk with. And he did. And through that interaction, everything in her world turned on its head. She went back to her village a changed woman and the village perceived it. They listened to her. They believed what she had to say and they respected her. This is the kind of dignity that comes from being respected and being taken seriously.

And if we are followers of Christ, of this Christ, then it is this kind of compassion to which we are called: a compassion that sees beyond the crusty exterior of our neighbors, and into the true self that lies within.

The great struggle for us is that – although we want everyone to see and to honor and understand us – we are so stubborn and unwilling to offer such a charity of spirit to our neighbor. We’re so convinced of our quickly formed opinions, so dismissive in our judgments. But surely there’s a hypocrisy afoot if, bearing the name of Christ we can conclude that our neighbor – any neighbor – is anything short of the image of God, the beloved of God, the glory of God.

We believe in the crusty exterior and we respond to that, which only serves to encrust them all the more.

During Lent, in the adult Sunday School class that meets downstairs at nine, we’ve been doing guided meditations in loving kindness. In essence, it’s a spiritual practice to join Christ in loving expansively. It starts easily enough, loving those closest to our hearts. But we’re asked, in spirit, to begin expanding outwards until the point where we can envision our enemy and include even them in our love. Last week I found it easy enough to love my enemies in general, by principle. But then I thought of ISIS, and I could see them killing children, beheading Christians. I could picture them shouting and jeering and celebrating their cruelty with the sickening conviction that Allah was pleased with them. And then loving them became very difficult – even ludicrous. But then my picture began to change. I saw the same men, but no longer in what they were saying or doing. I saw them at night, asleep. And like a parent hovering over the cradle, I watched them. I found I was able to love those sleeping men, breathing in and breathing out, relieved for the night of their weapons and demented beliefs. They are still the image bearers of God. I abhor their behavior, but I must love them. If ever my religion gives me permission to hate my neighbor, then something has gone terribly wrong.

There is a coarseness and a nastiness in our world. Each generation wants its turn to curse our own Samaritan and damn the sinner amongst us, to feel righteous in whom we exclude and discard.

But Christ says, “no.” He calls us to join him in the barren places – the places that are parched and cracked and brittle – and to pour into it the living water that will revive their souls.

I’m told – right now – in the California deserts, there are flowers blooming whose seeds have laid dried and buried for as long as a hundred years. If you were to have visited those deserts during their long drought you simply would not believe that such lush vegetation could be possible there. But it rained this winter. It rained and rained and rained. And then the sun came out. And between the water and the warmth, this miracle of flowers burst forth expansively.

And so it is one another. There are dried and crusty people in our lives who have suffered drought for years. We’ve pitied them, at best, or merely tolerated them. But when they’re beyond our hearing, we complain about them and criticize them. And the spirit of our words is like a dry desert wind that can blow a very great distance, indeed.

But the seeds of God which were planted in us from the beginning remain dormant beneath the surface, waiting – waiting for a winter with many rains, and a spring of much warmth. And remember, it is not our job to make the seeds grow. The miracle of life which abides within a tiny, forgotten seed – well – that remains God’s domain.

It is our job, though, to bring the water. And dear people of God, there is water enough for the deserts to bloom again. But first we must believe that there are seeds within the soil still: buried, waiting, and unseen.

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