March 12, 2023—John 4:5-42
A few years ago, two employees named Nicole Hallberg and Martin Schneider worked at a company that fixes up resumes . Nicole and Martin decided to conduct an experiment. On their emails to clients, they would switch names. Nicole would become Martin and Martin, Nicole.
The real Martin soon found himself having email conversations that he found curious. They were unexpectedly snippy in their tone. Or over-explained simple issues. Occasionally, someone called him “hon.” Finally, to test what was happening, Martin pretended he was handing things back to “Martin,” and – as you probably guessed, the tone became immediately friendly.
On Nicole’s side, posing as Martin, she was having a great time. Her questions were all being answered. She wasn’t being second-guessed. Nobody was calling her sweetie.
This past week, as we celebrated International Women’s Day, that little experiment came back to me. It’s an example of how a name can change people’s perceptions. And how stereotypes and assumptions change not only the value we give people, as well as the learned wisdom we attribute to them, but even the subtle ways we talk to them. And so we have to ponder what has changed – and what hasn’t– when we consider our gospel story today.
Jesus meets a Samaritan woman coming to collect water at the town well. Let’s consider this woman for a moment: based on her exchange with Jesus, scholars have traditionally described this woman as a prostitute, pointing to Jesus’s shocking revelation that she was living with a man who was not even her husband! And here she was getting her water at noon, when everyone knew that “proper women” had already fetched their water in the morning and were partly done with their washing by then. So here she is – a lazy Samaritan woman with too many husbands, and of questionable morals. The narrative was right there in front of Jesus. The judgement is ready to fall.
So what does Jesus do? It is remarkable, really. He asks her for a drink, which is a big deal, as we know from her reaction: “Why would you, a Jew, ask to share a drink from a Samaritan like me?” The theological exchange that follows is one of the longest in the gospel. I guess John was either so shocked by the event that he had to get it all down, or perhaps he felt it might serve the followers of Jesus later. What Jesus basically says to the woman is: What’s a cup of water, when I have so much more to offer? You should be asking me for a drink from the living water of God. Now think on this: if it was shocking for Jesus to ask for a drink from this woman, how much more shocking must it have been for him to be offering her a drink back? And yet he does, and she accepts it.
They next have an interesting exchange about her marital history, as if Jesus is testing her. When asked to fetch the man in question, she admits that she has no husband, and Jesus confirms her history. But where is the judgement in his tone? Let’s set aside the fact that a growing number of scholars are questioning our interpretation of this woman’s past – she may have been divorced, she may have been widowed multiple times; we don’t know. The reality is: Jesus doesn’t care. The very way he raises it and then moves on to a welcoming discussion about grace and faith suggests he was actually clarifying to the woman how much he didn’t care about the stories being told, or the past that was nipping at her heels, or the stereotypes people were so keen to attach to her. He was saying: I knowwho you are. None of that matters. Because you matter.
It is really an extraordinary exchange in the Bible. Because what we have is Jesus breaking the rules of society without a thought, having an in-depthconversation with someone who would have been seen as outside the circle. And then, this Samaritan woman doesn’t just drift from the picture – she becomes someone who spreads the gospel to others. Jesus includes her, honours her, and empowers her. He crumbles up the stereotype in front of everyone watching and tosses it down the well.
What’s truly remarkable is how much this story challenges the biases that lead to discrimination and intolerance today. We often keep these biases quiet, or maybe they slip in unconsciously. We assume that poor people are lazy, or perhaps didn’t work hard enough. We assume that people who aren’t white must be from “somewhere else,” or don’t speak English well. We assume that old people are slow and young people are selfish. An outspoken woman is bossy; a kind man is weak. Even when we say we don’t think that way, these biases often shape the way we see people, how we speak to them, what we assume they need, or are capable of. And yet again and again, the gospel challenges the idea that people can ever be reduced to stereotypes. How many examples do we need to hear ofthe welcoming back of the prodigal son, Jesus urging aid for the GoodSamaritan, and, even this morning, conversing freely and with respect to the woman at well? Jesus sets repeated examples of throwing out stereotypes, of rejecting narratives that stomped people down, and casting wide the door to those who would be invited inside. If we must be careful about how false narratives slip into our own thinking, let us also be mindful when false narratives of our faith are just allowed to drift out there, to be picked up and used to wrongful ends.
This morning’s gospel is a feminist gospel. Jesus and the woman have adiscussion much the same as he would with the disciples. He refuses to accept – or even consider – the sexist gossip that the villagers are spreading. It is not whatmatters to Jesus; what counts for Jesus is our coming together in relationship, one of mutual respect and kindness.
It is such an easy trap for us humans to follow the stories that our experience, our prejudices, and our culture want to say to people that we don’t know. What results are sexism and homophobia, racism and Islamophobia. And each time we miss an opportunity, we miss the potential of a larger community, we miss a life-changing moment at the well of the living water. We miss a chance ourselves to experience more from the people around us.
Don’t fall into this trap. Remember this story in the gospel. And yes, indeed, ask yourself, each and every day: What would Jesus say? What would Jesus do? We know the answer. Amen.