"I heard a voice from heaven saying, 'Son, let this woman be a bride to you in the restoration of my people. Let her be a mother for these people, regenerating souls through the salvation of spirit and water.'" (Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias)

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Homily: Living Water

(Image: Ivan Mestrovic, University of Notre Dame--right outside the old theology building so many happy memories of sunny reading and lunches for both me and my nurslings!)

It is a little known fact that, like us, the people of ancient Israel had singles bars. There are some slight differences in custom, of course. We might see the occasional service dog in a Portland pub, but they had a much more inclusive policy on livestock-sheep, goats, and camels were all welcome. And where one of the classic pick up lines in our culture is “Can I buy you a drink?,” in theirs it appears to have been “Can you give me a drink?” The singles bar of ancient Israel, my friends, was better known as the village well.

There is a standard pattern in the Hebrew Bible in which a man traveling far from home visits a well and converses with a local woman. One of them helps the other get some water, and the next thing you know, a marriage feast is being prepared. The story comes in many variants. Rebekah meets the family servant of her future husband, who knows she is Isaac’s destined bride when she generously draws water for his whole troop of camels. A generation later Rebekah and Isaac’s son, Jacob, is running for his life after cheating his brother Esau out of the elder son’s birthright. He sees Rachel coming to water her flock, and falls for her so hard that he is able to singlehandedly move a huge boulder blocking the entrance to the well. And Moses, who brings forth water from a desert rock in our first reading, meets his wife Zipporah while fleeing an Egyptian murder charge. He helps her and her six sisters get to the front of the water line for once, defending them from the daily harassment of a group of macho shepherds. People who suffered an arid climate for much of the year were especially sensitive to the fact that water is life itself, and they saw no better place for the beginning of a partnership of life and love than an abundant source of water. Our Journey community is blessed with a similar insight this year, as our Lenten preparation to renew our baptismal vows at the Great Vigil coincides with our preparation for L. and G.’s wedding vows on the Sixth Sunday of Easter at our evening Eucharist.

Tonight’s Gospel story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well follows this familiar folkloric pattern from the Old Testament, which would have been immediately recognizable to at least the Jewish members of the Johannine community. And just in case they—or we--might miss the point, the Gospel writer hammers home images of marriage and baptism in the preceding chapters. John the Baptist recognizes Jesus as the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit; then Jesus’ first miraculous sign is turning water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana after a spirited exchange of views with another feisty woman. Jesus invites Nicodemus to experience God’s maternal tenderness by being reborn through water and the Holy Spirit. Finally, Jesus and his disciples begin to perform baptisms--something claimed only in John and not the Synoptic Gospels. This makes some of John the Baptist’s disciples jealous on his behalf, but John chides them: “Jesus is the bridegroom—I’m just the best man.”

Keeping in mind all of these connections helps make sense of Jesus’ comment that the Samaritan woman has had five husbands, and is not married to her current partner. Some traditional interpreters see this as a stern admonition—this is a loose woman, and she had better change her ways. But recall that the woman may have been repeatedly widowed and finally shunned as bad luck for husbands, like Tamar in Genesis or Sarah in Tobit. If she was the victim of multiple divorces she would indeed be just that, in a Jewish community which allowed only men to make that decision--an injustice which helped create Jesus' passion on the subject. Either way she would be left vulnerable, like the many stigmatized women and children in our culture often exploited by Christian men while the churches keep silence, to providing survival sex--and doing so for only one man would have been a far lesser evil than the alternative.

Biblical scholar Sandra Schneiders suggests that Jesus’ repartee here is not harsh, but playful—that he views the woman, like all of us, not just as a broken person in need of healing but as “a potential spouse to be invited to intimacy.” This tender, committed intimacy is the “living water” of rebirth that Jesus offers her and all who turn to him. In the words of Paul’s letter to the Romans it is “the Holy Spirit poured into our hearts”-- the passionate love of God reaching out to the woman at the well and to every wounded, gifted human person. Through this experience of God’s acceptance in Christ the Samaritan woman begins to reframe her self-concept and find freedom from the shame and pain that had bound her. Then she, in turn, shares this good news with the villagers from whom she has been estranged, being welcomed back into the community and honored as the first evangelist to her people.

This meeting of two people marginal in their own opposed communities initially seems to have all the potential for meaningful encounter of a Democrat and a Republican watching the latest news from Iraq together. In visiting Samaria, Jesus leaves his own territory and encounters people with whom his own group has a history of severe hostility. In requesting water from a female and thus doubly unclean member of these despised folks, he does not just defy the Jewish purity codes, but puts himself at risk of a scornful refusal from someone he could reasonably expect to despise him in turn. And this is not just any Samaritan woman, but someone who seems to be at odds with the rest of her village—otherwise she wouldn’t have chosen the blistering heat of high noon as the time to walk to and from the well bearing a heavy stone water jar, but would have come with the other women in the cool of the early morning or evening.

Photini, as our Orthodox sisters and brothers name her (the enlightened one) would most likely have become highly sensitive and more than a little suspicious of an intruder in response to her painful life story. Yet she and Jesus are able to reach out, overcome all these barriers, and enter into a challenging and life-giving dialogue that is at the heart of what both marriage and baptism are all about.

To me, the most striking thing about the story is the key to the woman’s, and then her fellow villagers’, recognition of Jesus as prophet and messiah. John repeats it twice, lest we miss its significance: “Come, see someone who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” Does being told “all that you ever did” sound like an appealing prospect? It makes me squirm—there are plenty of things in my life that I don’t share with someone I’ve just met, and certainly wouldn’t appreciate being detected by some mind-reading guru. And remember that Jesus doesn’t actually tell her everything in her life—he mentions just one thing, the painful marriage history that is presumably the reason for her semi-outcast status.

Jesus’ naming of this tender spot aloud could have plunged the Samaritan woman into an abyss of shame, and the fact that she instead finds it life-giving tells us two things. The first is that she has tremendous courage, to be able to look so deeply and honestly at her own life. The second is that Jesus must have said those words with tremendous compassion and not an ounce of judgement. By acting as a reverent witness to her self-revelation, he helped her to look at herself with new eyes and heal the wounds that had left her thirsting and questioning the possibility of real joy. This is our call in life-partnership, committed friendship, all forms of family and authentic community—to free each other from shame by facing our demons, speaking our truth, and “hearing one another into speech.” If we can learn to do this, we can experience the rush of living water within. We can reclaim—at least in part--the blessing lost by Adam and Eve, of which we heard the first Sunday of Lent: to be fully revealed to God, and to one another, and to feel no shame.

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