John 4: 5-42
About a week ago, a friend of mine and former intern at this church, Jessica McCrea got her first tattoo. I know because she posted it on her Facebook. After serious reflection, she decided to have on her forearm the words “Nevertheless, she persisted.” For those who do not understand the reference, approximately 1 month ago there was a debate in the U.S. Senate about cabinet nominations. Democrats were opposing some appointments and Republicans were in favour. Some would say there is nothing special here, just politics as usual. However, at one point, Senator Elizabeth Warren’s speech was terminated against her will by the leaders of the Senate. When asked why they used an arcane rule to stop her, Senator Mitch McConnell answered: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
These few words have stricken a very sensible chord with numerous women. Many can see themselves and their personal experience in these words because they have been shushed, quieted or told they are too much, they are not enough, they are doing it wrong, they are disturbing established rules… Many still remember to be instructed early in life that little girls needed to be seen, not heard. Many has been “advised” by a group of men to smile a little more and dress differently if they want to get something achieved. And when it does not work, these men usually come back and say, “We told you, but you did not listen to us. You had to be stubborn and do it your ways. Well, too bad for you. This is what happened to those who refused to be a good little girl.” The expression ‘Nevertheless, she persisted’ has become for strong women everywhere a new mantra, a new slogan of resistance for those who are called nasty and loud for just being themselves.
We come to today’s passage from the Gospel according to John with all this cultural and societal baggage. Ha! The story of the Samaritan woman. It’s a classic for churchgoers. We believe we know it so well that that we barely pay attention to it anymore. Jesus and his disciples are on their way back to Galilee after a short trip in Judea. They have to go through Samaria and we know that Jews did not share things in common with Samaritans. It’s a hot day. In the village of Sychar, Jesus decides to rest by a well. The disciples go for food. Then, Jesus sees a woman and asks her to give him something to drink. By doing so, he crosses gender, ethnic, political and religious borders. What a great story!
Maybe… It is just that we have been told countless times that the Gospel according to John is different from the other ones. The first three Gospels focus their attention on chronology and events of Jesus’ life. The fourth Gospel is all about symbols, allegories and metaphors. Just last week, we met Nicodemus who taught he actually had to go back inside his mother to be born again. By this story, we are led to understand that we need to look beyond a literal interpretation of Scripture. However, only a chapter later, when it comes to the story of the Samaritan woman, we seem to forget all of it and we revert to read this Gospel at the first level.
It was about noon. A Samaritan woman comes to draw water at Jacob’s well and we say aha! This woman should not be there in the middle of the day because back then water was usually drawn during cooler times, like mornings and evenings. This must mean that there is something wrong with this woman. She must be an outcast from her village. She must have a shady past. She most have been shunned. Even if, like I said before, the Gospel of John is highly symbolic; it is the one in which Jesus said, I am the Light of the World; previously Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus during the night and remain in the darkness because he does not understand his message; and at noontime, where there is the most light, the Samaritan woman meets Jesus and discovers he is a prophet, it does not seem to matter. Even if there are millions of reasons to go back to a well during the day, like she ran out of water sooner than planned, she broke her water jar or she was too busy to come early in the morning, it does not seem to matter. She is not where we expect her to be. She is not behaving according to the norms of her society. There must be something wrong with this Samaritan woman.
Usually, when someone looks for a justification, our bibles could be very helpful. Verses 17 and 18: Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have right now is not your husband.” And once again we say aha! I knew it. She is a woman of little virtues. Even if King Solomon might have had 700 wives and 300 concubines, no respectable woman would have had 5 different husbands and living with another without being married. Even if the Second Book of Kings, chapter 17, tells us that after the Assyrians invasion, Samaria was colonized by people of five foreign nations, worshipping five different gods and during Jesus’ time, the Samaritans were closer to the Jews without being in essential agreement – 5 husbands and 1 not quite married with – it does not seem to matter. Even if in ancient times and still today there are plenty of reasons for someone to have multiple relationships during one’s lifetime, like her husbands died, she has been abandoned, divorced or being an unattached woman forced her to live with a man who could protect or provide for her, it does not seem to matter. She is a nasty woman without morals. She is a whore. She is a prostitute. She needs to repent and change her sinful ways and only a man called Jesus can save her.
The Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well most likely had a past… like all of us have one. We all have moments in our lives we would prefer to forget or erase. We can also assume that the Samaritan woman was not necessarily rich, powerful or highly educated as today’s women can be. She knew her status in her community. She had been told the rules of her society. She had been instructed not to talk or interact with Jews males. Nevertheless, when the opportunity for an open conversation about the hot-button topics that divide Jews and Samaritans from one another shows itself, she persisted. She disregards expectations and cultural norms in order to embark with Jesus on a journey of discovery.
When the disciples come back with something to eat, they cannot believe what they are seeing. They are dumbfounded that Jesus would speak to a Samaritan woman. While they are still scratching their heads about their master’s behaviour, the disciples do not notice she already had left everything behind and she is sharing of the new life she has just found. Nothing predisposed the Samaritan woman to speak about faith or proclaim the good news. There were many reasons the leaders of her village could have invoked to ridicule or silence her. Nevertheless, she persisted and the Samaritan woman became the first missionary in the Gospels.
We often believe that one characteristic or story can define an individual. Sometimes we think that life would be simpler if everyone could be identified, organized or put in a few predetermined boxes. We like to assume that all the ENTP of this world thinks this way and the ISTJ behave that way. That is where stereotypes come from and we all know from experience their limits.
Jesus seems to understand that the Samaritan woman is someone more than what people believed or expected. For this reason, he sees her. She exists for him. She has worth, value and significance, a treatment different from which the Samaritan woman is accustomed.
Today, as we are reading this famous passage, we are challenged to ask ourselves about who we do not see. Who are we defining by one single visible characteristic? Who are interrupted, shushed or silenced by our society or in our churches? Sadly enough, the list could be very long: those who are racialized, disabled or homeless. What about linguistic minorities, recovering addicts or women who simply want to take their rightful place in a men’s world? Our call is not to develop politically correct policies or wondering if we have the time or means to include more people in our structures. Our call is to reach out to people beyond stereotypes and clichés. Our call is to connect and build bridges with individuals who are not necessarily meeting our expectations or corresponding to our desires. Our call is to help every human being, not to become what we want them to be, but to achieve the full potential God gave them.
The Samaritan woman we meet in the Gospel according to John is the spiritual matriarch of all the nasty, loud, persistent and fearless women from across the centuries. In a world that would like nothing better than silencing her, she stands her ground. She crosses boundaries. She defies assumptions. And by doing so, today she gives hope to all the nameless people of this world because nevertheless, she persisted. Amen.