There are usual suspects that possibly come first to our minds when reading this pericope in John 4 from the readings set for this week. Over the years, I’ve heard them all: the woman with five husbands, Jesus and the Samaritan, the adulterer turned evangelist and so on. None of these are bad but, frankly, they’re unoriginal, and over the years I have wondered if woman dread the references. It is difficult as a man but over recent years the growing societal non-acceptance of the treatment of woman within our society has caused me to think and I have begun to wonder how these portrayals were used in keeping woman from taking the role God calls them to in our communities and culture. But what if instead of looking at this passage as an indictment of this woman’s sexual lifestyle, we focus on the things not said.
I read about a great theologian, sister, who was mentor to many woman, Dr. Loida Martell-Otero, who said to someone once, “You have to learn to read scripture against the grain and discover the things that are not on the surface but below it.” In her former life, she was a veterinarian who dealt with large animals in Puerto Rico. She reminded those taught by her that when examining animals, veterinarians always run their hands against the grain of the animal’s skin and coat, slowly and methodically to see if they discover bumps and bruises that can’t be seen on the surface. What if we did the same here?!
If the woman’s reputation is so bad, that she has to come out to get water at a certain time of day, then how is it that instead of turning away from the conversation with Jesus, a man who is not a Samaritan, she instead engages with him in deep theological conversation as though she had every right to be there, defending her well and defending her way of worship? She never backs down from Jesus’s conversation and instead allows him to enter into her space so that he can discover things about her own life.
Another thing that I have pondered along with many is whether she indeed had such a bad standing with the community. How is it that upon her encounter with Jesus, she runs and tells the entire village and they follow her to come and see this man who has told her everything about herself? Sometimes we read a lot of our own biases into scriptural texts; there really is nothing in there that can confirm that she was an immoral woman, and it’s really not hard to do, given how we have been shaped to believe about women in general, especially in scripture. The harder task is to go against the grain and see her not through our eyes, but perhaps through Jesus’s. Do you know how incredible it feels when someone sees who you really are and recognises the value that you bring to this world? So, I wonder how that would be for woman. I think it would be as refreshing as a drink of living water.
In the current debate on violence against woman and our failure to protect and support woman in such situations it is certainly something to ponder. I have been concerned that continually parts of the church try to use scripture, sometimes subtly to hold power over woman. This path that leads to abuse and violence thus negates the way Jesus has shown and called us to in dealing lovingly and compassionately with each other, especially I our diversity.
Just like Jesus, Moses finds himself in need of provision for the people who are in the middle of the wilderness called Sin (how’s that for a theme?). Water as an overall theme is an important spiritual symbol. Water is creative, and water is restorative. Water is destructive and can demolish, as we have seen in floods here in Australia and other places around the world. A lack of water to feed and nourish has also been part of our lives over this summer in Australia.
Water can also be a symbol of justice and righteousness, and the renewing peace of God that restores the strength of all people who are thirsty and seeking a way out of their own wilderness experience. If we are talking about the life-giving water that God can provide, we can be sure that with it comes change. Clearly the people who are arguing and fussing with Moses aren’t ready for the change, even though they had found themselves in the midst of slavery and oppression, but Moses hasn’t given up on them and neither has God.
I wonder if that’s why it is that they call it life-giving water. Is it because grace never runs dry? During this season of Lent, the challenge will be whether or not we allow this life-giving stream to transform and create in us a new heart and a new life. I would also like the leaders of the world including Australia to take note and take drastic measures to deal with climate change. Without water there is no nourishment and there is fire and death. A poignant reminder of the stewardship of creation we are called to by our loving God.