Next Sunday I am preaching on the woman at the well, a story very familiar to some people but quite extraordinary in the breath-taking way in which Jesus flaunts every social convention of his day to reach out to a lonely and marginalised woman.
However it is a story which – it seems to me – has been misinterpreted. The woman has always been presented as promiscuous, because she has had five husbands and is cohabiting. But this assumes a control over her life that women at that time simply did not possess. Whilst in those days men could leave their wives for the most trivial of reasons, women could not leave their husbands and were entirely reliant on them financially. To have had five husbands opens the possibility of this woman – unlikely to have been young – being divorced or widowed or abandoned more than once. Did she have children, and if not was this part of her distress or – even worse – why she had been left? Was she living with a man, for survival, who would not marry her? What inner scars she must surely have carried. Who knows why she finds herself so isolated – coming to the well outside her village (which would have had a water supply) and without the safety of other women. People can be very cruel, and many of us carry so much shame that we detach ourselves.
What we do know is that Jesus chose to make himself vulnerable by asking her for a drink, and then gently engaged her in conversation, not accepting her diverting into a theological back alley but quietly persisting to get to the heart of her spiritual searching. I think the conversation must have been longer, but Jesus (who must have told John what was said) honoured her secrets and gave enough to intrigue and challenge us but to keep her identity and history between them.
He still does that for us.
The woman at the well John 4
I still remember the heat that day: Sucking air from my lungs and vitality from my body; The ground as parched as my throat and arid as my womb - and life. I watched my feet, despondent, Not looking around lest I encounter hostile stares In the unlikely event of a fellow traveller. My friendless journey somehow a metaphor For my increasingly isolated life.
And then I saw him; Indistinct at first, framed by the sun And I almost turned and ran. But then he asked me for a drink And, against all those man-made rules We began to talk.
He was unlike all the other men - Declaring love until it called for sacrifice Then quick to abandon me Uncaring of my gathering, unseen, scars. Instead, he sensed my soul-thirst; Looked at my eyes and not my body: And so, hesitatingly at first, I gifted him my secrets And found them not only safely held But honoured. And, looking back, I realised That, even as I extended him the cup, He was offering me new life