Meeting at the Well

Lent 3A

Wells in Hebrew culture were the local hot spots.  It was usually a young woman’s responsibility to go to the well early in the day, perhaps as the sun was just coming up, to draw water to supply the household for the day.  She would arrive at the well just as the other women from the neighboring households were arriving.  These would be women she’d encounter each day – much like the people we encounter at the coffee pot at work – same time, same place – or passing in the hallway at school as we travel the same path from our first class to our second.  I imagine these women would catch up on the local news – results of the most recent basketball match-up between rivaling teams or eyes rolling as they recount the latest political news that becomes harder and harder to believe with each passing day, and then, let’s not forget the social news.  Because, in community, we care about one another and part of caring is knowing what’s going on.  Who has been ill and needs our prayers. Who is recently out of work and might need support with networking.  Who has had a new child that might appreciate a meal or two being delivered.  So, the well was not only a wellspring of water, but a wellspring of news and community building as well.  And then, there’s the gossip. We don’t like to admit it, but it happens.  It starts out innocently enough – a question of concern about someone who is missing – but it quickly escalates into all kinds of assumptions and rumors of “well, I heard. . .” And, I hesitate to bring it up because this well is the social center for women, but, can we be honest and admit, we are all guilty of this from time to time?
But in today’s story, the well is not a busy place at all.  In fact, it opens with just “Jesus, tired out by his journey” sitting by the well in the middle of the day.[1]  And along comes a woman from the nearby Samaritan city who is coming to draw water from the well.  Let’s stop right there for a minute because that first century audience is already thinking to themselves, “what is going on here?!” Why is this woman at the well in the middle of the day and not at dawn? What has she done to cause her to be shunned by the other women in the community?  That’s how odd it would be for a woman to be at the well in the middle of the day.  It makes me wonder if some of the gossip at the well each morning is about her – and her five husbands and about the man she is living with now.  The scandal.  And that’s exactly what we are supposed to think.  Because the gospel writer takes us right there – right into the heart of the matter when Jesus says to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”[2]  And with this one sentence, Jesus opens up her woundedness and begins to share with her the invitation that is open to her and to all – Jews and Samaritans alike. An invitation to “worship the Father in spirit and truth.”[3] The woman says to Jesus, “I know that Messiah is coming.”[4]  And Jesus reveals to her that he is Messiah, the one that all Samaritans and all Jews – have been waiting for.  “I am he,” he says, “the one who is speaking to you.”[5] She is the first person to whom Jesus openly reveals himself – he has not even spoken these words to his disciples.  And in that moment, I wonder, is he opening up his woundedness to her.  And, if the disciples hadn’t come bursting in on the scene, where might the conversation have gone.
Humans spend a great deal of time focusing on what’s not working in our world and in our relationships.  We are good at describing differences.  I always chuckle when I think back on those high school writing assignments which began “compare and contrast” because all my writing assumed that the only thing worth writing about were the differences.  And the constant feedback I received – and eventually came to incorporate in my writing – was that I was also to evaluate the similarities.  The gospel story sets us all up to quickly identify the differences:  a man, a woman; a Jew, a Samaritan; a woman of ill-repute, a man who is the Son of God.  But by the end of the story, we are invited to see that we have two humans who share at least part of the Scriptures in common – both Samaritans and Jews worship the same God and have in common the first five books of the Bible.  And both are outsiders in their own communities. The Samaritan woman set apart because of her notorious life and Jesus set apart for shaking things up in the Jewish community – by the way, later in John’s gospel, the Pharisees say to Jesus, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?”[6] And Jesus’ response?  “I do not have a demon.”[7]  He never responds to the charge that he might be a Samaritan. Why? Perhaps because he has come to realize that the difference between Jew and Samaritan is of no consequence whatsoever as both worship the same God.  Perhaps because he has been changed by his encounter with the Samaritan at the well just as she most certainly has been changed by her encounter with Jesus.
For you and for me, where are our wells?  That is, where are the places where we can meet the unexpected person, perhaps a stranger or perhaps even someone we thought we knew but, in conversation, might discover we’ve never really known at all.  Those wells, I’m afraid, are becoming harder and harder to find as we spend more and more time with affinity groups.  I’ve watched groups on Facebook “gang up” on someone who expresses an opposing view until that person leaves the group.  And I wonder, if we continue to seek out and expel those who are different from us, will we ultimately find ourselves standing alone?  I’ve watched our nation divide as two sides pull apart at an imaginary middle that cannot hold up against the tension. And I wonder, if we continue to only see the other side as “other” will any of us remain standing?  After all, even in a game of tug of war, when one side falls, the other side usually falls too.
This encounter of Jesus and the Samaritan woman offers another way.  It’s the way of honest and difficult dialogue.  Many of us – myself included – may need to learn these skills again.  We haven’t used them in too long and our skills are rusty.  But, there are people in our community who can teach us, who can model for us, who can walk alongside us. In the Diocese of Chicago, training is offered that teaches participants how to have what are called “Fierce Conversations” -   “vital conversations that interrogate reality, provoke learning, resolve tough challenges and enrich relationships.”[8]  In our own congregation, Motoko Maegawa is on the National SEED staff.  Motoko is presenting / presented this morning’s Adult Forum, “Exploring Windows and Mirrors” as an introduction to the National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum.  It is just one example of how SEED Leaders facilitate dialogue which aims to strengthen equitable and diverse practices.  Others in our congregation including myself, Liz McElhatton, Andrea Nowack, and Katie Kuriyama have recently attended the Analyzing and Understanding Systemic Racism workshop run by Chicago Regional Organizing for Antiracism. Each of these programs offers a different approach to engaging complex issues with a diverse group of individuals; but they all share their commitment to bringing people together to work across difference for the common good. They all are committed to gathering at the well, to encounter and deeply engage the unexpected visitor, guest or friend.
And there is yet another well in our community. It is here in this place – at the font and at the table. A place where we gather across difference to drink of the living water and to break bread together. A place where we may yet encounter the unexpected guest or, better still might take a moment to invite that visitor, guest or friend to “come and see.”[9]

[1] John 4:6
[2] John 4:16
[3] John 4:23
[4] John 4:25
[5] John 4:26
[6] John 8:48.
[7] John 8:49a.
[8] “Fierce Conversations Workshop,” The Nicholas Center, (Chicago, IL: 2014), Flyer, accessed March 18, 2017.
[9] John 4:29