When I was still part of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, I went to Taiwan for 2 ½ years as a volunteer missionary. When I interviewed in St. Louis for this opportunity, I was still somewhat leery of what it meant to be a missionary. In school I had learned about the damage that missionaries over the years had caused to indigenous cultures, telling the people that in order for them to believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they had to give up their culture and become European. Furthermore, I had learned about those people in history who had forced others to be baptized at the point of a sword. I really had no idea how present-day missionaries worked at that point in my life, other than the stories I had heard from my grandparents about their time in China. And so, during my interview with the person who put me in the Taiwan program, I said to him, “I’m not going to force anyone to become Christian.” And he simply smiled at me and said, “And we don’t want you to.” As I would find out in my time in Taiwan, present-day missionaries no longer work like that. Furthermore, I also learned during this time that the Taiwanese people had as much to teach me—and perhaps had more—as I had thought to teach them.
Today’s story of Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at the well is a good way for us to “do mission”—that is, to tell others about Jesus whether they be here in Powell, across Montana and Wyoming, or to the ends of the earth. Here are the things that Jesus did in his encounter with this woman: First, he broke the taboos of his society to speak to her and to ask for the woman’s help rather than just assuming he could help her. Then, in the discussion with her, he accepted her for who she was and raised the conversation above disputes over religion. Finally, he stretched her vision to look beyond her own expectations, so that she could believe that Jesus was indeed the Savior of the whole world. Let’s now take a look at what Jesus did in more detail, and see how we can incorporate this into our witness to others today.
The first thing that Jesus did in his encounter with the Samaritan woman is to actually speak to her and to ask her for a drink. We simply don’t get today exactly how radical this was. First of all, there was the male-female thing. Kenneth Bailey, a present-day scholar who spent forty years living and teaching in the Middle East, writes that he “never crossed this social boundary line. In village society, a strange man does not even make eye contact with a woman in a public place.” So for Jesus to ask a woman for a drink was one thing, but then to ask it of a Samaritan woman was even more radical. When John writes in his story that “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” he is clearly understating the hatred that existed between these two groups. The closest equivalent that I can come up with in this country would probably be the days of racial tensions surrounding the civil rights struggle in the 1960s. But Jesus asks the woman for a drink of water like it’s an everyday request, nothing to take note of. And this simple request gets the woman’s attention, so that Jesus can start a conversation with her.
So, what can we take from this simple act of Jesus as we encounter people who have not heard of him or don’t believe in him? The first thing is to step outside of what is familiar to us, just as Jesus stepped outside of Jewish territory to enter Samaria. As a present-day example, I am planning, this summer, to join a group from my internship site who is traveling to Rocky Boy Indian Reservation in Montana for a servant project. This is something I’ve never done before—even the year that I lived in Alaska, I did not have much, if any, contact with Native Americans. I will not only be making a journey to a place that I have never seen before, but I will also be making a journey into a completely new culture, a culture that has seen so many horrible things done to them, and yet still survives. And just as Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for help in the form of a drink of water, I hope that I will be able to humble myself and ask the people I meet for help in understanding them and learning how they do things. As we think about spreading the good news of Jesus, let us also think about what it means for us to receive help from the people we encounter, to admit that we don’t know everything there is in life, and to admit that we need help from the people we think we are there to help. I think that this is a wonderful image of what it means to be the body of Christ.
After speaking to the Samaritan woman and getting her attention with his talk of living water, the next thing that Jesus does is to accept the woman for who she is and to be with her in her brokenness. Jesus asks the woman to call her husband and come back, and when the woman says she has no husband, Jesus tells her that she has had five husbands and the man she is with now is not her husband. Now, there is some possible symbolism going on here, but for today, we are going to take this at face value. Think for a moment: five husbands. That means five separations, whether they were by divorce or by death. The man she is with now is not her husband. Our automatic assumption is that this means the woman is loose, but that is not necessarily the case. It could be that her last official husband died, leaving her with no children, and so the dead husband’s brother has taken her as an unofficial wife to provide her with children. Whatever the circumstances of her life, though, this woman has suffered great pain and is probably a bit of an outcast in her village. And Jesus does not condemn her—he simply acknowledges the circumstances of her life and stays with her, regardless of her status in society.
Listening is one of the most difficult things to do in life. I’ve had some training in how to listen when I was doing chaplaincy, but I’m still not perfect at it, because true listening involves being there for the other person and not interjecting my own experience into the conversation. True listening involves not giving advice, but reflecting back to the person who is speaking what he or she said, helping the person to make her or his own decision in whatever the issue is that is confronting him or her. And finally, true listening has no room for any sort of condemnation. Rather, it sits with the person in his or her suffering and experiences the pain with him or her. This is an essential skill for us to develop in any conversation that we have with someone about Jesus, and it comes only with much practice.
And imagine—Jesus did all of that listening with just one statement to the Samaritan woman. This is probably the first time that anyone has named her pain out loud and still continued talking with her without any condemnation. The woman is very uncomfortable with this, and thus shifts the conversation back onto ground where she feels more at ease—the religious dispute between her people and the Jewish people over where the proper place to worship is. Perhaps, she thinks, if Jesus gives what she considers to be the wrong answer, she can ignore his words and go back to her everyday life in the village. But instead, Jesus’ answer rises above the religious argument, and he tells her that he is, indeed, the Messiah and the Savior of the world.
How often, when we are talking to someone outside of the Christian faith, or even someone inside it but of a different tradition than we are, do we get pulled into an argument over some dispute within Christianity that is getting a lot of press? And, when that happens, how often do we stubbornly cling to our position because we can’t bear the thought that our point of view might be wrong, and then lose the person with whom we are talking because we won’t budge? I made my switch from the LCMS to the ELCA in the fall of 2008, and I was accepted into Gettysburg seminary and into candidacy for ordination in early 2009. Later that year, as I was counting down the days until I was done with a really awful temp job until I could leave for Gettysburg, the Churchwide Assembly voted to accept the social statement on human sexuality and to allow people who are homosexual and in a committed relationship to become ordained. An acquaintance of mine within the Missouri Synod who is rather hardcore in his beliefs shot off a message to me asking me if I was really sure about this decision that I had made. And the thing is, my experience in my local congregation in Virginia had been so good and affirming that I couldn’t imagine going back to the place where I had not been encouraged to use the gifts that God had given me. I had discovered that there was much more that united people as Christians than what divided them, and over the years at seminary and internship, I learned that we can be the body of Christ and still disagree on issues where the Holy Spirit has not clearly spoken to all of us. We as Christians are more than what divides us. We are unified under Jesus Christ, and with him as the head of the body, sinful as we are, we are enabled to worship him in spirit and in truth.
This is, finally, what the Samaritan woman at the well discovers. This is what makes her leave her water jar behind at the well, run off, and tell the rest of the village about Jesus. Here is someone who knows her, who does not condemn her, who loves her, and who gives her hope that she will be welcomed by him. In the beginning of the conversation with her, Jesus says, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” By the end of the conversation, the woman knows that it is Jesus who is the gift of God and that she has received that living water. As we tell others about Jesus, we too should remember, above all, that Jesus is the gift of God—no one and nothing else. It is not about the things that divide us, but it is about him who unites us. It is not about us talking to others, it is about us listening to others. It is not about using what is written in the Bible as a weapon to condemn others, but it is about going outside of our comfort zones and accepting others for who they are—sinful people, like us, who need to hear about Jesus the living water, who enables us to never thirst again. May Jesus continue to be with us, and may that living water become in us a spring of water gushing up to eternal life, for us and for everyone we encounter in our lives. Amen.