First Congregational United Church of Christ

2810 West 7th Street, Hastings, NE 68901


To Be Fully Known

Sermon, March 19, 2017


John 4:5-42


Have you ever had that experience of talking to a stranger on a plane, or a train or a bus on a long trip, and when you get to talking about where you’re going and why, end up telling your whole life story?  Maybe even revealing personal details or some of your deepest secrets, things you don’t really talk about much in every day life?  What is it about talking to a stranger that sometimes provides that blank slate that quietly encourages us to really give people the whole picture of who we are?


I know I’ve been having a lot of conversations lately with strangers, or people who maybe were strangers but aren’t anymore.  But plenty of times in my life I was the talker, sometimes to a stranger, sometimes to a friend – where I ended up telling someone way more than I had intended.  The details just come tumbling out to round-out the story, or to explain my motivations.  Often, I need a conversation to put my thoughts or feelings into words. Sometimes those unexpected conversations leave me with newfound understanding of things I felt deep down, but hadn’t said out loud, and so hadn’t really recognized them fully. Maybe you’ve had the experience like this… where processing thoughts out loud, in the process of telling a stranger, has helped you understand yourself better.


In today’s scripture, Jesus meets a woman at a well.  Now, there are two very interesting symbolic things happening here that I want to make sure you know. First off, John makes a point of telling us that this is Jacob’s well, on Jacob’s land, which – to the person who knows their Hebrew Bible like John’s audience does – it is a very important well.  This is where Jacob first met and fell in love with Rachel.  If this was a romantic comedy, this would be setting the scene – a significant place where you first learn the two protagonists in the story.


Secondly, this story comes immediately after the story of Nicodemus, who we talked about last week.  Who remembers anything about Nicodemus?  I know, from experience, that sermons are hard to remember even one day later – that is, unless you are writing them – but tell me, what do you remember about Nicodemus last week?

-       Rabbi, teacher, judge, member of the ruling council

-       He came to Jesus under the cover of darkness

-       Couldn’t really wrap his head around what Jesus was saying… or couldn’t let go of his religious rules to know what to do for Jesus’ message…


Immediately after that conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus starts his travel to the Galilee by way of Sychar, a town in Samaria.  The Samaritans were not just a marginalized group – they were a hated people.  They were the sworn enemies of Israel.  Samaria and Israel had been at war for years over the right place to worship God.  The Samaritans believed it was right to worship God on the Mount of Gorazim, and Israel insisted God must be worshipped in Jerusalem.  


So these two stories are set side by side as a contrast of belief.  After speaking with Nicodemus – a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, a teacher of Israel, who can only visit Jesus under the cover of darkness, Jesus meets this woman, this unknown woman, this un-named woman, this foreigner, this sworn enemy of Israel, in the light of day at the well. 


And has a conversation.


It seems minor, just a conversation, but we see from the Disciples reaction that it is, indeed, scandalous.  Not only is she a foreigner from a hated enemy.  Not only was Jesus crossing the boundary from ‘chosen people’ – the Israelites – to ‘rejected people’ – the Samaritans.  But Jesus was also crossing the male-female boundary.  Jesus was a Rabbi.  Under Jewish law, Rabbis don’t speak to women in public. You can see the disciples, once they show up, won’t stoop to actually speak to her, even though they have a lot to say.  But Jesus initiates the conversation – and then asks for a drink!  From her cup! Even the Samaritan woman knows enough about Jewish purity codes to call this out as unfathomable.


And then we come to the thick of the story.  I know, as a kid, what always stood out to me was not Jacob’s well, or the comparison to Nicodemus, but – what?  The 5 husbands, right?  This is usually what people remember about this scripture is the woman’s 5 husbands – and that the one she’s currently with is not her husband. 


5 husbands.  When we hear that through 21st century ears, that conjures up some impressions, right?  Some caricatures of women referenced movies or TV shows, like a son might roll his eyes about getting in touch with his mother, who’s on husband #5....  We end up making some presumptions about the woman.  Some judgment about her life and her character.  Truly, this story has often been used as an example of a sinful, ‘loose’ woman.  Someone who has made bad choices in their life, and yet still Jesus, Our Savior, will extend a compassionate hand to someone so far out of his circle of respectability, the lowest of the low, that we are moved by his generosity.


But is she really?  Who really is this un-named, unknown woman?  If we hear this story with 1stcentury ears instead of 21st century ears, there are some discrepancies. 


The first thing we need to acknowledge is that in the 1st century, women were not in control of their marriage or their divorce.  The customs of the time might suggest that women were like property.  A groom, or a father of the groom, would provide a dowry to the father of the bride in exchange for his daughter.  The word ‘dowry’ puts a nice name on it, but another take on that might be, ‘purchase price.’  For instance, look at Jacob.  The ancient story of the well tells us that Jacob sees Rachel at the well, who was very beautiful, and falls in love with her.  He goes to her father to ask for her in marriage, and pledges to work for 7 years to earn her from her father. Yet, at the last minute, her father gives Jacob Rachel’s older sister Leah to marry – because it was not right to let the younger daughter marry before the older daughter. So, Jacob, still in love with Rachel, agrees to work for another 7 years in order that he might also have Rachel as his wife. 


At no point in the story of Jacob do we hear of the women being consulted.


The second thing to acknowledge is the unwavering expectation of offspring.  Producing an heir was central to the tribal structure of the ancient Israelites.  Remember, Abraham’s offspring were going to number ‘like the stars’.  Reproduction – and its challenges – are a reoccuring theme of blessedness and redemption in scripture.  The Hebrew Bible has several stories of miraculous conceptions – not just the Virgin Mary, but also Sarah and Abraham, Rebekah and Isaac, and Elizabeth and Zacchariah – who birthed John the Baptist.  In scripture, all of these women are described as struggling with childlessness.  In each case, the man is painted as described very warmly - perhaps because under Jewish law, barrenness was grounds for divorce.


In ancient Israel, divorce was easy for a man but impossible for a woman.  And childlessness was the most common reason for divorce.


There are two ways that this woman, who is not in control of her own status of marriage, would have 5 husbands.  One is divorce, most likely for barrenness.  The other is to be widowed, in which case she may be ensnared in the custom of Levirate Marriage.


Levirate, deriving from the Latin word Levir that means brother, is a type of marriage in which the brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother's widow, and the widow is obliged to marry her deceased husband's brother.  Israel practiced the custom of Levirate marriage – which was common in tribal societies and still happens today in some places.  Levirate marriage can, at its most positive, serve as protection for the widow and her children, ensuring that they have a male provider and protector. It is most common in patriarchal societies where women are not self-sufficient and must rely on men to provide for them - especially if women are under the authority, or dependent on men, or regarded as possessions or servants of their husbands.  It also helps to ensure the survival of the clan. 


This unknown, un-named woman at the well is not someone who has been frivolous with her personal life.  That she has been married and widowed, or married and divorced, several times over is certainly more devastating to her than we can imagine.  The most likely scenario is that this is a woman who has been ABANDONED by 5 men, probably because of barrenness.  If she is with a man that is not her husband, then it is because the man chooses not to marry her – and still, given that her existence depends on being taken care of by a man, this may be a merciful arrangement for the woman, and she’s likely grateful for it.


In this moment at the well, Jesus names the most intimate, deepest, most painful truth of this woman’s life: that she is out of relationship, that she has never been loved. 


He doesn’t ask her about her husband to shame her or blame her.  If we take off our 21st century ears and look closely in the text – there are no words of contempt, or redress, in this story.  He does not offer redemption or infer that she needs forgiveness.  Because, this is not a woman that needs forgiveness.  This is a woman that needs acceptance.  This is a woman that needs relationship.  This is a woman who needs belonging.  She needs to be known and to be loved. Jesus knows this without being told, and tells her of a new day coming.


And in fact, it is this moment of truth, this deep secret-telling, this airing of the most painful fact in this woman’s life that makes her conversion possible.  It was the moment of vulnerability, of sharing what’s in her heart, that made it possible for her to see God’s presence in Jesus.  It was in the act of being fully known that she becomes open to God’s possibility.  It was in hearing her truth spoken so clearly that her eyes are open to see Jesus as the Messiah.


We can see this because she moves immediately to the critical theological question of her time – as a holy person, tell me where is the proper place to worship?  Some say she responds to an uncomfortable truth by changing the subject. But I think she’s gutsy!  If you met Jesus in the flesh – wouldn’t you have questions?  She’s not trying to deflect, or change the subject; she suddenly believes this man may hold the right answers about God.  


In fact, she grasps this truth faster than Nicodemus.  Where he, a teacher of Israel wise in the ways of God, wasn’t able to let go of his religious parameters to follow Jesus, this un-named woman, know known, becomes a perfect disciple.  She runs back to the village, witnessing to the story and testifying to the Messiah, inspiring others to go meet Jesus in person.


It all happens because of a conversation. This un-named woman becomes a witness because she is known to Jesus, and to be known is to be loved, and to be loved is to be known. Rather than that moment becoming the moment that is her shame, that moment is the moment that makes everything possible.  How many vulnerable moments do we risk in our day to day lives?  How often do we allow ourselves to be known, truly known, and be truly loved?