THE WOMAN AT THE WELL
We all set up careful boundaries over when and where we are willing to tell others about our faith. When Jesus sat down with the woman at the well, it was tempting for him to see himself as off-duty too….
You may have noticed that John’s Gospel differs from the other three Gospels in important ways. Where the Gospel of Mark is a short and punchy series of events from the life of Jesus, rather like an evening news bulletin summing up world events in half an hour, John’s Gospel is a sustained reflection on Jesus’ identity as it is revealed in a series of encounters with individual people, rather like the intimacy of an armchair chat show. One of the best of these encounters is the one Jesus has with the Samaritan woman at the well.
The background to the story in John chapter 4 is that Jesus and his friends have left Judea in haste because Jesus has sensed that the Pharisees are trying to drive a wedge between him and his cousin John. They head for Galilee and stop in Sychar, hungry, tired and thirsty. The disciples make for the town centre to find something to eat and Jesus sits down by Jacob’s well at the height of the mid-day sun. A woman comes to draw water and Jesus asks her for a drink.
She expresses surprise that a Jew would fraternise with a despised Samaritan, and a man with a woman at that. Jesus discloses something of himself to her, encouraging her to make a response to him as Messiah, and there follows a conversation which is by turns allusive, flirtatious and challenging. When the woman finally makes a spiritual response to Jesus he asks her to fetch her husband. Utterly exposed for having had five husbands and another man on the go, the woman fumbles embarrassingly and then rallies herself, just before the bewildered and tight-lipped disciples return. She leaves to tell the village what has happened and the town makes a remarkable collective response to Jesus.
It is hard for us to grasp just how highly charged the atmosphere must have been at this encounter. No-one would normally choose to do the hard work of drawing water from a well in the mid-day sun – it was rather like choosing to shop at Tesco’s at three o’clock in the morning - which suggests that this woman was ostracised by others for what she had done with her life. Yet here was Jesus, by her side. Then there were the ethnic and gender divides: that Jews and Samaritans
never mixed socially and that men and women rarely spent time alone together if they weren’t already related. Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the village well was about as acceptable a pairing as a Protestant man and a Catholic woman walking hand in hand down the Falls Road in 1981. Jesus had broken invisible taboos and made himself vulnerable to gossip and innuendo – and yet it was precisely this kind of risk-taking that had made such an impression on her.
This encounter is often described as text-book evangelism. Jesus treats the woman as an equal, allowing no social barriers to come between them. He starts up a casual conversation, knowing that his risk-taking will draw out her curiosity. He leaves a lot unsaid, which draws her out further and when she eventually makes a spiritual response to him, instead of warmly embracing this move, calls her to repent of her habitual sin. When she tries to change the subject out of embarrassment he waits patiently for an opening and tells plainly that he is the Messiah.
I doubt anyone finds it easy to inform others of their Christian faith, whether that is making it known you go to church, resisting unethical practices at work or admitting that you pray. It is a sad comment on the lack of Christian faith in our culture, but these obstacles have always been there and at least we don’t risk prison for a confession of faith. Nevertheless I know people find it difficult to make one. It’s easier when you wear a dog collar because people expect it of you, but there have, for example, been several occasions when I have sat in a hairdresser’s chair out of uniform hoping for a quiet hair-cut only to find I am having to reconcile the existence of God and human suffering in front of a silent and captive audience just because the hair-dresser has uncovered my day job. My first thought in situations like that is usually; ‘not now, please – I’m off duty!’ And we all set careful boundaries about when and where we might own up to our faith: not at dinner parties, not in the pub, not at work, not when the conversation is light, not unless they ask. When Jesus sat down at the well it was dead time for him too. It was lunchtime - he had the perfect excuse to nod at the woman and look away. It is fascinating too that he managed this famous piece of ministry when feeling really tired. How we feel in ourselves is no indication of how fruitful we are proving.
In his first letter the Apostle Peter says: ‘always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you’. We don’t have to force the issue because openings to express our faith will always come. The greater danger is that we’ll miss the chance when it comes because we’re simply not prepared. It’s rather like a slip fielder in cricket who stands there all day under a hot sun. He needs to concentrate in case an edge flies his way, but his concentration needs to be relaxed or he’ll wear himself out. A chance to take a catch always comes eventually and he’s got to take it when it happens, otherwise there’s no point him standing there. Jesus was tired and waiting for the lunch break under a hot sun. But he remained alert.
This encounter begs other questions, I have to say. Does this meeting with the woman at the well mean God calls us into risky settings of ministry where our motives might be misconstrued but which he would nevertheless bless us with spectacular gains? In principle, yes – this is the clear message of the story. In practice, no. We talk about risk-taking but our culture and our church is risk-averse, and becoming more so.
A short time ago Anglican clergy were given a booklet containing guidelines for their professional conduct. The section on offering pastoral care to individuals says:
The place of the meeting, the arrangement of furniture and lighting, and the dress of the minister are important considerations in pastoral care. The appropriateness of visiting or being visited alone, especially at night, needs to be assessed with care.
Fair enough, I’d say – except that if Jesus had followed this code the Gospels would be half as long as they actually are. So where are the boundary lines in ministry now? Unless we think these things through theologically, we could end up simply following secular models of practice which may say less about grace, responsibility and freedom.
The other question concerns Jesus’ direct challenge to the woman to repent of her promiscuous lifestyle. In Britain today, private behaviour is considered to be beyond the reach of public scrutiny unless it breaches the worst possible boundaries. And people are wary of being branded hypocritical if they ask questions of others because they know they themselves are flawed human beings. I think it is wise to be self-aware, and to pay greater attention to our own failings than to those of others because it is human nature to prefer it the other way round. Yet this crisis of moral authority has subtly altered the way the Gospel is presented too, with often only a muted call to personal repentance being made to those turning to God, when there may be issues that have to be tackled before the believer can grow in faith. Our secular models of psychology are non-judgmental for a reason, but the element of judgment is always going to be there in a meaningful encounter with God, as the woman at the well discovered. This may be unpalatable to some, but it is a kinder and more authentic Christian faith which takes seriously that need for individuals to put their relationships right as they turn to God.
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