The Shame That Binds Us
Scripture: John 4:1-18, 27-30
The story of the woman at the well is Jesus’ longest conversation with one person in all of the Gospels. In this story, the woman erects barriers. She finds numerous things that get between her & Jesus. Let’s look at the barriers that she erected & see if they are not ones that we also lean on.
First, this woman erected a barrier of prejudice. Jews & Samaritans held deep animosity against one another. They had long standing hatreds. The woman said, Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman? The animosity she expressed was characteristic of the relationships between Jews & Samaritans. Expressing this hatred, she created a barrier to Jesus. She couldn’t understand him. The poet Maya Angelou wrote in her book, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, “Prejudice is a burden which confuses the past, threatens the future, & renders the present inaccessible.” That is exactly what the woman at the well was doing. She was distorting the past & making the present inaccessible. She couldn’t meet Jesus because she brought prejudice into the relationship.
What about the individuals or the groups toward which we harbor prejudice? It may be an individual or a group of people you reject because of the color of their skin or their religion or their way of life. God came to the Samaritan woman in the form of someone against whom she was deeply prejudiced. God may come to us in the same way. If we are to experience Jesus, we very well may have to look into the eyes & into the face of an individual or group against whom we harbor prejudice.
Another barrier the woman erected was social custom. In that time, Jewish men & any type of woman did not interact in public. A good, upstanding, righteous, Jewish male would only talk to his mother, wife, or daughters—never to any other women. The Samaritan woman embraced the same cultural biases. It was a scandal for a Jewish man to talk to a strange woman. Today, we could use an ability to be so scandalized, couldn’t we!
Social customs can separate us from people, also. How many of us know a person who is poor? Do you know a poor person as a real human being, knowing what their life has been like, knowing the names of their children? In our society, we often segregate by economic status. Middle-class people only know middle-class people. Rich people only know rich people, & poor people only poor people. Social custom keeps us apart. Do you know someone who is desperately poor? Jesus came to the woman as someone social customs made a stranger. Jesus may come to us as a stranger.
A third barrier was that Jesus was an outsider for the Samaritan woman. Generally, Jews did not travel through Samaria. Most traveling Jews went out of their way to avoid Samaritans. To the woman, Jesus was an outsider to her community, an outsider to her way of life, & an outsider to her personal experience. That made it hard for her to take Jesus seriously.
Jesus is often an outsider to our lives. We would like to give Jesus a makeover into a middle-class American, but he’s not. He is different from us. Jesus is deeply & profoundly different. His values & ambitions, the way he conducted his life, the things Jesus cared about, & the people for whom he cared, are all very different from us. He is an outsider to our way of life. If we choose to follow Jesus, we will discover ourselves being different from our neighbors. Do we dare associate with, become close to, or follow this outsider?
Finally, the woman was reluctant to be honest with Jesus. Jesus said, Go, get your husband, & come back here & she replied, I don’t have a husband. Jesus knew the truth. She had been married 5 times & was not married to the man she was with. She didn’t want Jesus to know the truth. She would interact with him on the surface, but the real depth of her life experience—all the pain, all the trouble, all the mistakes, & all the heartaches of her life—she was trying to keep to herself. She was holding Jesus at arm’s length.
We do it too, don’t we? We dress up & get all pretty for worship. But how do we relate to Jesus when we get home from work & we’re mad & frustrated & tired & beat up? Do we connect with Jesus then? Are we open with God about the messy parts of our lives; about the parts of our lives that aren’t pretty, & that aren’t pious? We can pray when we’re feeling holy, but can we relate to Christ when life’s a mess & when we’re a mess? Can we open these parts of our lives to Jesus? The Samaritan woman found it difficult & so do we.
A group of men were traveling down US 52 in an old beat-up van, when they pulled off at the Highway 64 exit. It was close to noon. The leader sent the men into Food Lion to buy some lunch while he rested inside Circle-K.
A woman entered alone & waited for the clerk. The man spoke to her & asked if she would buy him a cup of coffee. The woman, surprised at his boldness, asked why the man didn’t buy his own coffee. He replied, “I make a cappuccino that would knock your socks off. If you realized who it was that is speaking to you, you’d be asking me for a drink; a drink that would truly satisfy you – all the way to your very soul.”
The woman sneered, “A better coffee than I get here? You’ve got to be kidding. If that is true, why aren’t you running your own shop?”
The man replied, “Everyone who drinks coffee here at Circle-K gets thirsty again. I provide refreshment, real refreshment. The drink I provide truly satisfies.”
The woman was intrigued. “Okay, I’ll bite. Give me some of this coffee so I won’t have to come to Circle-K alone anymore.”
The man said to her, “Go & call all of your friends, then come back so I can speak to all of you.”
“I have no friends,” the woman said dejectedly.
“That is true,” the man said. “You have led a wild & self-centered life. Your family & friends have all abandoned you. You have spoken truthfully.”
“Who are you, some kind of prophet? Oh, I get it. You’re one of those super-religious types! I suppose you’re going to invite me to your church, to some support group for women.”
“Believe me, the time is coming – in fact, it is here – when where you worship or what denomination you are won’t matter. Methodist, Baptist, Catholic; it doesn’t matter. It is who you are & the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That is the kind of people the Father is looking for; those who are simply & honestly themselves before him in worship. Those who worship him must do it out of their deepest being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”
The woman said, “Okay… I do know that someday Jesus is returning. When he arrives, we will find true happiness & lasting wholeness.”
“I am he,” Jesus said. “You don’t have to wait any longer or look any further.”
Despite all the barriers, this morning’s Scripture is a story with a happy ending. The Samaritan woman eventually connected. She went back to her village & said, Come & see a man who has told me everything I’ve done! Could this man be the Christ? She becomes the first evangelist in John’s Gospel. She is the first to run & tell someone about Jesus. The writer says the whole community came & many believed because of her.
Friends, it can work that way for us. We distance ourselves from Jesus by prejudices, social customs, fear of outsiders, & reluctance to expose the messy realities of our lives. Yet we can get past those things & allow Jesus to be here, right in front of us. We can share what we have experienced with others & it can change everything. My hope & my prayer is that we can allow God to tear down the barriers that get between us & Jesus. Then there is hope that even now we will meet Jesus too.
Let us pray. For the word of hope that pours over us like living water, for the word of grace that leads us to encounter the living Christ, we offer you our thanks, God. Amen.