Living conversations | Lent 3 | March 19

Text: John 4:1-30; 39-42

This is a story about a conversation.  It’s heavy on dialogue, short on action.

There’s really not much happening here until the very end.  Jesus and a Samaritan woman meet each other at a well, start talking, and keep talking.  It’s a long conversation – the longest Jesus has with an individual in all the gospels.  It opens with Jesus asking her for a drink of water, but we’re never even told if he ever got it.  The conversation takes over, and turns into something much more than giving and receiving a drink of water from a well.

What makes the conversation remarkable, aside from its length, is that it even happened in the first place.  Neither Jesus nor the Samaritan woman had much business being at that well at that time.

Jesus had been in the Judean countryside, the area around the holy city of Jerusalem.  He’s on his way back to Galilee, his home region.  Up north.  John says, “Jesus left Judea and started back to Galilee.  But he had to go through Samaria.”

If you look on a map, it’s true that as you head north out of Judea, you’ll soon enter the region of Samaria.  Keep on going north through Samaria and eventually you’ll get to Galilee.  It’s a direct shot.  If you’re walking on High Street in the Short North and you want to get to the church, you’re going to have to go by campus.

When John says that Jesus “had to go through Samaria” it wasn’t exactly a geographic necessity.  There was, in fact, a well-traveled route established for the very purpose of avoiding Samaria.  Jews and Samaritans had a difficult and even bloody history together, and so Jewish pilgrims traveling between Galilee and Judea would frequently take a longer route around, on the East side of the Jordan River.

“Lucky” for us, and that’s “Lucky” with quotes around it, our highway system enables us to bypass entire neighborhoods without so much as having to think about who and what it is we’re bypassing.  Although there are certain Saturdays in the fall when you definitely do not want to be driving High Street through campus.  You might still be stuck there when church starts the next morning.

But John says that Jesus, on his way home to Galilee, “had to go” through Samaria, as if Jesus had some kind of resolve, had made some kind of conscious decision that he was going to travel that route on which he would very likely encounter, Surprise, Samaritans.

Once he’s in Samaria he comes to a well.  He is “tired out by his journey,” and he takes a seat.

The well would have been a regular stop for any local Samaritan woman.  God had not yet created indoor plumbing, and everyone needs water.  This was a common thing.  An everyday kind of task.  A woman’s task.  To head out in the cool of the day, morning or evening, along with the other women of the village, and fetch the water for the household: cooking, cleaning, washing, drinking.  Fred Suter reminds us that this is still a reality in parts of the developing world as he travels to the Congo and comes back with stories about water, and how one good, well placed well can change the life of a whole village, especially the women, whose day is no longer consumed with long travels to and from the nearest well.

Everybody needs water.  In his hierarchy of needs, Maslow listed it at the very foundation of what people need to thrive – right along with food, shelter, breath.  If you’re going to reach for the top and become self-actualized, you need to be well-hydrated.

This unnamed Samaritan woman, who had not heard of Maslow, came to the well not in the cool of the day, and not with other women.  Mark pointed out last week that the details of John’s gospel are never just throw away lines.  Nicodemus came to Jesus “at night,” under the cover of darkness, to have an inquiring conversation with Jesus.  This woman came to the well by herself “at noon,” in the blazing heat of the day.  It was an unusual time to do the heavy lifting of fetching and carrying water.  If Jesus was being intentional about traveling through Samaria to encounter Samaritans, it’s possible this woman was being just as intentional about not encountering anyone.

And how about never being told this woman’s name?  Nicodemus got named.  Mary Magdalene, who will discover the empty tomb of Jesus and encounter the risen Christ, gets a name.  But not this woman.  She’s a Samaritan woman – another anonymous character in the gospel stories alongside the rich young ruler, the woman with the hemorrhage, the poor widow who gives her last pennies to the temple treasury, the man born blind who will be the topic of next week’s Scripture, and many others.

Not knowing her name can make the story feel a little less personal.  Perhaps reducing her individuality and personhood.  But by calling her a Samaritan woman, there’s a way in which her significance is increased, representing far more than just herself.  The entire story and situation of the Samaritan people gets loaded into this one woman, and not naming her may allow the reader to consider just how freighted an identity is that of a Samaritan and how remarkable it is that she and this Jewish rabbi are having a life-giving conversation.

I’m thinking about the difference between saying: “Today I met someone named Fatima and we had a long conversation.” and saying, “Today I met a Muslim woman and we had a long conversation.”  Or the difference between “Today I met Patricia and she talked about her fears for her children.”  Or, “Today I met a Mexican woman and she talked about her fears for her children.”  Naming the nationality or religion of the person and not their name can both depersonalize, and highlight the significance of such an encounter.  We are not just decontextualized individuals.  We carry in our bodies stories, identities, entire biographies of peoples.  It’s one of the easiest things for white middle class folks to forget that I am not a generic human being but am freighted with history just like everyone.

Jesus, the Jewish male, on his way back home to Galilee, had to go through Samaria. And at a well, in the heat of the day, he encounters a Samaritan woman.

What made Jews and Samaritans such bitter rivals wasn’t how different they were, but how similar they were, while disagreeing on a few fundamental matters.  The Samaritans claimed that they were the true keepers of the Torah, with direct lineage back to the early priests of Israel.  Jews believed the Samaritans to be half-breeds and unfaithful to the God of Israel, a result of mixed ethnicities and religious practices that came about after the Assyrian empire conquered the 10 northern tribes of Israel way back in the 8th century before Christ.  One of the major Jewish/Samaritan divides is highlighted in this conversation when the woman brings up the Samaritan claim of Mt. Gerizim as the designated place of worship, compared to Jewish claims of Mt Zion in Jerusalem.  This was not a small matter.

It may be somewhat analogous to the current relationship between fundamentalist and progressive Christians.  We claim the same scriptures and the same Christian tradition, but offer our sacrifices on very different mountains.

Jesus had to go through Samaria on his way home, and, try as she might to avoid any kind of encounter, this Samaritan woman finds herself in a conversation with the enemy.

Strange how something as simple as talking with someone you’re supposed to hate can be a revolutionary act.

In living with this Scripture this week I couldn’t help but think of the numerous conversations I’ve been a part of in which we’ve talked about…conversations.  How hard it is to talk with people who think so differently.  How valuable it is to form relationships with people from different backgrounds.  It feels like really basic stuff, but it’s incredibly easy not to do.

We know society is polarized and polarizing.  We know social media is a lousy way to have an argument.  We know we want to be motivated by love, and not fear, or disgust.  We know how almost impossible it is to change those people’s mind to think the right way : )

With this in mind, the phrase from the dialogue that most drew me in was when Jesus tells the woman he can offer her living water.  “Living water” was a common phrase the simply meant running water, moving water, like a river, as opposed to stagnant water like a pool.  But Jesus goes on to say that the kind of living water he offers is the kind that will become in you a spring of water gushing up to life everlasting.”  It’s water which gives life, which leads to more life, which leads to more life, in a never ending ripple effect.

It makes me wonder if another aspect of the Inward/Outward journey is the practice of having living conversations.  Conversations that lead to life, which lead to more life, as opposed to soul-sucking conversations, or no conversations at all.  What if the encounter in the center of the labyrinth that we’ve been talking about is a living conversation, and the journey in is the work we do to enable ourselves to have living conversations, and the journey out is how we carry that conversation and allow it to transform us, as if we had encountered Christ.

The easy part is that this can count for pretty much any conversation we have.  The hard part is, well, you know….It’s hard.

I think I’ve had a few of those kinds of living conversations recently, and I’ll share one.

It was a few weeks back at the mosque on the West Side.  They hosted an open house that our own Robin Walton helped organize.  After exploring the building a bit, Lily and I went up to the refreshment line.  The energetic young Somali woman serving food spotted my wedding ring tattoo and asked me about it.  I told her I had already lost two rings, am in it for the long haul, and figured this was a solution.  She replied how cool she thought it was when people decorated their bodies and that if she ever got tattoos she would have the word Hello in 200 languages all over her arms.  She asked me where I was from and when I said I grew up in rural Ohio she said how much she likes country folks.  “They know how to fix things,” she said.  I agreed.  She has some friends in a rural area west of Columbus she likes to hang out with.  Then she started telling me her favorite country music singers and I had to confess I hadn’t heard any of the songs.  After she educated me about the American country music scene I figured I better not hold up the line any more.  She served us delicious Somali food, and we moved down the line.

It was a living conversation with a Somali woman whose name I can’t remember.  I’m guessing when most folks think of Somalians they don’t picture the face of a tattoo-admiring, country music loving grad student.  But now you can.

These days, having a respectful conversation with someone you’re supposed to view only with suspicion or fear can shake things up, even if just a little.

So maybe you identify most with Jesus, who had to go through Samaria, who made a commitment to encountering people he could have easily avoided.  Who both asked for a drink out of his own need, and offered living water whose effects would last well after the conversation was over.

Or maybe you identify most with the Samaritan woman, initially avoiding, then willingly entering, then embracing the gift of a living conversation.  At the end she puts down her water jar and goes back to her people and invites them to come and see.  She invites them into this life, this experience, this freedom, that this stranger has given her.  She becomes the jar that holds the water, and living water flows out of her to her people.

May the Source of all Life gift us with living water.