(23 March 2014)
by Rev. Elder Dr. Nancy Wilson
I have always loved this story of the Woman at the Well. In the 42 years of preaching in MCC, I have never tired of this story from John, chock-full of preachable text.
Rev. Elder Ken Martin preached in the 1970’s from John 4:28, “Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town….” Rev. Martin focused on what we have to leave behind to claim our new, liberating life in Christ. After all these years, I remember how I felt hearing a sermon on one phrase of one verse of one of the most lengthy stories in the gospel. That’s why I always called Rev. Martin a “preachers’ preacher!”
There are some stories, like this one, that seem divinely designed for MCC preaching, and I plan to preach on it myself in this Lenten season. Here are some possibilities:
Jesus engages a transgressive woman in a rich, challenging theological conversation. As MCC begins to engage in a time of creative possibility around our own statement of faith, how can we be as fearless, honest, and engaging as these conversation partners? Jesus interrupts her marginalization by taking her seriously as a person of faith, worthy of conversation, worthy of his time, worthy of living water. As MCCers, we embarked on a journey nearly 46 years ago of taking faith into our own transgressive hands. God is with us as we embrace our faith once again!
Sometimes I see her as a heterosexual woman who might be acting out sexually in response to abuse in her early life, whose innocence is in need of restoration. Or a drag queen engaging in a lively repartee with a handsome stranger, finding more than she bargained for, a man who would not just use her and throw her away. Or a transgender woman who is restored to community by the kind and respectful attention of an itinerant preacher from a religious and cultural background that might have put her off at first. Maybe she is a lesbian harboring her secret in a hostile culture, or maybe she is someone who has been a victim of sex trafficking who cannot imagine a different life.
Or, rather than project any possibility on to her, we can allow her to shine through in this amazing text. She gives Jesus one of his earliest opportunities for differentiating himself, for coming out as radically inclusive!
Jesus’ transgressive behavior in making a social and spiritual connection with this woman frightens and bewilders the disciples. He takes them to places and encounters they might avoid otherwise. Where is Jesus taking you — taking us — that might scandalize others?
To quote Rev. Elder Hector Gutiérrez’s favorite theologian, Schillebeeckx, in this story we come to see Jesus as the “sacrament of the encounter with God….” It is a story full of worship:
- A gathering at a well, at an historic place of faith, Jacob’s well. In worship, we gather around wells of tradition, allowing them to be radically re-interpreted.
- There is an “offering” of Jesus himself as “living water,” a powerful baptismal sign. This is the same Jesus who turned water into wine, and who later calls himself, “the Bread of Life.”
- There are announcements! About husbands, and lack thereof.
- There is serious engagement of the Word of God, of scripture, of spiritual truth about worship itself, and even a little politics thrown in (whose mountain is more holy?)
- There is revelation, the spiritual form of coming out, “I who speak to you am he….”
- And, there is an amazing sending forth, as this nameless woman becomes the first evangelist to the very townspeople who had rejected her. The living water can’t be contained in her old water jar — she is the new container, overflowing with hope, wonder and joy.
We speak about open communion in MCC, as we are “fed” at the welcome table. In this story, Jesus tells his disciples, scratching their heads, that he has food they know nothing about. That food, that living water, that generous Love that will not let us go, is here for us, right now.
Many of us have been, or could be, that woman at the well, no matter our orientation or gender identity. We are resigned to isolation and hurt; we are skeptical, tired in our spirits, and full of unfulfilled ideas and yearnings. But just scratch the surface, and we are open to liberation, miracles, healing — and to eating, drinking, and connecting with the Holy One.