The Samaritan Woman at the Well: Two Preachers, Two Perspectives

On March 19, 2017, Rev. Dr. Damaris Whittaker and Rev. George Harris participated in a pulpit exchange. Rev. Dr. Whittaker preached at First Church Simsbury while Rev. Harris preached at Center Church Hartford. Both preached on Chapter Four of the Gospel of John, the story of a Samaritan woman’s encounter with Jesus at a well.

Rev. Dr. Damaris Whittaker

Senior Minister, Center Church, Hartford

Sermon preached at First Church, Simsbury, on March 19, 2017 (Pulpit Exchange)

Holy Conversations

John 4:5-42, Psalm 71

Friends, this morning it is, indeed, an honor to be here at the First Church of Christ in Simsbury as part of a pulpit exchange. Your Senior Minister, Rev. George Harris, is at Center Church in Hartford.

I am grateful for the work our two congregations have committed to doing together. As you know, we recently joined in anUrban Immersion during which about twenty-five of us, inserted ourselves in the realities of the City by visiting various organizations, which are doing great work, and learning about their successes and their challenges.

We came together, as two churches, in two very different locations to hold “Holy Conversations” about justice and peace in our corner of the world. Of course when our outreach leaders, from both congregations, organized the immersion, perhaps that was not an overt goal or objective, but like many conversations go, we do not know what we will discover until we are engaged in them.

***

In the Gospel lesson this morning we heard the story of the Samaritan woman. A story that is very dear to my heart.

A woman who is in the margins, is approached by Jesus in the most public, inconvenient and unexpected place. She is considered to be “the other” “less than” different.

Both of them from different backgrounds—divided by social conventions around race, gender and religion.

First, I want to name that one of the most difficult parts of this text for me is that we do not know the woman’s name. She is faceless to the writers of the text. The Samaritan Woman they called her, she is nameless.

Second, when approaching this text many commentaries focus on the part of the story when, Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, “I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” (vs. 17-18)

This line has robbed the attention of so many scholars and commentaries, leading them to deduce that this woman was promiscuous and a prostitute. Hence, they have missed the transformational power contained in this story–for it is a story of freedom and not immorality.

It is important that we know that in the times of Jesus, divorce was not uncommon. Also, a woman could have widowed several times during her life.

Further, the fact that “her husband was not hers” could have been for various reasons. For instance, one of her husbands could have died and now she could have been living with his brother, as it was the law.

It is easy to look at this story and feel terribly sad for the Samaritan Woman–to victimize her for her situation—to see her as being the fortunate one because, after all, she got to have a conversation with Jesus.

But it is important to remember, that in this conversation, Jesus was at a deficit, he was thirsty and she had the bucket.

Their conversation, in many respects, go to the heart of the matter. It is a courageous conversation because, it breaks the social conventions but– also it addresses one of the core the issues that divided the Samaritans form the Jews;  and,  May I state the obvious? who brings it up is not Jesus, but rather, the woman.

The fundamental question that divided the Jews and the Samaritans, was: “Where should we worship?”

The Samaritans, had erected a place of worship on the mountain.

While the Jews believed worship should take place in Jerusalem.

Jesus response is one that inspires and leads us in re-thinking our postures about our differences. It leads us to reconsider what we are willing to hold on to versus what we can let go for the sake of the love we need to have for each other.

It is a response that makes us reflect about creating sacred spaces where we could co-exist; where we depart from the objective of “winning” and being right, and include the excluded. Jesus changes the rules the game, he says:

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as    these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (vs. 23-24)

What Jesus does here is what Mujerista Theologians (a liberation theology from the perspective of Hispanic women in the United States) call “relocating the sacred.”

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, suggests that:

Mujerista liturgies, specifically, relocate the Sacred. “They locate the sacred in the midst of the marginalized, of the poor and the oppressed, instead of in an [institution].” Institutions that do little or nothing to be in solidarity with the oppressed. In doing so, she states, that authority is claimed by women in the margins to “make contact with the divine in [their] own way, according to [their own] experience.”[1]

And, there they were Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, relocating the sacred. Openly, in bright day light, in front of a cloud of witnesses that could not believe what they were seeing—conflicted on how to react at this scandalous scene.

There, in front of their own eyes, unbeknownst to them, they were being witnesses to a holy conversation.

A conversation that dismantled oppression.

A conversation that overcame exclusiveness and built community through inclusiveness.

Arguably, the longest conversation recorded, were are told, in Jesus ministry.

***

Friends, this is Women’s History month. There is not enough time, during this sermon to effectively present the many obstacles women have overcome, and still face, today.

I often feel privileged to be serving in a denomination where approximately, forty-seven percent of the authorized ministers are women.

But, it is not lost on me, that that number does not mean that we are treated equally and we have equal opportunities. There are still historic churches that have yet to call a woman as Senior Minister.

I am the first woman to lead Center Church and was called five years ago on its 380th anniversary year. I took almost 400 years for a people to say, I think a woman can do this job!”

Still, in this country, the wage gap between men and women is wide. The statistics on women trafficking, domestic violence and sexual abuse continue to show that women are still being victimized and oppressed.

Nonetheless, we also have countless examples of women who persisted. Women whose actions embodied resistance and courage. Women who met at the well in their own terms.

Women like Harriett Tubman who “herself believed her success in single-handedly liberating over three hundred slaves was superintended by God, who had pre-ordained her political action”[2]

This morning, I invite all of us to say to one another, what the woman said to Jesus, “I see you.” She said “I see that you are a prophet.”

She saw him for who he was. I invite you to see one another for who you really are.

And perhaps, my call to action for all of us is, in order for us to see one another for who we are, we need to be able—have the courage to have holy or sacred conversations.

Conversations that lead us to being vulnerable;

Conversations that lead us to ask Questions;

Conversations that lead us to “see” each other, allowing us to take time to enter a sincere and perhaps difficult dialogue;

Conversations that lead us to being opened–to being surprised;

Conversations that lead us to being changed;

and, finally,

Conversations that can happen when we relocate the sacred.

In the current climate in our country, may God lead us to the well, where the stranger we might meet the stranger that will transform our lives. Amen.

[1] Isasi-Diaz, Ada Maria, Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century, New York: Maryknoll, 1996.

[2] Wiliams, Delores S., Sisters in the Wilderness: the challenge of womanist God-talk. Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 2013.

 _____________________

Rev. George Harris

Senior Minister, First Church, Simsbury

Sermon preached at Center Church, Hartford, on March 19, 2017 (Pulpit Exchange)

Nevertheless, She Persisted

John 4:5-42

Well, good morning! I am beginning to feel right at home here at Center Church. I think this is at least the third time that I have had the privilege to speak from this pulpit. Rev. Whittaker and I did a pulpit exchange a few years ago when I was serving South Church in New Britain. And I offered the Call to Worship at her installation not so long ago. Since I saw you last I accepted a call to First Church in Simsbury. Just a few months ago First Church Simsbury and Center Church participated in an urban immersion together. All of this combined means that I feel a meaningful connection here. And I am thrilled to be back this morning!

That said, there are both unique challenges and particular opportunities in preaching to a congregation that is not my own. I don’t have the established relationship with you that I have with First Church which can be both liberating and confining.

One of the things us pastors are discouraged from doing with our own church is to talk too much about ourselves. A sermon illustration from our life is OK, as long as we don’t reveal too much. We certainly shouldn’t use a sermon as an opportunity to unburden ourselves of some issue or problem of our own. And we should most definitely never air our dirty laundry from the pulpit of our church.

Well, this is not my church… and you are not my flock! So, I thought, what a perfect chance to vent a little about my wife Lourdes. Lourdes and I have been married for almost sixteen years, and we have a most extraordinary fourteen year-old daughter Abby. Lourdes was born on a sugar plantation in the Philippines, and we were both living in Hawaii when we met. My parents were visiting me, and Lourdes was the hostess that seated us in a restaurant we visited. One thing led to another and the rest, as they say, is history.

Lourdes is one of the strongest women I have ever met! She successfully rose above the poverty she was raised in to make a life for herself in the United States, and she did this by sheer determination, the force of her will. If I do say so myself, I am pretty bright, skilled in the use of words to articulate and defend my point of view.  Lourdes is also plenty smart, but has no interest in besting me in clever repartee. Instead, when there are disagreements between us, she simply asserts her will, she is right and we will do things her way. To this day, I have never experienced anything quite like it!

When I do pre-marital counseling with couples, I sometimes tell them that the very thing that attracts them to one another can become the greatest challenge in their marriage. Well that is certainly the case with me and Lourdes. I was immediately drawn to this remarkably assertive and disarmingly strong woman. And, over the years we have butted heads many times as I make some very logical, tightly argued case, and she rejects it out of hand. Do you hear me? Can you feel me? She just doesn’t follow the rules. How can you have a marriage without mutually accepted rules? I’m right, right?

OK, I should put your mind at ease. I am just joking about airing my dirty laundry from the pulpit. I love and respect Lourdes more today than when I fell in love with her all those years ago. It is true that our marriage is never boring, and it is also true that there can be occasional fireworks when we disagree. But I am sharing this not seeking sympathy, not that you take my side, but as a way of introducing this morning’s story from the Gospel of John. Because this woman at the well is also a remarkably strong, assertive woman.

Some are likely familiar with the basic outline of this story. Jesus is traveling from Judea to Galilee and stops at a well were he meets a Samaritan woman. He asks her for a drink of water. She is surprised to be addressed by this stranger and says so, “Why are you talking to me, a woman and a Samaritan?” Jesus responds with an invitation to drink “living water.” Drink this living water, Jesus says, and you will never be thirsty. In fact, Jesus says, drink of his living water and it will become in you a spring that gushes up to eternal life. The Samaritan woman concludes, “Sir, give me this water.”

The most common interpretation of this story goes something like this. The woman had three strikes against her. She was a woman. She was a Samaritan, part of a despised ethnic and religious group. And she was a sinner, having been married five times and now living with a man who is not her husband. Nevertheless, Jesus offers her the living water of eternal life, revealing God’s unconditional grace, forgiveness and love. This is a hopeful message for all who worry that they are somehow beyond the love of God either because of who they are or what they have done. While not rejecting this message, I suggest that there is much more to this story.

To grasp the full meaning of the encounter between the Samaritan woman and Jesus we need some additional context. Wells, in Hebrew scripture, are firmly established as places for men to meet women. Isaac, Jacob and Moses all met their wives at wells. This kind of makes sense. In a world where women didn’t get out on their own much, their trips to the well to fetch water were one of the few times men might approach them without the watchful eye of parents or the community. We might think of wells as ancient pickup spots, “Hey beautiful, nice bucket. Can I get you a drink?”

So, when Jesus’ early followers heard the beginning of this story they would have assumed that romance was in the air and cast the woman in the role of Jesus’ future wife. That said, the role of women in these boy meets girl stories was largely passive with the men doing all the talking.

As I said, Samaritans were harshly judged by Jews. They practiced what was considered to be a corrupted form of Judaism that didn’t recognize God’s presence in the temple in Jerusalem. Samaritans had also intermarried with conquering Assyrians and therefore were not considered to be ethnically pure.  In these ways Gospel stories about Samaritans can inform present day experiences of racism and religious intolerance.

Noted Episcopal Bishop and author John Shelby Spong makes some important observations about this text. He is clear that the entire story is a parable, meant to be read for its symbolic value. He points out that the reference to the woman’s five husbands is a metaphor. In the Second book of Kings in the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament, the ruler of Assyria, having conquered Samaria, brings people from five countries and places them in cities in Samaria. He sends a Jewish priest to instruct them in appropriate worship practices, but they disregard their instruction and continue to offer sacrifices to their own gods. The Samaritan woman’s “five husbands” represent settlers from these five countries. So, far from a judgment of the woman’s sexual immorality, Jesus’ critique is a reference to Samaria’s history of faithlessness, and a symbol of how divisions within the human family might be overcome through him.

Rather than responding from her limited role as religious and ethnic minority and prospective wife, the Samaritan woman first breaks out of societal norms and accepted practices to challenge Jesus. Then, satisfied with his response, she claims her power by embracing the vision of unity he proclaims.

At this point in the story the disciples return and completely miss the point, questioning why Jesus is even talking to a woman. Jesus’ is a clear message of inclusion and equality. The Samaritan woman recognizes this, claims it, and proclaims it. The disciples reject it. This story casts the woman, not as a bride to be, but as Jesus’ true disciple.

It is at this point in the story that I found myself convicted, seeing myself in the disciples. I realized that there is more to my relationship with Lourdes than butting heads with a strong woman. With some regularity, she will state an opinion and I will immediately contradict it in some way. Many of these issues are inconsequential, for example she will share plans that don’t involve me. Still, I find myself casting doubt on her idea and suggesting an alternative. When she calls me on this, I usually explain my response away as just sharing my opinion. But I realize that I am making an assumption in these interactions that I know best. I sometimes claim that I am making a necessary correction to her thought process, but truth be told, I am really reacting against a strong woman asserting herself to me. And despite my protests to the contrary, these interactions cast Lourdes in the proscribed role of wife.

Nevertheless, she persists!

I know you recognize this phrase that quickly spread across the internet a month and a half ago. Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced on the Senate floor when reading a letter by Coretta Scott King. Attempting to explain his action, Senator Mitch McConnell said, “Sen. Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Far from successfully putting Senator Warren in her place, “Nevertheless, she persisted!” became a rallying cry for women everywhere to speak boldly for equality.

The Samaritan woman understands Jesus’ message of inclusion. Claiming her gender, ethnicity and religion, she responds boldly to Jesus, then fearlessly returns to her community to deliver this message to the Samaritans. She persists!

This story speaks to us on many levels. As I did, many of us can learn a lesson from the Samaritan woman. For over sixteen years I have been celebrating Lourdes’ strength, while reacting poorly when it is directed toward me. For her whole life Lourdes has had to persist in response to being dismissed and diminished, even by me. So men, are there ways you are making women in your life persist in response to you?

I dare say this message should also speak to us in our churches. When I first arrived at First Church last January there were no women on our Board of Trustees. There were reasonable explanations about why this was the case, but a certain amount of persistence was required to have two strong, well-qualified women nominated to the board. And Center Church, you are blessed to be led by an extraordinarily strong woman. You might reflect upon the story of the Samaritan woman as well as my testimony and ask whether there are any lessons for you there. Are there ways that Rev. Whittaker is being required to persist here?

And like the Samaritan woman, women throughout the country are being asked to persist in the face of misogyny, racism, and religious intolerance. Like my response to Lourdes, much of this may be framed as perfectly reasonable, well-argued differences of opinion, simple requests to follow the rules. This is what Mitch McConnell asked of Senator Warren, that she “follow the rules.” This was the disciples’ expectation of the Samaritan woman, that she “follow the rules.”

She didn’t and we shouldn’t. Not these rules. As people of faith we are called instead to follow the example of the Samaritan woman, to identify, name and challenge the inequalities of gender, race and religion, to claim the power of Jesus’ vision of inclusion, then become that spring of living water that gushes up for all people in our lives, in our church, and in our world. Amen.

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