A while ago, Andi and I were looking at buying a houseboat, one of those mobile floating homes down near Lonsdale Quay. We couldn’t believe we’d found something in North Vancouver in our price range. At least by my estimation, the mortgage was less than what we were paying each month for rent.
So, as I often do with major life decisions, I emailed my mom and sent her the listing. My mom wrote back, saying how excited she was for us to be home owners one day. Then, she said, “Look again at the listing, though. That isn't the monthly mortgage fee. That's the monthly moorage fee!”
Moorage, as in, how much it costs to park your other boat at your houseboat. Needless to say, the mobile floating home wasn’t quite in our price range and we'd live to rent another day.
What a difference a couple of letters can make! The difference between Jesus’ background and that of the woman at the well in our gospel reading this morning, is no more and no less than the difference between home ownership and having a place to stash your boat on the weekends (no disrespect to the boat owners in the congregation, of course).
The woman at the well is a Samaritan. Her ancestors, over time, adopted the Torah as their holy book, just as Jesus’s ancestors have the Torah as their governing text. The woman at the well, her people had, for generations, been subject to war and imperialist rule, just as Jesus’s ancestors had been. Her people were displaced from their lands and displaced others from their lands, just as Jesus’ ancestors had done.
Jesus and the woman at the well are ‘kin’; they have a great deal in common, actually, and yet the communities they represent hated each other. So much so that this Samaritan woman comes to collect water at noon, in the middle of the sun-scorched day, to avoid running into an enemy. How interesting that she meets Jesus there, Jesus whose disciples have stayed in the city to escape the heat. Jesus, a man, who would’ve had the privilege of going to get water at any other time of day when the temperature was more agreeable.
At first glance, this is a story of the remarkable transformation of a woman from the wrong side of the tracks with a checkered past finding new life after an encounter with Jesus. This is a story that legitimizes the role of women as disciples and I would say the role of women as preachers, too. This is, after all, the longest recorded conversation that Jesus has with another person. The woman at the well is the only person other than John the Baptist who really gets Jesus' mission right off the bat, proclaiming Jesus as the saviour of the world as opposed to the saviour of a chosen few.
The woman knows that Jesus’ people have the temple in Jerusalem as their centre of worship, when hers have merely been paying rent on a plot of land outside the city. She assumes that Jesus is just another homeowner lucky to have some property under Roman occupation. She is surprised when Jesus tells her that neither she nor his people will have ownership in the kingdom that Jesus has come to set up. Rather, the dividing lines of old will be torn up. All people, regardless of background, will have ownership—not of property, per say, but of justice and peace.
Here’s a fun fact about the way this story is written. The author of John’s gospel writes in what’s called a chiastic structure. There’s two steps up to the main event in the story and then two steps down, and the steps or elements on either side of the narrative parallel each other. So, if you can imagine two sides of a pyramid, we have:
A. A woman comes from home to draw water
B.The disciples go away into the city
C. There is dialogue between Jesus and the woman at the well
B. The disciples return from the city
A. The woman leaves her water jar and goes back home
There is incredible, poetic order to this story, even if it seems just another gospel tale. Some scholars even read this text allegorically, meaning they look for the characters in this story to represent something of political and social significance. The woman represents the people of Samaria as a whole and her five husbands the five empires that have ruled her people over the ages. Jesus then represents a new marriage, a new empire, which seeks not to dominate and oppress but to liberate and reconcile.
Why does this matter? I think so often in our Western worldviews, we go looking for truth, for meaning in our lives to be told to us in concrete objective truths, a list of rules and regulations, a set of doctrines, even. Like the woman at the well, we are looking for a saviour, an empire, that will tell us exactly what to do to keep ourselves safe and secure in this life. The last place we’d expect to learn about Christology (the doctrine of the Christ figure) or Soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) is in a story, especially a story with an unnamed woman at its core. But, what if the stories of our lives were where we actually looked for meaning and to shape our identity? What if stories were where we looked to determine our beliefs and form the values that underpin our lives?
After meeting Jesus, the woman at the well heads back to her people with a story, a wild unbelievable story. She says to them, “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did.”
The people need only to believe her story enough to go and experience it for themselves before they, too, come to recognize the truth in it. There is meaning for them and their own lives with this Jesus, this Christ who really does have equal concern for all people equally, who really is the saviour of the world. To what extent are we willing to believe a story about God, a story about humanity that seems too good to be true? Amen.
Jennifer Garcia Barshaw, Sherri Brown, Robert Hoch, Karoline Lewis, Osvaldo Vena, “Commentary on John 4:5-42” accessed online on 12 March 2023 at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-john-45-42-6