Rebecca Heilman
(John 4: 4-30; 39-42)

In her book, Breathing Space, Heidi Neumark writes about her friend, Miss Ellie. Miss Ellie lives on John’s Island near Charleston, South Carolina on a small dirt road in a one-room wooden home. Neumark often visited Miss Ellie sharing stories as they drank a tall glass of sweet tea.[1] And Neumark was not Miss Ellie’s only friend. Miss Ellie would walked for miles around the stream, through the tall, dangerous, snake-filled grass in order to visit her good friend, Netta. But, as Neumark writes, “Netta’s home was not that far from Miss Ellie’s place.”[2] It was practically right across from her, right over the stream that divided them. Understandably, Neumark worried about Miss Ellie traveling through the tall, dangerous, snake-filled grass. So Neumark, with the help of others, built a bridge for Miss Ellie for a more safe and quick travel to Netta’s place. When Neumark showed the bridge to Miss Ellie, Miss Ellie did not show the enthusiasm that Neumark expected. She writes, “There was no smile, no jumping in the sky. Instead, for a long time, she looked puzzled, then shook her head and looked at me as though I were the one who needed pity…”[3] Miss Ellie said to her, “Child, I don’t need a shortcut.” You see, Miss Ellie would walk around the stream to stop and visit with each of her neighbors. She would see Mr. Jenkins “whom she always swapped gossip.”[4] She would stop by Miss Hunter’s place, who always “looked forward to quilt scraps.”[5] She’d stop at one place for raison wine and another to exchange biscuits. She used that time, and that long walk around the stream to check in with each neighbor. Miss Ellie finally tells Neumark,

“Child… can’t take shortcuts if you want a community in this world. Shortcuts don’t mix with love.”[6] How true this is. As we all know, it takes time, energy, intentionality, and to often go out of one’s way to build relationships and a community. Jesus knew this just as much as Miss Ellie.

In our story, Jesus left Judea and was heading north towards Galilee. However, unlike Miss Ellie, Jesus took a geographical shortcut on his trip north, but he did not take a shortcut in building intentional relationships. It was just as dangerous for him to take that geographical shortcut, through Samaria, as it was for Miss Ellie to walk the long way around the stream. As we learned from the Good Samaritan story that Steve preached at the beginning of this series, Samaritans and Jews do not get along. They are enemies and avoided each other at all costs. And so often, when Jews were traveling they would never take the shortcut through Samaria. They would instead avoid it and walk the longer, safer road around. However, in this story, John emphasizes that Jesus had to go through Samaria. Another translation, it was absolutely necessary. And so, they ended up in the city of Sychar and it’s there that Jesus met a Samaritan woman.

Jesus could have easily ignored the woman, as easily as we ignore folks in a line at the grocery store, but instead Jesus engages in quite a long conversation with her. One of the longest back and forth conversations you will read in the Gospel.  This is significant considering all that this woman carries with her. She is an outsider of all outsiders. Preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, writes, “The woman at the well was a triple outsider.”[7] Since Jesus was of Jewish dissent, a Samaritan would have been considered an outsider to his religion and culture.  But not only was she a Samaritan, with all of the baggage that comes with that, she was also, of course, a woman. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “In Jesus’ time, women were not what you would call liberated. They were not even allowed to worship with men, whose morning devotions included the prayer, “Thank God I am not a woman.”[8] Women had no place in public life. They were not to be seen or heard, especially not by holy men, who did not speak to their own wives in public.” If Jesus was radical talking with a Samaritan, he was even more radical for talking with a Samaritan woman. And not only that, but there was one more thing that this woman carried as a triple outsider. She carried a history of husbands, five to be exact. Typically, women would draw water in the early mornings, when it was cool. Flocks of women would gather at the well where they would greet each other as their children played around them. It was a social time, as they waited in line to pull up water that would sustain their family for another day. As we read, the woman that Jesus was talking to, was at the well at about noon, when no one else was around and the sun was high and at its hottest. We can infer that this is a sure sign that she was not welcomed in the early morning social hours. She was an outsider to her own community. 

We learn this about half through the story, when Jesus is the one who acknowledges her past life. In fact, I don’t think the Samaritan woman wanted Jesus in on that personal information since it had already condemned her as an outsider. However, just when the woman is onboard with Jesus giving her this eternal living water, so she would never have to come back to this well that represents her humiliation, he exposes the most personal aspect of her life. He reveals her marital status of having nearly more spouses than Henry VIII.

The conversation could have ended there, but vulnerability had been released in the air and I’m sure there were a few awkward silences and a thought or two of turning and fleeing the scene. Imagine this woman, meeting a stranger, particularly a stranger she fundamentally disagrees with, and that stranger starting up a conversation, with her… a woman, then revealing a very intimate aspect of her life – something that I’m sure brings her pain and discomfort. But Jesus doesn’t shame her for it, he doesn’t say anything more about it, instead, he reveals something personal about himself.

I don’t think many of us would respond well to Jesus in this moment exposing our most personal past life. I know I wouldn’t and yet, Jesus is picking up on something. He is not only dismantling the barriers that keep us from God and neighbor but doing it through vulnerability and a desire for a true relationship, with yes, a Samaritan woman who has had five husbands. He’s tackling this barrier that has made her the outsider of all outsiders with conversation and vulnerability, instead of power and apathy. Brené Brown, a researcher who has dedicated her life’s work to studying vulnerability and shame writes, “vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love”[9]

When was the last time you had a conversation where you could truly, authentically be yourself and see the other person and all that weaves them together? Not just their political views from the signs in their front garden. Not just their perfect family photo after photo they post on Instagram. Not just the surface, “How are you?” “I’m good, how are you?” I’m talking about a conversation where we see the other person’s pain bubbling in their eyes and we care about it, asking to hear more.

I’m talking about slowing down and giving the other person permission to be who they are because when we invite vulnerability into a conversation, we are giving the other permission to be who God has meant for them to be. And I’m also talking about receiving the invitation for vulnerability and accepting it so that we can lean into relationships with honesty, trust, and meaning. Our world is as divided as ever because we fail to see the other person beyond the social media screen and the political signs. And it does not help that our world is even more divided right now when we can’t be closer than 6 ft from each other. I can’t even see your faces right now. It’s difficult to be vulnerable when we’re living in separation and fear, I see that. I experience it every day as well. A member of the Well Bible study class that Trinity hosts on Zoom expressed frustration in all that I just mentioned. It’s getting harder and harder to have conversations, to connect with others, to feel like we belong, and to truly be in relationship with one another and with God. They then went on to recognize how important it was for this Samaritan town and the woman to experience Jesus’ gift of vulnerability and authenticity. It broke down a barrier between Jews and Samaritans, but it also, broke down a barrier between this outsider of a woman and her own community. It ultimately brought them closer to God and each other. That’s a gift.

For what we know about the story, just when the woman has an opportunity to run, she engages. Just when she could have stepped back, Jesus stepped in. Just when the conversation gets uncomfortable, they settled into the moment and continued to get to know each other. Just when Jesus identifies the woman for all that she is, not just a shamed wife of five, but a deep theological thinker and evangelist too, Jesus reveals himself and all of who he is. The Samaritan woman says, “I know the Messiah is coming” and Jesus replies, “I am he,” revealing himself as God for the first time in John.

Jesus identifies the woman, and in so doing, Jesus identifies God’s self. This is who Jesus is, this is who God is. When we least expect it, God reveals God’s self in the moment, in the conversation, in ourselves, pushing us towards vulnerability so we can truly see God, truly see humanity in each other.

Pray with me.

Loving God, we believe, help our unbelief. Amen. 

[1] Heidi Neumark, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South of Bronx, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), 17.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid, 18.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Identity Confirmation: John 4:5-42,” Christian Century, February 12, 2008, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2008-02/identity-confirmation.
[8] Ibid.
[9] “Brené Brown: The Power of vulnerability,” Ted Talks, June 2019, https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_the_power_of_vulnerability?language=en

Featured image from https://mustardseedlings.com/2017/07/03/jesus-and-the-woman-at-jacobs-well/