Lent 3, Year A
March 3, 2002
Old St. Paul’s, Baltimore
The Rev. Timothy E. Schenck
We just heard an impossible conversation. An encounter that should never have taken place. Jesus and this woman lived in completely different worlds, barely even existing in the same universe. And it’s difficult for us to relate to the magnitude of the barriers between Jesus and this unnamed woman at the well. It goes beyond any improbable interactions that we ourselves might be able to imagine. It transcends any barriers set up by class or race or gender or politics or age or anything else we can come up with. And the best witness to this may just be the disciples’ reaction when they stumble upon Jesus talking to this woman. When they arrive on the scene they’re stunned to see their leader speaking with her. “Astonished” is the word John uses – so much so that they’re rendered speechless. Why?
Because by the deep tradition and binding cultural norms of the day a Jewish teacher like Jesus would never have entered into Samaritan territory. He would never have spoken with a Samaritan. He would certainly never have spoken with a Samaritan woman. And he most certainly would never have spoken with a divorced Samaritan woman. Not in private, not in public. And the thought of drinking from a divorced Samaritan woman’s bucket was indeed unimaginable. It’s almost inconceivable to think that this whole encounter would have ever taken place. Hence the disciples’ reaction. Difficult for us to relate to, but if we enter into the context of time and place, we begin to get a glimpse of just how radical an encounter this really was.
From the Jewish perspective, this woman was an untouchable. She was considered about as ritually impure as a pig. The Jews were God’s chosen people, the Samaritans, God’s rejects. Steer clear. Avoid at all costs. Your reputation is at stake. But Jesus speaks with her. He reaches out to her. He touches the untouchable. And this is what makes this encounter so remarkable. Jesus touches the untouchable.
And truth be told, there are moments we all feel untouchable. Moments when we can relate to the woman at the well. Moments when our feelings of insecurity or personal anguish bubble up to the surface of our lives. Feelings that we’re usually so good at masking or repressing and keeping far from the sight of others and even from ourselves. Sometimes especially from ourselves.
To feel untouchable is to feel unloved. It’s an overwhelming sensation of isolation, of being walled off from human love and feeling cut off from God’s love. It’s a pretty miserable state to be in. And if we’re honest with ourselves – and the season of Lent demands that we examine our lives and scrutinize our hearts – if we’re honest with ourselves we’ll recognize that there are periods of time or pieces of our character that we feel are untouchable. Parts that we don’t want anyone to know about. Parts that we’re ashamed of. Parts that we feel are untouchable. But it’s in these places that Jesus is most present in our lives. The hand of Jesus reaches across the great chasm in our hearts, he touches us where we are most untouchable. Just as he touched the untouchable woman at the well.
It’s important to remember in all of this that this was no chance encounter. It’s no accident that Jesus finds himself at this particular well with this particular woman. No one would have given it a second thought if he had led his disciples around Samaria to get to Galilee. This is what Jews routinely did. They simply ignored and avoided a land that they felt was ritually impure. But Jesus finds himself driven out into the desert, alone and in desperate need of water. Like the Holy Spirit driving Jesus out into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights to be tempted by satan, Jesus is driven into the Samarian desert for this unlikely encounter. He probably would have preferred to be in any other place in the world except this desert. But here he was, accepting the Spirit’s call, accepting the Spirit’s challenge to break down the human barriers that divide us.
The love of God transcends race, gender, ethnic background, sexual orientation, or anything else that we, as humans, can construct to place ourselves into categories. Because the minute we start categorizing people, we start isolating and rejecting people. And this is not of God.
Jesus Christ breaks down the barriers that keep us separated from one another and he breaks down the barriers that keep sinful humans, you and me, separated from God’s loving mercy. He rejects the notion that some people are “chosen” and others are “rejected.” The gift of God’s grace is freely offered to all people.
A poor and slandered Samaritan woman at a well serves as a witness to this good news. Jesus reaches out to touch her and she reaches back. Jesus touches the untouchable and she responds with unexpected faith. If we allow Jesus to fully touch us, even in our most untouchable parts, who knows how much good might just transpire?
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2002