Monday, 16 March 2020

The woman at the well: Lent 3

John 4.5-42

Jesus meets an unnamed woman at a well in Samaria in this week’s Gospel reading. It’s a long reading and it’s easy to get distracted by the theological detail, the long conversation about where people are supposed to worship, about the nature of God, about living water that never runs out. But it’s the little details of this story which tell us the most important things about this woman and what this meeting means to her.

The well is in Samaria, a territory between the southern region of Judea, centred on Jerusalem, and the northern province of Galilee. The Samaritans were related to the Jewish people, similar to them, sharing many beliefs and scriptures, but small differences can take on disproportionate significance, and the disagreements between Jews and Samaritans about those differences had become so bitter, that Jewish people would normally take the long route round to avoid going through it. But Jesus didn’t. And here he is sitting by this Samaritan well, while his disciples go off into the nearby town to try to find food.

It is about noon, the story tells us. The sun is high in the sky. It’s hot, a time when anyone who could be in the shade, taking it easy in a cool place, would be. But here is this woman coming to the well, alone. Fetching water was normally a job which you’d do as early in the morning as you could. It was quite a trek from the village to this well, and the jar would be heavy to carry back. You’d normally do it in company too, partly because it was a good opportunity to chat with other women – women at this time and in this area lived very secluded lives, so any chance to meet up with friends was welcome – but also because it was safer to be in company. Lone women were regarded as fair game for men, as they still are in many parts of the world today when doing these tasks. So it’s odd that this woman is there on her own, at the hottest time of the day. There has to be a reason for it. The implication is that she has been cold-shouldered by the other women of the town, that she has no friends.

But what she finds in Jesus is a man who listens to her and respects her, who talks theology with her, answering her questions, debating her ideas. That was probably a very rare occurrence. And it is all the more astonishing when we discover why she is alone. Jesus asks her to call her husband, and when she says she hasn’t got one, he tells her what he already seems to have known, that she has been married five times, and that the man she lives with now won’t marry her. In her society that meant that either she’d been widowed five times, or that five men had divorced her – women couldn’t initiate divorce themselves. Either way, her neighbours would have regarded her with suspicion, assuming she must have offended God in some way for all this to have happened to her. And the man she’s with now can’t be bothered to give her the dignity and security of marriage. Her self-esteem must have been at rock-bottom.

But nowhere does Jesus suggest that any of this is her fault. He doesn’t tell her to “sin no more” as he does to others. He doesn’t forgive her, as he would if she had done something wrong. He just accepts her and more than that, treats her as the intelligent person she obviously is.

That’s what transforms her. She leaves her water jar, that precious water jar that she has trekked all that way to fill, and runs back to her town shouting out to all those neighbours who have shunned her, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done” she calls out to them. Her joy is obvious, because not only has he seen her and known her, he has accepted and respected her too, even after she realised that he knew what her life had been like. That’s something that no one else has done. Her neighbours, obviously captivated by this transformation, come to see for themselves and also believe.

In Western Christianity, this woman is unnamed, just “the woman at the well”, but the Eastern Orthodox churches pondered what might have happened to her next, and either preserved or invented a whole afterlife for her. In a way, I’m not sure it matters which, because their stories are really about what they thought of her, not the biographical reality.

In the ancient legend s, she and her whole family become followers of Jesus, and, after his death and resurrection, they find themselves, somehow in Rome, dragged before the mad emperor, Nero, who had many  Christians killed, including our own saints, Peter and Paul. Her brothers were thrown into jail, but she and her sisters were clad in fine clothes by Nero and made to sit in front of a table piled high with gold and jewels. “All this can be yours,” said Nero, “if you will give up your faith in Jesus.”  But they refused. Nero then sent his own daughter to try to persuade them, but still they refused, and in the process, according to the story, they converted her as well. Eventually, they were killed, but not before they had had a profound effect on everyone they came into contact with.

The Eastern Orthodox churches give this woman a name, and make her a saint, as she surely is. They call her Saint Photini, from the Greek word for light, fos – we get photon and photograph from it. She is called “the luminous one”, or “the shining one” because that’s what she does. She shines for her neighbours in that Samaritan village in the Gospel reading, and she is a light in the darkness of Nero’s cruelty, according to the legend.

That makes her a very good saint for our times too – there’s plenty of darkness around – but each of us is given a light to shine with; ourselves, just as we are, children of God, lit up by his love for us. Where might your light shine this week? Where might mine? Wherever it is, whatever this week brings, let’s pray that the light of Christ shines as bright in us as it did in Photini, so that we can light up the lives of others now as she did then.


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