Today’s gospel lesson is one of those lessons that can be so full of intrigue that we miss what is happening in the text. Most of us have heard this lesson hundreds of times, and have probably lingered on the part of the conversation where Jesus calls out the woman for living with someone who is not her husband, after already having had five husbands. The conversation sounds straight out of Jerry Springer or Dr. Phil, where in the next scene we expect the other husbands to arrive, and a fight to break loose.
The problem with that kind of reading is we have the tone all wrong. By narrowing in on what sounds like a “gotcha!” statement from Jesus right in the middle of about 40 verses, we forget all of the words and actions surrounding this event in the middle. We have clues all along in the reading: Jesus going through Samaria (when most Jews avoid Samaria); a woman appearing at a well at noon (when most of the woman have come and gone); Jesus (a Jew) talking to a Samaritan woman in broad daylight (a triple no-no); disciples appearing and engaging in conversation that sounds like The Three Stooges; talk of prophets, messiahs, disciples, and evangelism.
When we step back and take the broad view of this lesson, we are able to not be distracted by the sweep of the narrative, the scandalous and the absurd details, and the confusing stream of thought. When seen broadly, we find a story that illuminates what having an incarnate God really looks like. Too often, when we talk of the incarnation, we think of the baby Jesus, or the bodily, gruesome crucifixion. But we sometimes forget the everydayness of the incarnation: the fact that Jesus is thirsty and needs something from another, namely this Samaritan woman; the fact that Jesus initiates an intimate relationship, where two people can talk about the pain, suffering, and societal rejection of a widow and/or divorcee, who is simply trying to get by in a community that ostracizes her, even from drawing water from the well in the cool of morning; the fact that Jesus understands barrenness and empowers her to instead birth new believers.[i] As Karoline Lewis says, says, “To take the incarnation seriously, to give it the fullest extent and expression, demands that no aspect of what it means to be human be overlooked. To do so would truncate the principal theological claim of [John’s] Gospel. At stake for the fourth evangelist is that Jesus is truly God in the flesh and every aspect of what humanity entails God now knows.”[ii]
I find this reading immensely meaningful today, because we are living in a moment when being flesh and bone is particularly precarious and unnerving. A pandemic has gone all over the world and landed in our schools, our churches, our gathering places, and our homes. Our lives have been upended by the threat of the Coronavirus, knowing the vulnerability of some in our community, and understanding suddenly how intricately intwined our lives are, even at a time when we have opined about how socially distanced we are. This is a time when we feel very fleshy and vulnerable and here is Jesus talking to a vulnerable woman about his own fleshiness.
I don’t know about you, but I find this strange, circuitous conversation very comforting today. In a time of anxiety, fear, and upheaval, Jesus is right there, in the midst of everyday messiness, and saying, “I feel you. I understand. I, your God, am incarnate, and I see and know you.” And in response, the woman who is seen, known, and heard in turn goes to her community and becomes Jesus for others. As Lewis says, “The woman at the well is not only a witness. She is Jesus, the ‘I AM’ in the world, for her people.”[iii]
This is our invitation today too. In the midst of upheaval, of disorientation, of anxiety, we are invited to be fully enfleshed Jesuses for others – to see their pain, their suffering, their uncertainty, and offer solidarity, comfort, and encouragement. Even in a time of physical separation, we are invited into intimate relationship with one another, into relationships that honor the holy in one another, and help us all move forward. This is what the Messiah does for us. This is what we can do for one another. Amen.
[i] Karoline M. Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 64.
[ii] Lewis, 55.
[iii] Lewis, 65.