The king said to Daniel, ‘May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!’

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

My encounters with the Woman at the Well: A personal sermon on John 4

The audio for this sermon can be found here.

Grace and Peace-

These women are seeking microloans from We will get back to these two women in a moment.

For the last 2.5 years, I have served on the Justice for Women Consulting Committee of the ELCA. Twice a year I go to Chicago where we strategize and prayerfully consider how women are treated in our church and in the world.
A little over a year ago I was approached to write a study guide about a Documentary called Missrepresentation, a film that catalogs the various ways that women are mistreated in the media. That study guide will is going through final editing and will be published and distributed to every synod office in the country in the next few months.
Now if you’re asking, “Why is he, a white male, writing for Justice for women” you’re not alone- I ask that question frequently...

Most pastors have something of a “call” story.
If I had to pick one text, it would be this one.
The woman at the well story has been the single most influential text in my life.
As many of you know, my Mother is a Pastor. When I was a young teenager, my mother was thinking about going to seminary and I was trying to deal with the biblical texts against women being preachers.
And even though women not being allowed to be preachers didn’t affect me because I’m not a woman, I can tell you that my conscience would not have allowed me to go to seminary if my mother wasn’t allowed in.

So, in the context of that story, I want to show you how my reading about the woman at the well has changed.
I love the woman at the well story because of the surprising nature of God.

It sounds bad- the text tells us that she has been married 5 times- and the man she is with now is not her husband. Women weren’t allowed to divorce their husbands. A man could divorce his wife for two reasons:

If she were barren
If she were unfaithful

In both cases she would go back to her father’s house (or maybe be killed), but in neither of those cases she would never be married again.
The most likely reason that she had been married five times is because her previous four husbands had died. It was customary that if the oldest brother died that she would remarry the second brother. And if he died, she’d marry the third, etc.
And the man she’s with now won’t marry her because he is superstitious about what happened to the other five.
And yet, perhaps none of us were taught that kind of information about this woman.
The day that I was confirmed at Good Shepherd Lutheran church, I was dealing with all of these issues surrounding my future call and my mother’s call as well.
And on that day I was given this verse, “The water that I give will become in you a fountain, welling up to eternal life”
But I don’t understand why he would give me a scripture verse of something Jesus said to such a deplorable woman. 
The pastor told me that he thought that when was older that people were going to listen to me, that I would be a leader, and that I would have to be careful what I say because others would be listening.
At the same time, my confirmation was our last Sunday at GSLC, as Mom had taken a position as a Deaconess at an LCMS church in Cary.
The next week, my family and I were standing in front of our new congregation, in a beautiful new church building, with a beautiful marble baptismal font.
And as I was leaning on the font I noticed a verse etched into the front of it.
It was from John 4:14
 “The water that I give will become in you a fountain, welling up to eternal life”
This verse is following me! I thought to myself.
I went home and prayed. I prayed that God would give me some clarity not only for this verse, but in my life.
That sense of self-discovery took more than 10 years. Several years later I found myself in a wooden chair of an ELCA seminary classroom a little after sunrise. My eyes were tired. We were learning Greek and our professor called on me to translate a verse. I looked down were reading this passage of John chapter 4, and the story of the woman at the well.
Finally I came to terms with this verse. For the water that I shall give will become in you a spring of water, welling up to eternal life.
Jesus isn’t condemning her, he’s identifying with her. When we read the text, we can plainly see that the woman is excited by Jesus revealing her intimate story. Twice after meeting Jesus she goes to people and says the English words, “He told me everything I had ever done” but in greek, it would read more like, “He told me my life’s story” “or, he told me everything I had ever gone through.
This woman isn’t a harlot, she’s just a poor, sad, woman who was previously invisible. She was lost, and now she’s been found.  
John 3- Nicodemus coming to Jesus as night. For God so loved the world- those who believe
Renowned John scholar- and Dean of Wake Forest Divinity- Gail O’Day says that this woman is the world’s first Christian theologian!
She believes. And she goes to tell everyone about it.
Compare that to Nick in Chapter 3
Nicodemous, whose actions are forgettable, has a name- but the woman at the well- she remained anonymous.
I called my mom to share with her what I had learned that day. We vowed to teach the woman at the well story, not as a woman shamed or even forgiven- but as a woman with a brain who had value and purpose! We also vowed to look out for when women were being marginalized.
When I was a vicar I was in the same city as my mother. We saw each other once a month at our conference meetings. And I was amazed at how often my mother would go overlooked- one time every person in the room was asked their opinion except her. Forgotten, marginalized. Invisible. As a vicar and a son, I didn’t know my place. But now, as a theologically trained ordained pastor and feminist advocate, things have changed.
The woman at the well story reminds us that Jesus sets us free.
Before she met Jesus, every day she traveled to this well to get water to survive. Her life was as stagnant as the water at the bottom of the well. But the well they met at was steeped in the tradition of Jacob and patriarchy. The rules of that patriarchal system said that this woman was destined to lose. Never getting to choose whom she married, forever dealing with the trauma of losing five husbands and not being able to be seen during the daytime for ridicule that she was now living with someone who wouldn’t marry her.
The she met the Son of Man who just HAD to go through Samaria.
That’s like saying in driving from Boone to Winston that he HAD to go through Charlotte
He had to go through Samaria because he knew she would be there and he needed to talk with her.
The well is deep, she tells Jesus- and you don’t have anything to get a drink from. And you’re not supposed to be talking to me.
Again Jesus refuses to play be the rules.
Then the verse that changed her life.
For the water that I shall give shall become in you a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
If you’ve ever been to a poorly circulated pond you know that stagnant water is no good. It can make you sick.
The ancients knew that moving water- or living water- they called it- was clean and you didn’t have to go to it- it came to you!
When Jesus starts a conversation with a woman and tells her about a life of purpose she leaves her pitcher of stagnant water behind and goes to town.
My mom and I share this verse as our favorite part of scripture, and not just because of what it does for women in ministry. But this text, above all others, shows us that Jesus knows our story, and in spite of how bad it seems, he calls us to something greater than our story

He calls us to mission. 

God gives us the purpose to spread the story even when we are anonymous.
Over time this story made me wonder- who else in our world have been overlooked, judged wrongly and stuck with stagnant water.
 These pictures are of women seeking microloans.
I put up a link on our facebook page to
Microloans they have been growing in popularity in large part because ¾ of them are given to women with small businesses all over the world to the tune of about $38 billion annually. 
Given to women for lots of reasons? Women were found more deserving of investment.
Men have been found more likely to ask for a loan bigger than they need, to work independently, to invest in riskier endeavors, more likely to lie and cheat, more likely to default, and more likely to act violently when the bank comes to collect.
In every measurable category- paying on time, the size of the loan, working collaboratively, default rate, return on investment- every category women outshine men.
My mom and I starting lending money through kiva, in large part, because of the woman at the well.
Jesus didn’t have kiva in his day, but somehow still knew that  this woman were more deserving of his investment than Nicodemus.
I pray for you today is that you may be inspired to action because of Jesus’ encounter with the world's first anonymous Christian theologian.

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