Originally I thought I would just talk about the Exodus passage from today’s lectionary, but I have decided to take a look at the passage from John as well.
17:1 From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” …
I have learned many things on my trips to Nicaragua visiting my sister community, Dulce Nombre de Jesus. On one of our delegations we studied “the Exodus.” For one of the workshops we were divided into groups to act out different parts of the story. My group acted out the dialogue between Moses and Pharaoh. I was a frog. But what became indelibly imbedded in my mind was skit of the group who acted out the crossing of the dessert. They were mainly Nicaraguans. They had large packs on their backs and sticks in their hands as they herded two cows; actual cows, right through the house. It was chaotic. The people were weighed down with their bundles on their backs and the cows didn’t want to go where they were supposed to go. I will never forget that vision of the difficulty of crossing the dessert.
What we learned from that week was that in the forty years that the Hebrew people spent traveling: from Egypt until they crossed the Jordan, they changed – they became a people, a people guided by God. They started out as former slaves, used to doing what they were told and being taken care of. At the end, they were tribes of people, with the Ten Commandments as a guide of how to live with each other in freedom, being responsible for each other and taking responsibility for themselves, and respcting God and God’s creation. The passage above shows them still dependent on Moses, expecting him to take care of them. They had a long way to go. It took two generations to change – two generations of hardship in the dessert. Most of the people who started out did not get to the Promised Land. But their offspring did.
I think each generation has the possibility of setting in motion changes that might not be realized in their lifetime, but may be realized after a generation or two. In the family in which I grew up, we were told to make our way into the world wherever it took us. We were to pursue our individual dreams, make the most of ourselves. My brother ended up in Colorado, my sister in Oregon, and I am in Massachusetts. My mother is in California in a facility for old people. This is not my vision of how a family should be.
My wife and I talked a lot with our daughters about this distance from family. Our daughters chose colleges close to home, deliberately, so that we would stay together as a family. Both daughters have husbands from this area, and we get to see our two granddaughters every week. It may take another generation before there is something like a clan of family in this region, but it started with our own realization of the importance of family, and the need to set in motion a long range possibility of change.
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” …The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” …Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” …..Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. …The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, …Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet…
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.
The gospel of John is my least favorite. I understand his message, that God is spirit, and we must worship God as spirit. There is truth here – partial truth; but truth nevertheless. But I have come to read the Bible, recognizing that it is both a divine and a human document. We all know that John was written well after Jesus died.
The Gospels are in the genre of a “praise biography.” It is the nature of such a biography that the author creates dialogues to make the story come alive. I have just finished my memoir, Normal: stories of my life. I have included a lot of dialogues in my book. They are not verbatim from my life. Some phrases I have remembered, but mainly I remember the jist of the conversation or situation. Another thing about a “praise biography” is that if the person one is writing about is worth reading about, they must have performed miracles. That was the norm. You have to have miracles in your story.
I think John knew of this meeting with the Samaritan woman. The story had made an impact on the young Christian community. I think John knew that Jesus had encountered this woman, and somehow had transformed her and the Samaritan town saw the transformation and welcomed Jesus among them and Jesus stayed and spent time with the people and those who were open to Jesus were also transformed. But I don’t think it happened the way John describes it.
This was a poor, rural community. The woman was alone, not with the other women, doing their household tasks together as is the custom in rural communities. Women in such a community were considered property. We hear from John that she had slept with many men. This would not have been of her choice. What kind of life had she lived as a child that she ended up in this situation. What sexual trauma had led her to be so used by men, cast out, and discarded? Women who have had such a life act out in different ways, but self loathing is usually at the core of their behavior. Some are meek and get used without complaint. Some display outlandish behavior; but it’s all self punishment for the guilt and shame they feel.
How would Jesus respond to such a woman? I don’t think it would take “divine power” to recognize her history. A sensitive man, like Jesus, would intuitively understand her pain and be compelled to respond with compassion. The last thing he would do is throw her history in her face. I don’t know what dialogue I would write to show how he responded to her, but I believe he did respond to her, to her pain, to her guilt and shame. I believe he gave her hope, and respect, and redemption. I believe he transformed her into a woman with self respect and dignity, enough that it was evident to the others in her community. This was the miracle.
I don’t know what Jesus said to her. I wish I knew. I have encountered such women in my life. Sometimes I have done OK, sometimes I have not. But I know that John got it wrong.