My father once told me there are no pure historic records, because everything written down is coloured by the viewpoint of the person doing the writing. Because we are human, we move through our lives filled with preconceived notions and unspoken expectations. It is human nature, and left purely to our own devices, there isn't a thing we can do about it. Yet, because we are responsible adults, and Christians, we are called to be conscious that what we sinners perceive to be the truth, may not, in fact, be the Truth. It's not an easy assignment.
One hot afternoon, Jesus and his followers, who by this time have grown to accept the unexpected from their Rabbi, wander into a Samaritan town. We have the written record, here in the Gospel of John, and it ought not to be difficult to piece together the scene. Jesus, a Jew, is hot and tired from traveling, and both He and the disciples are hungry and thirsty. Having dispatched His followers to buy food, Jesus walks up to the well, which we may assume is placed in easy access of all, perhaps in the center of town, and sits down. It's noontime; it's hot, and along comes a woman to draw water. You can see Jesus, weary, relaxing, and her, the great jar on her shoulder, preparing to draw the water, bending in the heat. You can picture it all in your mind.
What you see is not what the casual bystander of that day would have seen. The man, Our Lord, is a Jew. What is a Jew, distinguishable, perhaps, by his manner of dress, doing in a Samaritan town? To the Jewish people, the Samaritans are dirt, outcast, unwanted. The only time Jews have paid any real attention to the Samaritans is to invade Samaria and destroy the temple there. To the Jews, Samaritans are scum. Yet here is this Jewish man sitting at the well, relaxing.
Then there is the woman. If, to the Jews, Samaritans are the lowest of the low, this woman is a step lower. What is she doing at the well at high noon, at a time of day when no one in their right mind wants to be outside in the scorching heat? She's avoiding the company of other women, because she is a woman of ill repute, or, as our Prayer Book would say, a notorious evil liver. She is trying to protect herself from their scorn, their anger, and their cruelty. Were she to come to the well at the normal time of day, she would be opening herself up to abuse.
So what we really have here is a Jewish man, totally out of place in this Samaritan town, and a woman of ill repute, meeting at the well of Jacob at noon time. It's a different picture now from the one you had a moment ago.
The Samaritan woman, too, has a perspective. She sees a Jewish man without a jug. She's smart, she's quick, she's guarded. What's he doing here, and more important, what does he want with her? It really isn't difficult to put yourself in her place. Though we do not share her poor reputation in the community, we would all certainly be a bit intrigued if, say, a member of Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club showed up here, in church, in full regalia, and wanted to join us in receiving communion. I don't know about you, but though I would certainly communicate him, I'd be wondering why he'd come here. We have expectations and preconceived notions, and so does the Samaritan woman. She's working hard, thinking fast, trying to figure out this strange Jewish man. Surprisingly, He asks her for a drink, and she asks Him what He's up to. How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?
Jesus answer does not respond to her question. As it was last week with Nicodemus and his questions, the truth of what is happening, has nothing to do with the agenda of the woman’s at the well. Instead of answering her as she might have expected, Jesus speaks to her of "living" water. Again, she does what we'd do, what Nicodemus did last week, tries to tie together what Jesus says with reality as she perceives it.
This time, even if she doesn't know why, the Samaritan woman thinks she knows exactly what this Jew is talking about. He's offering her flowing water, as in a stream, a river, a spring. Despite her confusion, she tries to piece it all together in her mind. Here they are at Jacob's famous well, this man is thirsty but has no jug, and now He speaks of living water, an extremely precious commodity in this desert area. She makes the best response she can. "Where do you get it?", and, "Is it better than our well?"
And Jesus says, "Yes! The water I shall give will become a spring welling up to eternal life. You won't get thirsty again." And the woman, though she hasn't caught on to what's happening, or who this man is, sees this as an offer too good to refuse. She isn't the sort of woman to refuse much, so she says, "Give me some!"
Up to this point, the woman thinks she understands what’s happening, but she’s in for a real surprise. Have you ever gotten off at the wrong “T” stop, stepped off the train, then looked around – and nothing is familiar? Not the station, not the area around the station. There are no familiar buildings, no landmarks. It’s an eerie feeling, like stepping into the "twilight zone." The woman at the well is about to have that sort of feeling.
Thus far, nothing has gone as she expected, and without realizing she has done so, through what she has said, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw," she has answered Jesus’ call to discipleship. Now, she is about to receive the greatest surprise of all.
Jesus, who has recognized from the first, who and what she is, asks her to go and fetch her husband. When she replies she has none, He states the obvious. “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!” And the woman is, as we say these days, blown away. A total stranger knows all about her.
This is the moment for this woman, the instant when, because she responded in the affirmative to Jesus’s call, God has pierced the fog and made her vision clear. For the Samaritan woman, this is the first time Jesus has spoken about something she completely understands. Up to this point, she has been struggling to catch His drift, interpret what He is saying, to fit Him into her concept of what and who He should be. She has been thoroughly distracted by the inner workings of her own mind. Now, suddenly, He gets her real attention, the turmoil in her head is quiet, she focuses on Him, and can see the Truth. Her recognition of Him as the Messiah, and her joyful evangelizing throughout her community, are quick to follow.
What do we focus on? When it comes to other people, we each have a lifetime of experience that informs our thoughts and actions. When we meet someone we already know, we may look at their face to gauge how they’re feeling. Our appraisal of them comes automatically. When, like the woman at the well, we meet a stranger, we size them up by gender, age, race, and also by how they dress, how they speak, their body language, and by how they react or respond to us. This is normal human behavior.
Last week Nicodemus, and this week the Samaritan woman at the well, discover that what we see is not what God wants us to see, but only what our sinful, human nature perceives. We, who follow Jesus, are called to look at each other differently. We are called, not to see just another human being, but to seek out Christ in each other.
St. Teresa of Calcutta, and so many other saints and holy men and women remind us by their words and example – by their very lives – that seeing Christ in others isn’t always easy, but it is always necessary for those of us who strive to live out the Gospel, to do the work Jesus has called us to do. So, how do we do see Christ in others?
We must begin with prayer. The first step could simply be to pray for a person who irritates us whenever we find ourselves upset by that person. And there’s another key element to our success in seeing Christ in others. We find it in the second part of the greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We cannot recognize Christ in others if we don’t first recognize Christ in ourselves.
We need to claim our belovedness, accept into our hearts and souls the reality that we are loved by God beyond measure, just as we are, flaws and all. And then we need to accept that that same God who loves us so completely also loves the guy who stole the parking spot, the one you dug out after the storm, just as much as He loves you. It might help us to remember the words of Jesus in Matthew, “Whatsoever you did for one of these least brothers ans sisters of mine, you did it for Me.”
Even with the best of intentions, even with prayer and grace and self-acceptance, it can still be hard to look into the eyes of someone who is hurting us or someone on the margins and see Christ there. It requires a certain amount of detachment — to not take things personally, to forgive when we want justice to be served, to see past a rough or disheveled exterior.
Becoming Jesus to others and seeing Jesus in others is a lifelong journey, one that may take us two steps forward and one step back, but this is what we are called to do. As long as we are always focused on the end “goal” and rooted in prayer, we will keep moving forward, however slowly, and in doing so we will transform our hearts, transform our lives, and transform our world.
Let us pray:
Lord Jesus, teach us to pray with great confidence, with confidence based on the goodness and infinite generosity of our heavenly Father and upon the promises You have made to us. Help us to accept how deeply You love us, that we might humbly surrender to Your will and be filled with Your grace and Holy Spirit. Then grant us grace to open our hearts and let Your love flow through us to others, that they may see You in us and we may find You in them. We ask this of You, dear Lord, who art a spring of living water which flows unceasingly into the hearts of those who pray. Amen