In the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel Jesus speaks with a woman when they find themselves alone at a well at midday. We can learn a lot from what he says to her, and from what he chooses not to say.
Jesus tells the woman, “Go, get your husband, and bring him here.” She replies, “I have no husband.” Jesus tells her “That’s right. You’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re now with isn’t your husband.”
These could have been shaming words. In her culture, to be without a husband is to risk economic ruin, and to have been divorced by your husband is to be shamed.
Had he wanted to, Jesus could have scored some serious points here: I’m a prophet, and you’re a sinner. I’m celibate, and you’re promiscuous. You are living in sin by living with a man who is not your husband.
Evidently, he didn’t want to say those things.
The fact that she was at the well at midday suggests she already knew them too well.
After all, she was there at the hottest part of the day. Other women most likely drew their water when it was cooler, because carrying water is hard, hot work. This woman timed her work to avoid the people who knew her, and she was willing to suffer to avoid them. Which makes me wonder: just how badly were they treating her?
It also makes me wonder how many people in our time are willing to suffer to avoid Christians? How many people choose to avoid public worship and the community of faith because they would rather miss that than pay the price of being told they are sinners?
Jesus does not tell the woman, “Go and sin no more.” His disciples are astonished to find him speaking with this outsider: she’s a woman, a Samaritan, and a sinner. Three strikes against her; she’s out.
But Jesus chooses to talk with her about something more important: he teaches her, and invites her to worship “in spirit and in truth.” And he chooses this lowly woman, this outcast, this enemy of his people, to be the one to whom the Gospel first comes.
We can get a lot of attention in the media by self-righteous grandstanding, but wouldn’t it be better to follow the example Jesus sets here? Rather than telling people caught in desperate sin how far their sin has removed them from God, why not invite them to come to worship? Think of how much difference there is between saying “Stop being such a sinner” and “Be holy.” Between “You worship the wrong way” and “Come worship in spirit and in truth." Between “You are hated” and “You are known, and loved.”
It’s worth taking the time to note that Jesus chooses, in his words or his actions, to say the latter things, not the former. By talking with her he shows her that she is worth having a serious conversation with. When she confesses to him that she hopes for Messiah, his last words to her are these: “I am he.”
In other words: Jesus doesn’t dwell on what makes her hateful to her community; in not shaming her for being sinful, he says without saying it: you are known, and you are loved.
David O’Hara is a professor in the department of Religion, Philosophy, and Classics at Augustana College, an ELCA Lutheran college in South Dakota, where he directs the philosophy program. His most recent book was on C.S. Lewis' environmental vision. O’Hara also contributes to the Chronicle of Higher Education and blogs here.
Image: Jesus and a woman at the well, painting in museum of the Dominican priory of Santa Sabina in Rome, photo by Lawrence OP / Flickr.com