The Samaritan Woman
Alfre Woodard tells the story that on the set of the movie Poetic Justice, Dr. Maya Angelou interceded in an altercation and took the actor and Hip-Hop artist Tupac Shakur aside to calm him down, finally saying to him, “You are enough!” At one dimension this is what Jesus does for the Samaritan Woman at the well (John 4:5-42).
Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche Communities, once called her “the most broken woman in scripture.” She comes to the well to draw water at noon, the hottest time of the day. All the other women come early in the morning. As we learn, she has had four husbands and the man she is with now is not her husband. Likely this is no fault of her own, but rather the result of the marriage and divorce laws of her time and place that put her fate in the hands of the men who had known her. Still, there would be the comments, the whispering, fingers pointed. To avoid all of that she comes at noon only to find a young, tired Jewish man sitting near the well of her ancestor Jacob.
The Samaritans and the Jews shared a common ancestry and common scriptures as outlined in the first five books of our Bible, or Torah as those books are also known. They differed, however, on how to worship the God of Torah, the God of the Exodus – the Samaritans worshipped on Mount Gerizim while the Jews worshipped in Jerusalem atop Mount Zion. The two groups avoided one another as much as possible. Which makes it significant that Jesus is passing through Samaritan territory, though it is the quickest route from Galilee to Jerusalem.
Jesus asks the woman, who has no name, for a drink of water. This is significant. Not only did Jews not talk with Samaritans, but it was not proper for a man and woman not married to one another to be seen in public let alone conversing. Jesus has broken all the protocols and barriers of his day. The woman makes note of this. Yet, he is saying in effect, “There is something you, a Samaritan and a woman who has had numerous problems, can do for me, the source of living water. You are still created in the image of God. You have value. You are a person. You are enough.”
Given this background, can we see that suddenly this broken woman who comes to the well at noon to avoid situations just like this one is given purpose and strength and courage to engage in a deep theological and historical conversation with this stranger? She is no longer afraid. Unlike Nicodemus in the previous episode (John 3:1-17) who is rendered nearly speechless, she defends her ancestry and her people’s traditions.
And yet. And yet, she is now also whole enough to grasp that this young Jew passing through is someone special. Perhaps, she realizes, he is God’s anointed one come to restore all God’s people. She says, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christos). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am, the one who is speaking to you.”
“I am.” The very name Moses heard at the burning bush. Jesus self identifies as the one who says, “I am who I am.” At this climactic moment of self-revelation, Jesus’ hapless disciples return and are astonished that he is talking to a woman, and a Samaritan at that. Yet, afraid to call him on this breach of protocol, they start talking to him about food. Food. To which he says, Doing this work my Father has given me to do is what feeds me. Breaking down barriers, bringing people to wholeness, restoring people to embrace their belovedness, letting people know that they are enough – this is what feeds me.
Meanwhile the woman understands better than the disciples and goes back home to tell others what she has seen and heard, and because of her witness others come to see and to know Jesus. This outsider becomes the very model of a disciple. Others are restored to wholeness and fullness of life. Others come to know that they too are enough, all because of her witness. Her courage to tell her story. It’s a remarkable story really. It is a story about each of us and all of us. We are enough. Sometimes this is a difficult truth to accept. Yet, we are meant to contemplate this woman’s story and make it our own. There was something she could do for Jesus. There were more things she could do for others. She realized this and changed the lives of countless others, including those of us listening to her story and allowing it to move us to a new place.
Like her, will we accept the truth that we are enough? Will we be moved to serve the Lord and serve others so that lives will be changed? These uncertain times call us to witness to these truths.
This poem by Dr. Angelou seems right for this Samaritan Woman and for all women everywhere all the time.
Maya Angelou, 1928 - 2014
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.