Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Woman at the Well

3rd Sunday of Lent/A March 11, 2012

I love it when films or music – stuff that is out in the world—give us a contemporary lens with which we can view the lessons in the Gospel. Fr Jim referenced Oscar-nominated film “The Artist” on the first two Sundays of Lent as a means of helping us understand silence and listening. Not that we have a series going here, but today, the 3rd Sunday of Lent, there is an Oscar-nominated film that might help us better understand the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.

"The Help" is based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett and is the story about some very extraordinary women who bond over a book that they all contribute to—a book that views the 1960’s South through the eyes of “the help”—the African American women who were the maids—without whom life would have come to a complete halt. The book is secretly written, and comes into being after the assassination of Medger Evers galvanizes the Civil Rights Movement. The women who contribute their stories do so at great peril.There is a scene in “The Help”-----the scene involving Minnie, the outspoken maid that no one would hire, and Celia, the social outcast who hires her. On Minnie’s first day of work, it’s lunch time, and Minnie sits down in the kitchen to eat.Celia brings her plate in from the dining room and sits at the kitchen table with Minnie.“We’ve been over this, Miss Celia,” says Minnie. “You’re supposed to eat in the dining room. That’s how it works. Here, let me take your plate back.” Celia won’t let Minnie take the plate and responds, “I’m fine right here, Minnie.”They eat lunch together, Celia grateful for the company, and Minnie, not so sure about all of this----because the reality of these two women having lunch together simply did not happen in that setting and time.

I thought about Minnie when I read this Gospel story----the maids, and any person of color, were the outcasts ---and still are in so many ways that should make us angry. Celia shouldn’t have been an outcast according to the ‘rules’ of color, but she was--the adult woman still bullied by the mean girls who grew up to be mean women. Celia broke the rules and ate lunch with Minnie, and treated her with dignity and respect. The friendship that grows between these two women helps to heal the pain of being an outcast—for both of them.

The Samaritan woman was the ultimate outcast. Depending on whom you talked to, Jesus was also an outcast. The woman had come to the well in the middle of the day, reasonably sure that she wouldn’t have to deal with anyone, but instead met Jesus. Jesus broke a lot of rules—and one of the rules in this encounter was that Jewish men didn’t talk to women that they weren’t related to—and no good Jewish person would ever speak to a Samaritan at any time for any reason. The woman said, "How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?" A Samaritan woman was considered to be the lowest of human life forms, and she knew this. Jesus apparently didn’t consider her to be anything less than a person of great dignity and worth.

She was a strong woman.Jesus spoke directly to her as an equal. This Gospel reading makes a lot of people uncomfortable because I think that we are afraid of strong women. The Samaritan woman was not who you thought she was. If you look at how Jesus deals with women throughout the Gospels, this interaction shouldn’t surprise you. Jesus treated women as equals. He was very direct in his conversation, yet He didn’t pass judgment. He called it like He saw it. I like that about Jesus. When we hear this Gospel, we tend to not think too highly of the woman at the well---after all, she was divorced 5 times. We allow ourselves to be distracted by her circumstances, because, even now, divorce makes us very uncomfortable. We tend to ostracize folks who suffer the pain of a broken relationship.It’s easy to stand in judgment when you don’t understand the context for someone’s behavior. In first century Palestine, divorce was quite common, and could only be initiated by the husband. He could do so for any reason at all—and for something as trivial as being mad that his dinner was late, or burned, or not what he ordered. The Samaritan woman had been dumped.Dumped--5 times, by 5 different husbands. Then, as now, we blame and shame the victim—the female victim. In first century Palestine, if you were a divorced woman, or a widow, or an orphan---you had no standing and you were the most vulnerable person in society. You had no one to take care of you. She had good reason to hide out in the middle of the day at the well. Yet Jesus treated her with great compassion and had a conversation with her that changed her life. He broke all the social rules about who He should and shouldn’t speak to------and He did it because it was the human and kind thing to do.He treated all people, even those considered to be outcasts, with dignity and respect. The Gospel doesn’t mention whether or not they had lunch, but I like to think that they did.

We know that He asked her for something to drink. When she challenged Him over this request, He responded with the discourse on Living Water, which makes me think of El Salvador, our Rice Bowl country for this week. Many of you know that I spent time in El Salvador during the summer of 2007 with Catholic Relief Services. Some of CRS’ work there focuses on ensuring clean water for all. It was there that I realized how we take water for granted here----we live in one of the few countries in the world where you can put your cup under the tap and drink what comes out of it. Not so in El Salvador. You have to drink and brush your teeth with bottled water. When you take a shower, you have to plug your ears, eyes and nose to make sure that no water gets in. If you don’t take those precautions, the water will make you very, very sick. I took all the precautions, and I still ended up getting sick for the rest of that summer. Clean water is what they don’t have there, and what we take for granted here. If you use bottled water, perhaps you could give it up for the rest of Lent, and refill your bottle from the tap-- and then put what you save into the Rice Bowl for El Salvador. We don’t know what we have.

My journey in El Salvador helped me to more clearly understand the meaning of Living Water, and I can’t hear this Gospel now without remembering what they don’t have there. That’s the truth about us---we don’t know what we have. The troubling, and ultimately healing thing in today’s Gospel is that Jesus told the Samaritan women the truth about herself---which is the truth that we all must hear---that we are wounded, broken sinners in need of healing, grace and un-bottled Living Water.

No comments: