The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Christ in the Face of the Stranger
More than four decades ago, Henri Nouwen wrote: “In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found. Although many, we might even say most, strangers in this world become easily the victim of fearful hostility, it is possible for men and women, and obligatory for Christians, to offer an open and hospitable space where strangers can cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings. The movement from hostility to hospitality is hard and full of difficulties. Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude, and do harm. But still – [this] is our vocation: to convert the...enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.”1
Jesus and his followers had entered a city of strangers – or perhaps better said, a city where they were strangers. It was hostile territory. In the verse immediately preceding our reading from John’s Gospel, it says that Jesus had to go through Samaritan territory in the verse before today's reading. And while it was on a pretty direct route between Judea and Galilee, they did not have to go through Samaritan territory. It seems the disciples would have preferred not to; but they did.
There were ways to circumvent the area; that’s what most Jews would have done – like taking the freeway to avoid the inner city. It happens now; it happened then. But Jesus, a Jew, walked right into this Samaritan city – a city of strangers – and sat down by their well.
At this time in history, Jews and Samaritans were bitter enemies – so much so that the woman at the well asks Jesus, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” She is surprised that Jesus would even ask her for a favor, ask her to do something for him. The animosity was deep-seeded. Descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel, the Samaritans were considered by Jews, not sisters and brothers, but an impure distortion – their blood and their religious practices polluted by heathens, an unwelcome abomination. The hostility even at times became violent. In about 300 BCE, the Samaritans built a shrine on their holy mountain, Mount Gerizim, to compete with the Jewish Temple. Less than 200 years later Jewish troops tore the Samaritan shrine to the ground. And then, not long after Jesus' time, some Jewish pilgrims making the same journey as Jesus and his disciples were victims of a violent riot.2 Despite their common roots, Jews and Samaritans were enemies; they disagreed on religious practice and theology; they had a violent history; and they did not mix. The suspicion and hostility simmered, ready to boil over at any time. A careful Jew, a shrewd Jew, would have taken the bypass.
And yet, here he is: Jesus begging hospitality in a hostile environment. A thirsty, exhausted Jewish man without a water jar. This story begins with a basic human need – thirst: the desire for water. Jesus was thirsty. And this woman has a bucket. And a well. And the well is deep and full of water.
Disregarding her ethnicity and gender, or perhaps disregarding his own ethnicity and gender, Jesus asks for a drink. And in that moment, the woman – unnamed in this story – is very much aware of her ethnicity and gender, or perhaps is very much aware of his ethnicity and gender. And the history. And the risk.
“Why are you speaking with her?” That is what they want to ask Jesus. They don't, but they want to. The disciples were in the city buying lunch. No one stayed to babysit Jesus – which turns out to be a mistake. Because when they return they see him talking with this woman – worse than that other people see him talking with this woman. She'll probably tell people too. It's embarrassing when it's your leader, your role model, who is engaged in such inappropriate, risky behavior. It really reflects poorly on the entire company. Was he this thirsty, thirsty enough to lower himself so?
Despite everything, she engaged Jesus in conversation. I mean, rather than just giving him some water and walking away. Or perhaps more appropriately, just ignoring him and walking away. Really she challenges Jesus – this man who dared come into her neighborhood and violate the social norms. And then the dance begins – back and forth. The conversation, on the surface, does not seem entirely successful – more like a collection of somewhat related statements. Two unlikely partners talking politics and religion – gender issues and racial tension hanging over the entire interaction. Very inappropriate.
And what begins with Jesus' desire for water, arouses something deep in this woman, something soul deep: a desire that longed to be filled. Until this stranger broke into her life, she did not realize it, but now she recognizes that she too is dying of thirst. And she longs for that spring of water, gushing up in her barren life, in a barren land. A well to which she did not have to travel in the heat of the day. “Give me this water, so that I may never have to be thirsty.”
It is easy to look at this passage and think that the woman just didn't get it. She seems to be talking literally; Jesus seems to be talking spiritually. But before we sell her short, keep reading. Because she does get it. She finds her Savior in the face of this stranger. So she gets it; she gets what she most desires. The one who aroused, awakened, the desire also fulfills it. She gets the water for which she thirsts and she becomes a conduit through which living water flows into other desolate lives.
This is an unlikely salvation story. And it probably should have never happened. Because Jesus should have taken the bypass. And the Samaritan woman should have said no to her enemy's request. And he, a Jewish rabbi, should not have engaged her, a Samaritan woman, in a conversation about religion and politics in a public place. And two strangers should not have made this beautiful, vulnerable space in their lives for each other. Because this world is dangerous and full of dangerous people. And the walls that divide us keep us safely apart. And if people let down their guard or break down the walls or transgress the boundaries or open their vulnerable hearts, life will no longer be safe and they might get hurt.
Or we might find that our salvation story is written in that space where hostility becomes hospitality. We might find, like the disciples, that Jesus settles into that open space between us and those we believe to be our enemies. We might find that when we dare to see the humanity in the stranger, the stranger can see our humanity too.
“Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude, and do harm. But still – [this] is our vocation: to convert the...enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.”
Our world is broken and divided. It is suffocating in a thick smog of fear and anxiety. Hatred and mistrust: spreading like a plague. Our brothers and sisters, each and every one created in the image of God, are cast as the monsters in the horror stories we tell each other. It is not what God wants for us. We can no longer live like this. It must break God's heart.
In these fearful, defensive, aggressive times, the safe bet is to stay home, lock our doors, guard our precious stuff, play it safe. But the Jesus we follow keeps wandering into the wrong places, strange places full of strangers. And he leaves the door open behind him, luring us to risk our vulnerable hearts in a dangerous world. Daring us to find our salvation behind those enemy lines. Daring to see the face of Christ in the face of the stranger.
1Reaching Out, 65-6.
2Twelve Months of Sundays, N.T. Wright, 44.