As I was preparing to preach on John 4:4-30, I realized once again how easily it can be to be blinded by ones own perspective.
(Keep reading, I will get to Barbie and Mrs. Potato Head in about 400 words.)
Whenever I read the story of the woman at the well with whom Jesus speaks – I imagine the Messiah who purposefully takes a break at Jacob’s Well at midday, knowing that the woman is going to approach. And when she does, he is kind and honest, welcoming and knowing. He knows all about her life, as she is one of God’s many children. This woman, as a Samaritan, knows about God’s promises. Samaritans were descended from Jacob through Joseph, and had been living in this region for over a thousand years, drawing on the water from Jacob’s well – a well given to them as part of God’s promises. While others of the larger Israel family had been scattered, moved and exiled, they had remained.
I have always seen this woman as a strong woman. I don’t know the details of her 5 husbands, and the man who is now not really her husband. Was she orphaned young and married off? Did the 5 husbands die, and she was blamed in some weird way? Did she have kids, and if so, what happened to them? Was she considered an outcast…and then this man – perhaps kindly, perhaps not – took her in?
Yet she remained. She lived. She persevered. And she remained faithful that he Messiah was someday coming.
What an experience, what a life…to go through so much only to come face to face with God Incarnate?
Yet, as I was preparing to preach this text, I came across the widely held belief that she was a sinner who needed to seek repentance from WorkingPreacher.org (only a mention) and our NIrV Children’s Bible. I’m appalled to find this understanding also on For Dummies and on various other “knowledgeable” sites. Even though this is right on the heels of John 3:17-18, the seemingly prevailing focus is on the woman being bad/sinful, rather than on her faith and Christ knowing all about her.
And why do we focus on her sin?
The Jews of the day saw Samaritans as not being of the “true religion”, as sinners for not believing in God the way they did, even if they shared a common history (up to Jacob, at least) and similar beliefs. First accusation.
But Jesus approaches her – so if Jesus accepts her, shouldn’t we? Jesus never condemns her, only points out her “secrets” that he should otherwise not know if he was just a human being.
The woman came to the well to fetch water in the middle of the day, which no respectable woman would do. So she must have been an outcast, and if an outcast, she must have done something wrong. Second accusation.
But we don’t really know why – and can’t the masses be wrong? Have you ever experienced being an outcast or shunned by someone just because they don’t like what you did? Why not her? Is it fact she did something to be an outcast, or just perception by the local community?
As Christ reveals, she had five husbands and is now living with a man who isn’t her husband. She must be a slut. Third accusation.
But we really don’t know any of the details. As before, what really were the circumstances? As a woman she was fully dependent on men. She had no worth – other than for her body and her labor. A woman who is raped repeatedly isn’t a slut, but a victim. Isn’t it our societies ingrained, white-male dominated perceptions that have led to this? Aren’t we getting beyond it, yet?
The woman at the well is a super hero. She is amazing. Despite everything, she kept her faith. Christ knows her. Christ loves her. Why can’t we?
So I have moved the Adventure Bible off the kids’ shelf and onto my reference shelf. I don’t need my kids assuming that she is a sinner, when we really don’t know that. Nothing in the text tells us that, only our perceptions.
I can’t help but think of the recent “finding” that while Barbie diminishes girls’ aspirations, Mrs. Potato Head does not (see Oregon’s States article).
We are not independent thinkers, no matter what we want to claim. Even the toys we play with as kids, the shows we watch, the comments people make, the sermons people preach, even the prayers we say in community – all influence us. We can not see scripture through a clear lens which only is influenced by the Spirit. We make assumptions – assumptions we don’t even know we have. And when those assumptions are backed up by others, then we think we are on the right track.
We need to step back and look carefully.
Is it possible that just by telling a young girl who doesn’t know that the cultural perception has been that she doesn’t have options, that she has all the options in the world – open her eyes to the possibility that her aspirations are limited?
Is it possible that those who have ingrained the interpretation that the woman at the well is a sinner into our culture never knew how it was to actually be the woman at the well?
Seek the Word of God, but seek it as God’s Word, not ours.