Third Sunday of Lent
March 23, 2014
If you have ever traveled by rail, at some point you may have heard or seen a message warning you to "mind the gap," urging you to pay attention to the space between the platform and the train in the process of boarding or leaving the train. Some say the particular expression began with the London Underground but now variations are found across the globe drawing passengers' attention to the potential risk of ignoring that space.
This Sunday's lectionary presents us with an option that should be accompanied by a "mind the gap" caution. One of the lengthiest, and deeply theological and political, conversations in the Gospels occurs between Jesus and the unnamed Samaritan woman in John 4:5-42. However, the lectionary offers an option for an abridged version that leaves out several key verses including 4:16-18, and half of verse 39.
Considering contemporary attention spans, it might make sense to keep the dialog between the woman and Jesus focused in a way that does not allow for distraction. Jesus' sojourn into Samaria and the encounter at the well allows for reflections, personal and homiletic, on a theological thread. For example, Jesus is source of that "living water," the revelation of spirit and truth that flows from God. In this case it is offered to the Samaritans as it is to their Judean kin baptized in the countryside and the Pharisee Nicodemus in the previous chapter of John's Gospel. The theological differences between Judeans and Samaritans are on display in this sophisticated conversation between the itinerant preacher and the woman. Among Judeans an expectation is for a Messiah in the line of David, for Samaritans a prophet in ways of Moses. Judeans worship on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim near Shechem (Sychar).
But the reason for the animosity between them is found in ancient discrepancies rooted in conquest and colonization. The key is found in the verses referencing what appears on the surface to be an exchange over the woman's marital status (4:16-18). Interpretations of these verses often accept that the woman has had multiple husbands and is, at the time of the conversation with Jesus, in a co-habitation arrangement. Depending on the interpreter's context, this woman's life experience is considered sinful or a mark of the woman's victimization or a sign of her resistance and will to survive.
But what if this verbal exchange functions much like the in-house conversations between Jesus and the Pharisees? In other words, these dialogues occur in idioms unfamiliar to contemporary readers who are unaware of the complexities of these internal first century Jewish relationships. What if this conversation in John's Gospel is in a coded theo-political language between a Judean and Samaritan, in terms familiar with the context of this intra-Israel animosity amongst kin? What if these words are not a reflection of the woman's personal life, thus no need to name her, but of Samaritans and their history of colonization and hybridity, born of what Judeans considered an accommodation to outsider forces in religious practice and intermarriage?
The reference to five husbands may be an allusion to the Assyrian Empire's policy of resettling the conquered Northern Kingdom with outsiders "from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim" (2 Kings 17:24-25). The latest colonizer, the Roman Empire, was Samaria's most recent live-in and yet another opportunity for accommodation. From this perspective, the acclamation by the Samaritans-turned-Jesus followers challenges their current occupying force. By proclaiming Jesus as "truly the Savior of the World"(4:42) a title exclusively belonging to the emperor, the Samaritans brought to Jesus by the woman's testimony, resist the power of their day - a power that threatens them as well as their counterparts in Judea.
The unfortunate collateral damage in the shortened version of the lectionary Gospel reading, as well as the interpretations that focus on the marriage conversation as personal, is that the unnamed woman loses her identity as an articulate representative of her people and as herald to her people. It is on her word that her people first come to believe and because of her witness, her people have an opportunity to encounter the One to whom she points. She leaves her jar behind at the well because she is the vessel filled with the living water.
It is appropriate that this text of the third Sunday of Lent should challenge us in this month set aside to pay tribute to women. Like the Samaritan woman, how many generations of mothers, teachers, artists, poets, activists, religious women, catechists, abuelitas, tías, hijas y hermanas, have heard "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves..."(4:42)? On one hand, this affirmation indicates a job well done; but too often similar sentiments are used to conceal or dismiss the testimony of the unnamed women who dared and dare to speak in public spaces, amid their daily chores, a living word in spirit and truth.
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