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27 March 2011

Led to Those at the Margins ...

When in our DIAKONIA class tonight we were talking about Luther's Theology Of The Cross, we spoke about how as People of the Cross we always are led to those who have been pushed to the margins by those who have the power. It was delightful to see how the students who only last week had bitterly complained about the "heavy" reading (Douglas John Hall), began to "get it".

As inspiration blew away their moans and groans, lights came on and wheels turned. The students "thought out loud", discovering that indeed we are setting ourselves apart when we communicate the Good News to those who are oppressed -- for the mighty ones know deep down that not power but love will win in the end.

Our Gospel lesson about the Woman at the Well illustrates this movement toward the ones who have become victims: Jesus appeals to the woman's hospitality, yet this is not supposed to happen. For the unnamed Samaritan woman, Jesus belongs to those who have made outcasts of the Samaritans in the first place; to her great surprise, here is one of the oppressors asking her, the oppressed, for assistance in his need. He is thirsty, and he is asking her for a drink.

The woman, outcast as she is, aligns herself with the corporate outcast identity of her country. In relation to an “oppressor” from the “establishment" (Jerusalem) she becomes one with the very people who reject her and mistreat her. She is a victim within her culture, and victims usually have no alternative to the rejecting culture for their cultural identity, and so it is that the Woman at the Well professes solidarity with her fellow Samaritans.

When he asks the woman to go and bring her husband, Jesus lays bare the woman’s place in her community as the communal scapegoat. Five men have married and divorced this woman and one other man has entered into a relationship with her. When we consider that it is likely that each former husband has married somebody else, implicating the whole family of each of these women, we begin to see that what Jesus is doing: he uncovers the way life at Sychar is organized around scandal.

This woman has received all of the blame for the divorces and her current tenuous status, and apparently, none of the blame has gone to any of the men. In a small town, this means that a significant part of the population is connected with this scandal. No wonder the woman has to absorb all of the blame!

Salvador Dali:  Da mihi bibere 

It dawns on the Woman at the Well that Jesus, just by talking to her, is changing her social position. He is unveiling the scapegoating mechanism of the town and undermines the fact that this community is organized around scapegoating.

"I am he, the one who is speaking to you." As Jesus says these words in Aramaic, he reminds everyone who knows Scripture of the first “I am” saying in the Bible; it was spoken by God to Moses when God appeared to him in the burning bush, and revealed his name, YHWH.

Now, Jesus speaks the first of the “I am” sayings recorded in the Gospel of John, and he speaks it to an outcast, a nameless Samaritan woman. Knowing the connection with the Old Testament reference, what sounds so innocent in our translation, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you”, means a whole lot more; a better translation would be: “I am God himself, here and now; I have always been, I will always be.”

By telling the woman who she is, Jesus shows her who he is. By confirming her true identity, he reveals his own, and that is how it still happens in any intimate relationship. In her relationship with Jesus, the Woman at the Well has a powerful epiphany and becomes an enlightened believer. She has received life-giving water. By the end of the conversation, she has the clarity that comes with true faith. She knows what she really needs, and she has found it.

Knowing in her heart that true life is just beginning, she is full of joy. She rethinks who she is. She learns to take all power away from those who have made her the scapegoat of the town. The people of Sychar come to believe in Jesus. Far from driving him away, they invite him to stay, and many more come to believe “because of his word.” What Jesus has done is gather the whole town of Sychar around the well.

The Woman at the Well is no longer the victim at the center of the society; she is at the edge around the well with everybody else in town. The center is now Jesus. The Samaritans have accepted the truth of what they were doing socially in their own town and have moved to the level of worshiping in spirit and truth; in the process, they are freeing themselves from their scapegoat status in relationship to the Jerusalem establishment.

By telling this story, John has given us a vision of God’s kingdom. The Woman at the Well represents the workings of God's kingdom in the midst of human failings. Her story shows us not only where to find that "living water": It also helps us to become sensitive to all the scapegoating around us, and how communicating the gospel and challenging oppression go hand in hand.

In the end, not power will win, but love. As we learn to embody love the way Jesus did, we realize that a triumphalist church is a church of the past; we are called to be the servant church. In proclaiming the Crucified God, we will be a light to the nations!

John 4: 5-29

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