Excerpted from Power Made Perfect in Weakness, a Lenten Guide for Lectionary Year A from the North Carolina Council of Churches.
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty
again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.’
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’
It’s one thing to feel guilty, and quite another to feel shame. Guilty is what you feel when you’ve done something wrong and you are remorseful. You know you can’t fix it so you take a deep breath and say: “I know I’ve done this despicable thing. I can’t escape that I’ve done it. All I can do is say I’m sorry, and I’ll try never to do it again.”
Shame is a horse of a different color. Shame says that it’s not what you’ve done that counts, it’s that you were bad enough to do it in the first place. Shame says that you can be as sorry as you please, but it doesn’t matter because even if this fix passes by it’s only a matter of time before you find yourself right smack in the middle of another one. Shame says, it’s you that’s bad, not what you’ve done. Shame makes you want to run and hide from anyone and everything that reminds you of your shame. Shame chides you into thinking that running and hiding will protect you from feeling.
If we are ashamed because all our life we have been made to feel incompetent, then all the success in the world will never convince us that we are able people. If we are ashamed because our family heritage is one of poverty and ignorance, then all the wealth and education in the world will not change our feeling of never being good enough. If we are ashamed because a family member drinks to excess, then all the sobriety in the world will not alleviate the fear that we brought this fate to our own doorsteps.
Shame makes us think running and hiding will protect us from these hollow feelings. But running and hiding doesn’t work—that’s the nature of shame. What we think causes it, doesn’t. What we think will cure it, won’t.
“Give me this water,” demanded the woman at the well, of Jesus, “so that I will never be thirsty again and never have to come here to draw water.” “Give me this water,” so that I never have to face myself reflected in the eyes of the women who gather here again. “Give me this water,” so that I can hide from my lifestyle issues and pretend that deep down everything is just fine. “Certainly,” Jesus implied, “But go and get your husband first.”
Jesus knew all about the Samaritan woman. He knew the triple whammy applied against her, an outsider by race, by gender, and by class. He knew that all those who held debates about the proper places and ways to worship would never lower themselves to debate with her, but Jesus did. He wouldn’t let her run and hide. He wouldn’t protect her from herself. He knew that all the water in the world wouldn’t release her from the sense of shame she held so deep inside. Instead, he asked her to face herself by revealing the shame she felt and to face him.
“The hour is coming,” Jesus told her, when worship will be true. “The hour is coming” when the spirit of God will not reside on any given mountain top but in the hearts and minds of worshippers. “The hour is coming…”
Oh, I know you mean “when the Messiah comes,” and all is set right, when salvation is here, interrupted the woman. I know about that far in the future time when we will be restored from evil to good, from war to peace, from despair to hope. That’s what you mean. But not here, not now.
“The hour is coming and is now here”; Jesus tells her. “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Jesus gave the woman more than she ever asked. He gave her what she needed when she least expected it. He gave her what she didn’t deserve. In spite of her shortcomings, because of her shortcomings, Jesus gave the woman at the well himself. He gave her the water of life welling up inside her eternally. He gave her himself and he gave her herself, as well. Jesus gave her the freedom to be all that she was originally created to be. He released her from her shame, by facing it and transforming it. Jesus will do the same for us.
After all, which one of us doesn’t own at least one water jar that we lug empty, day after day, in the hot noon sun hoping to find a little water in the well? Our water jars are the “can’ts” and “ought tos” and “should haves” of our lives. The times we let our family down, the times we let ourselves down, the times we let God down. Or they are the parts of ourselves we keep hidden, our handicaps and insecurities, our quiet fears and loud but unnecessary embellishments. Our water jars are those times we failed, and those times we didn’t try hard enough to succeed. And we, like the woman at the well, want to run and hide from the woven web of a thousand humiliations which make up our shame.
But Jesus says to us: Go and get your secrets and bring them to me. “The hour is coming and is now here,” for you to face this…but you do not face it alone. You face it with me.
Jesus gives us more than we have ever asked. For Jesus takes even those things of which we are ashamed and blesses them and says: These are the ways of grace in your life. All that is you, even the hidden parts, are redeemed in my light, washed clean in my water, made whole in my kingdom. All that you are is loved by me. No matter what you have done you are worthy—to know me, to worship me, and to be known by me. Here, have it, living water, welling up inside you into eternal life. All those secret shames can now be used for a purpose to let my strength be known in your life.
The Samaritan woman got more than she came for that day at Jacob’s well. And what else could she do but go to the people of her city, her own kind, the ones who knew her shame, telling them to come and see the one who had filled her to overflowing. We are told “many believed because of the woman’s testimony.”
In the process she seems to have forgotten the water jar, leaving it behind at the well. Perhaps she was so excited she no longer had time for the everyday things of life. Or perhaps not. Maybe she left it behind on purpose so that later, in the cool of the evening, she could return to fill it with the water her home would need the next day. Maybe she left it there on purpose, so that when she did come back, she would meet at the well the women who had judged her so harshly. Then she could say to them, quietly, with dignity: Let me tell you how my life has been transformed. Let me tell you about the “One who knew everything I ever did.”