“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?”
This last week was the end of an era. Elizabeth Taylor died on Wednesday of congestive heart failure and it is hard to imagine the world without her violet eyes, and velvet voice. She was such an icon I thought she might live on and on. The Sunday that a babysitter took me to see Taylor in the movie Giant is emblazoned in my mind. First, because we didn’t go to the movies on Sunday and second because I recognized, even though I was a child, how beautiful and beguiling she was. I went on line this week and read a couple of her biographies. She had quite a full life: more fame than anyone could want, children, grandchildren, academy awards, a successful jewelry and perfume line, a valiant crusader against AIDS and of course there are those 8 husbands.
The Samaritan woman, though nameless, has also been famous to Christians not just for 65 years but through the millennia even though she only had 5 husbands and she was living with the 6th man to whom she wasn’t married. But the difference between Elizabeth Taylor and the Samaritan woman can’t be emphasized enough. Taylor made her own decisions about when and whom to marry. She created a great scandal when she broke up the marriage of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds and had a flagrant affair with Richard Burton yet she wasn’t ostracized by Hollywood and managed to stay in favor with her fans through it all. The Samaritan woman had all those husbands either because they divorced her, (a woman couldn’t divorce a man) or they had died and as a result she was scorned and rejected by her community. Why else would she have gone out to collect water at the well in the scorching sun in the middle of the day?
The Samaritan woman must have seen Jesus from far away as she walked to the well. The sun was strong and it was hot as she made her way from the village with her water pot. She had come at this time of the day to avoid people who devalued her and looked right past her and now here was a stranger that she had to contend with and a man to boot. As she drew nearer and saw he was a Jew she would have been relieved because no Jewish man would talk to her. She could draw the water, fill her jar and be on her way. What a surprise then that he noticed her, looked straight at her, spoke to her and asked a favor of her, “Give me a drink” as well as telling her everything she had ever done.
“The story suggests in a number of ways that it is not about what we know but who we know,” comments Rev. Meda Stammer. “It is about having an encounter… What is life-changing for the woman is, according to her, that she has been entirely known by him, and this being known has enabled her to know him. Jesus needs to drink fresh water to live. The woman also needs a drink: she needs the fresh, living water of grace and truth only Jesus can provide to drink deep of healing and wholeness and a new life. And in their various needs, these two affirm their mutual humanity. They share in the holy Source of Life that transcends all boundary, custom, hatred, fear and scarcity.”
“Th[is] text is good news for anyone who has ever felt the humiliation of stigmatization or the pain of being a nobody, because Jesus does not turn away from this woman,” writes Deborah Kapp. “On the contrary, he engages her in conversation, takes her seriously, and spends several days in her village. This woman, her community, and their welfare matter to Jesus, whether nobodies or not.” Most people want to avoid the pain of being nobodies; they want to be recognized and cherished as somebodies who matter. It’s what we all need from the first day we emerge from the womb. We need to be relished, and cherished. In fact, writes marriage and family therapist Hugh Leavell, “The most important gift you can give your children, besides nourishment, is a sense that they are someone. And you can’t do this just by telling them so. You have to show it by the way you respond to them.” Unfortunately, “Many children grow up in the shadow of immature and needy parents. That is, they have to portray themselves in a certain way, denying parts of themselves, in order to win their parents’ approval.” Then, too often, as we grow up we keep on doing the same thing, hiding who we are, finding ourselves in relationships with people with whom we are unable to have a real encounter.
The Sufi Mystic poet Hafiz wrote these words:
Everyone you see, you say to them, ‘Love me.’
Of course you do not do this out loud; otherwise, someone would call the cops.
Still, though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one who lives with a full moon in each eye that is always saying,
With that sweet moon language,
What every other eye in the world is dying to hear?”
What is it that makes you tick? What is it that makes you get up in the morning? What is it that gives your day meaning, joy and purpose? I don’t know what it is for you but I can’t help but believe that for Jesus it was the encounter he had with God when he heard those words he heard as he came out of the
Jordan after his baptism by John. “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” I have a hunch they were familiar words. Those words most likely mirrored the words he had heard countless mornings from his parents. When you read the way in which Jesus spoke and lived you get a strong feeling that he lived out of the knowledge that he was not only loved but truly known by his family and by the God he called his father. He walked out into the world after his baptism with an authority that drew people to him (everyone commented on the authority with which he spoke) and a desire to truly encounter others and transform the world into a place where even the leper, the widow, and a Samaritan woman were considered beloved.
But too often we don’t take the time for honest encounter either because we are too busy or too caught up in our own lives or we don’t realize the value of true encounters. How often do we take time to look into the eyes of the clerk at the grocery store or the ticket taker at the movies? For a number of years I took my car in to be serviced and always seemed to get the same grumpy service rep. He would look right through me and I would feel liking shaking him and saying, “Look here, I’m the customer and the least you can do is to treat me as thought I matter.” Then one day right before Christmas, when I took my car in for service, I decided to try an experiment. As I stood at his desk, giving him my name and address and driver’s license, I decided to try and have a real encounter with him. So I asked him if he had plans for Christmas. Slowly he raised his head, looked me in the eyes and started talking. He told me all about his family and their plans for the holidays. Then as he handed me the keys for the loaner car he gave me a big smile and wished me Merry Christmas. In those few moments we encountered one another as human beings and shared a sense of humanity and connection. He saw me and I saw him!
That kind of connection also can and needs to happen on a grander scale. The organization Encounter is an educa-tional orga-ni-za-tion dedi-cated to providing global Jewish leaders from across the reli-gious and polit-ical spec-trum an opportunity for true encounter with Palestinian life. Motivated by the relent-less Jewish pursuit of wisdom and under-standing, Encounter culti-vates informed Jewish lead-er-ship on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by bringing partic-i-pants on jour-neys to Palestinian commu-ni-ties in the West Bank. Within a supportive, uniquely caring, and plural-istic frame-work, Encounter invites partic-i-pants to ask ques-tions and grapple with fresh perspec-tives, in order to create human connec-tions across lines of enmity, and expand personal and polit-ical understanding.
Encounter’s vision is one of genuine peace: an envi-ron-ment of safety and equity that embraces the full dignity of all. Underlying all their work is a set a values that define a true encounter some of which are:
Listening – Encounter culti-vates resilient mutual listening and curiosity, between Jews and Palestinians as well as between Jews and other Jews with diver-gent worldviews.
Dignity – Encounter affirms the funda-mental dignity of all human beings, and encour-ages deep respect for the phys-ical, emotional, and spir-i-tual well-being of all people.
Wisdom – Encounter values the persis-tent seeking of wisdom, understanding, and knowl-edge, partic-u-larly of unfa-miliar and differing perspectives.
Compassion – Encounter encour-ages all of us to find soft-ness within ourselves, and to extend mercy, gracious-ness, and the most expan-sive possible view of each other.
Openness – Encounter encour-ages recep-tivity rather than dogma-tism, open-ness to being trans-formed by new encoun-ters and ideas.
In her book Altar in the World Barbara Brown Taylor writes that, “What we have most in common is not religion but humanity. I learned this from my religion, which also teaches me that encountering another human being is as close to God as I may ever get – in the eye-to-eye thing, the person-to-person thing – which is where God’s Beloved [Jesus] has promised to show up. Paradoxically, the point is not to see him. The point is to see the person standing right in front of me [whether child, spouse or friend] who has no substitute, who can never be replaced, whose heart holds things for which there is no language, whose life is an unsolved mystery….and if you have ever been on the receiving end of such an encounter, then you know how it can change you.”
The bible calls this kind of encounter philoxenia which means love of stranger and Brown reminds us that the bible tells us to love the stranger because we have all been strangers at one point or other, in our neighborhood, in the Culbertson Room, at work or even in our family. Secondly, she says we must love the stranger “because the stranger shows you God.” And in many ways we truly are the stranger to one another unless we experience the liberation of true encounter. The only way I truly know another human being is because I have taken time to see that person as he/she truly is and not as I would want him/her to be. This was a gift that Jesus had, “this divine practice of encounter,” continues Brown, “so valuable to him that he did his best to teach his followers how to do it.”
“The story of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman,” writes Richard Lischer, “turns out to be a love story after all, for only one who loved you knows you as you are and not as you pretend to be. How are we to be here, in this, place, as a congregation? Eugene Peterson holds out God’s vision for us when he writes, “Congregation is composed of people who, upon entering a church, leave behind what people on the street name or call them. A church can never be reduced to a place where good and services are exchanged. It must never be a place where a person is labeled. It can never be a place where gossip is perpetuated. Before anything else, it is a place where a person is named and greeted, whether implicitly or explicitly in Jesus’ name. A place where dignity is conferred.” As
we sit here together this is what we owe one another. Out in the world or at home with our family, with our parents and friends we might not experience encounter but here, in this place, let us offer the healing grace of listening to one another and sharing compassion, wisdom, dignity and openness together. Then, perhaps, emboldened by that experience here, we can then take it out into the world to give it wing in a broader context. This is the gift of encounter that Jesus offered the Samaritan woman. Isn’t this ultimately what Jesus asks of us? Should we expect any less of ourselves?