Feeling like an outcast can take many forms. I was setting up for an Ash Wednesday service when I noticed a young woman standing in the back of the church. She was someone I had never seen before. It wasn’t uncommon for people to wander in long before a service was to start, but they were usually looking for some kind of help so they could be on their way. She looked uncertain and lost.
She was. While she didn’t share all of the gory details, I did learn that she felt pushed out of her community in Kentucky! Not knowing what else to do or where else to go, she joined up with a traveling magazine sales group. Now she was in downtown San Jose, with a group of people she didn’t fit in with, and so isolated and full of shame, she was contemplating ending it all.
I’m sure the outcast Samaritan woman could relate. Although there’s another well in town, this woman comes all the way out to Jacob’s Well, which is a good half-mile away. She wouldn’t hear the whispers of the other women or feel the sneers of the towns people as they moved away from her. As a moral and social outcast, she wasn’t welcome.
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.”
At this point, the woman’s patience is wearing thin. Perhaps she thinks Jesus is being arrogant with disclaims. Perhaps she resents the way the Jews have looked down on her and her people for hundreds of years. So she humors him in a sarcastic way.
At the heart of all this, there is this fundamental truth: in the human heart is a thirst for something. Jesus goes right to her heart, compelling her to discover and face the truth for herself. He reads her heart by reading her circumstances.
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 worshiped 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 worshipers 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.”
How does Jesus know this about the Samaritan woman? Most likely, Jesus learned about her during previous visits to the area. Perhaps her lifestyle was so scandalous, she was a notorious and much-talked about item of gossip. That’s the thing about gossip: it eventually takes on a life of its own.
Why does Jesus confront her with his knowledge of her lifestyle? It wasn’t to embarrass her, or shame her, or condemn her. I think his purpose was to help her face the central problem in her life. She had tried, and failed, to find love and acceptance through a succession of relationships with men. Perhaps she was raised by parents who rejected her or who broke down her sense of self-wroth. Or perhaps her emotional wounds were inflicted during a difficult adolescence or troubled marriage. Perhaps one or more of the men she married was an abuser. Perhaps she was emotionally and spiritually empty because she didn’t have a relationship with God. For whatever reason, this woman had a thirst for love and acceptance that had never been quenched.
Jesus penetrates the woman’s denial, evasion, and defenses. He knows all about her; and yet when he tells her about herself, he doesn’t condemn her or ridicule her. He actually accepts her. Even the people in the village didn’t do that!
In a sense we are all outcasts. What we must face about ourselves is different for each one of us. Maybe it’s an attitude, or behavior, or addiction, or lifestyle. Often we have layers of denial about the things we most need to face in our lives. It begins with the realization that life, as we are living it, will not do. We must face the truth about ourselves and our need for God.
I bet that at some time in our lives, each of us has felt like we were on the outside; like an outsider looking in. It feels like a child whose nose is pressed against the window of a beautiful shop full of toys and candy, with no money to buy. It feels like the child on the playground who longs to take part in the game, but never gets picked to be on the team. It feels like the foreigner who can’t understand the language or traditions of the strange land you’re traveling through. The young woman who wandered into the church certainly felt lonely and lost.
Everything changed for the Samaritan woman. Jesus came to her; did not treat her like an outcast. As part of God’s great family, we are not outcasts. Jesus has stopped the game, comes over, and chooses each of us to be on the team. The barriers that have created that sense of being an outset are removed. We belong.