The Unexpected Evangelist

Sunday, July 14, 2019
Pastor Megan Torgerson

John 4:1-26 

I love the Bible.  I love its stories for how they challenge me and disrupt me.  I love its stories for how I love the Bible.  It challenges and disrupts me, it reveals God to me, but most of all, it keeps changing on me.  And yes, I know that the Bible as we have it has been mostly set for about 1,900 years.  What I mean is that the more I learn about a Biblical text, the more I read it at different times in my life, the more I talk about it with other people, the more the story takes on new shape and power.

Today’s story is a perfect example.  Jesus engages a Samaritan woman in conversation, even though the text tells us they shouldn’t be talking. Samaritans and Jews are distant cousins who worship in different locations, keep their distance from each other’s land, and generally try not to talk to each other.

The woman is at the well at noon, in the heat of the day, trying to avoid the usual morning crowd.  And Jesus seems to know why: she has “had five husbands, and the one [she has] now is not [her] husband”.  She’s a social pariah.  Still, their meaningful theological exchange results in her eventually running back to her village, in the verses just after our reading. She tells her neighbors: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”  Later, the entire village asks Jesus to come and stay with them, because, as they say, “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.”

When I first heard this story, I heard it as a story of Jesus forgiving even the greatest of sinners.  In this version of the story, the woman’s multiple husbands are because of something she’s done wrong – she is presumed to be a concubine or prostitute.  Jesus “had to go through Samaria”, as verse 4 says, because he had to find and save this one lost soul.

In this telling, the good news of the story is that no sin is too great for God to forgive, and no past so messy that Jesus can’t redeem it.  And that’s true, and it’s good news.   And as I hear the story more, I hear other details that change the story.  Jesus never names or condemns a sin in this woman.  A woman couldn’t choose divorce in this time; if five different men had divorced her, it’s far more likely to have been because she is infertile.  She cannot produce an heir for her husband, so each man in turn has abandoned her.  She lives in another man’s house to stay off the street.

Another possibility is she is trapped in a cycle of levirate marriage.  Levirate marriage was the common practice at the time, one made into law in scripture, that if a woman’s husband died without a child, the next-of-kin of that man would marry the widow and any subsequent child would belong to the dead man.  This kept the woman safe in someone’s home and ensured the dead man’s legacy continued.  It’s possible that the Samaritan woman systematically married five different men in one family, only to see each of them die.  She’s now living in her father-in-law’s house waiting perhaps for a younger son to be of marriageable age.  That’s why the man she’s with now isn’t her husband.

This woman isn’t a sinner.  She’s a victim.  She suffers.  She knows the depths of loss and rejection and sorrow.  This is why she comes to the well at noon – not to avoid peoples’ judgement and condemnation, but to avoid their pity.

And so Jesus reaches out to her.  He knows everything about her – all her sadness, all her doubt, all her loss – and he offers her living water to renew her.  In fact, he reveals to her that he is the Messiah – something he does not do anywhere else to anyone else until his trial years later.  When Jesus says, in the last verse of our reading, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you,” that’s a bad translation: what he actually says is only I AM.  Jesus uses the same formula to self-identify to the woman that God uses to self-identify to Moses.

Still, hearing all these clear messages from Jesus, she goes to her community and says: “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”  In Greek, this question expects a negative response.  She’s still not sure.  She doesn’t know what to believe.  But here’s the good news in this version of the story: she shares it anyway.  She is an unlikely, untrained, unexpected evangelist and God will work through her to share the good news of Jesus.

In this telling of the story, we see that nothing disqualifies us from talking about Jesus.  We have no excuse.  No past suffering, no current confusion, no future uncertainty prevents or precludes our call, our need, to tell every single person of God’s all-encompassing love for everyone and everything in creation.  In this hearing, we are all challenged to follow the Samaritan woman’s example.  We, like this woman, are unexpected evangelists – but called, blessed, and sent just the same.

You don’t need to be fancy or educated or special or even sure – God can and will work through you.  That means even more to me as I’ve been considering still another way to hear this story. This story in John chapter 4 comes right after the story of Nicodemus, a man, a Jew, a leader in his community, the picture of righteousness.  But he sneaks over to debate Jesus in the dark of night, hiding his curiosity, peppering Jesus with disbelief and challenge, leaving without resolution.

After that story in John chapter 3, we have this chapter, where a woman without a name, a Samaritan, on the fringes of her society, is approached by Jesus in the full light of day and shares him with others in spite of her doubt.  Where is the good news in this telling?  Is it that Jesus uses unexpected means to share the good news?  Is it that God has a special preference for the outsider?  Or is it a challenge to me, an established Lutheran leader, to consider that while I think I’ve got things right, I might be stumbling around in the dark?

But this is the good news about the good news.  God’s word speaks to us new and fresh ways, if we’ll let it.  If we are humble about what we know and don’t know, honest about our own perspectives and preferences, and constantly expectant for God to speak, God’s word will reveal new and challenging things.  Sometimes, even when we least expect it, we discover that God has been speaking directly to us in this story all along.  May God’s work always work new things on our hearts for the sake of our neighbor who God loves.  For this good word, and our opportunity to be a part of it, thanks be to God.

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