In chapter 4 of John’s Gospel, Jesus has a dialogue with a foreign woman. They find themselves alone at a well at midday, the hottest part of the day. We can learn a lot from what he says to her—and also from what he chooses not to say.
Near the end of the conversation, Jesus tells the woman, “Go, get your husband, and bring him here.” She replies, “I have no husband.” Jesus tells her “That’s right. You’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re with now isn’t your husband.”
These could have been shaming words. In her culture, to be without a husband is to risk economic ruin, and to have been divorced by your husband is to be shamed. She was deeply vulnerable in her society, one of the lowest among the low.
Had he wanted to, Jesus could have scored some serious points here: “I’m a prophet, and you’re a sinner.” “I’m celibate, and you’re promiscuous.” “You’re living in sin by living with a man who is not your husband.”
But Jesus, whose life is marked above all else by compassion, says none of those things. She was already in pain. He wasn’t about to add to her burdens.
The fact that she was at the well at midday suggests she knew that pain all too well in her life. After all, she was there at the hottest part of the day. Other women most likely drew their water when it was cooler, because carrying water is hard, hot work. This woman timed her work to avoid the people who knew her, and she was willing to suffer to avoid them. Which makes me wonder: just how badly were they treating her?
It also makes me wonder how many people in our time are willing to suffer to avoid Christians? How many people choose to avoid public worship and the community of faith because they would rather miss that than pay the price of being told they are sinners?
Jesus does not tell the woman, “Go and sin no more.” His disciples are astonished to find him speaking with this outsider: she’s a woman, a Samaritan, and a sinner. Three strikes against her; she’s out.
But Jesus chooses to talk with her about something more important: he teaches her, and invites her to worship “in spirit and in truth.” And he chooses this lowly woman, this outcast, this enemy of his people, to be the one with whom he shares himself and the good news that was at his heart.
Lots of Christian leaders these days get a lot of attention in the media by self–righteous grandstanding. But wouldn’t it be better to follow the example Jesus sets here? Rather than telling people caught in desperate sin how far their sin has removed them from God, why not invite them to come to worship? Instead of adding to the burdens who already feel that they are outsiders whom no one else could love, would it be better to show them in act and word that they are valuable people?
Too often, we forget about the gospel imperative to be compassionate. Too often, we tend to think that the gospel is about living the right way, or about believing the right things.
It isn’t. The gospel is radically inclusive. The good news welcomes everyone. The love of God embraces all people, even those whom our society tries to shame. As one preacher puts it, “Jesus loves everyone. Get over it!”
The good news embraces gay and straight, rich and poor, men and women, the addicted and the ones in recovery. God’s love is for everyone.
The church needs to learn to walk more faithfully in the way of Jesus. Jesus shows this woman, this outsider, that she is worth having a serious conversation with. She is worth his time. She is worthy of his love.
Jesus doesn’t dwell on what makes her hateful to her community; in not shaming her for being sinful, he says without saying it: you are known, and you are loved.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook