Sitting in church this morning I listened to a well crafted sermon that a few years ago I would have taken in with no question. This morning it made me cringe a bit. This is not to say that I find fault with the pastor that toiled over the text to create the lesson he taught. It is more a commentary on how we have been taught to see the women of the Bible. With that said I want to express some of my thoughts on the nameless woman at the well. A woman so rejected by society that she came to the well in the heat of the day to avoid their judgment and still he has been judged in almost every reading of this text for 2,000 years. I would like us to show her the same grace Jesus did and consider that maybe, she is a victim as much as she is a sinner.
John 4:16-18 (NIV)
16He told her, "Go, call your husband and come back."
17"I have no husband," she replied.
Jesus said to her, "You are right when you say you have no husband. 18The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true."Reading this passage all my life I have read this word between the lines:
Obviously she is of low moral character, right?
What if instead I read between the lines:
In a society where women have no control over their married lives she has been abandoned by 5 men, used and thrown to the side. After each man she found a new one in hopes that this one would stay, this one would treat her well. After each man she wondered: where her next meal would come from, where she would sleep that night, where she would be able to get clothes. In a society where practically the only paid work for women is prostitution she has chosen not to sell her body. Instead she has found a man willing to provide for her, but he is unwilling to marry her. She has accepted this arrangement. After all she has been through, what use does she have for a marriage contract when 5 men before have broken that contract?
On top of all of these emotional crimes against her the other woman have rejected her and gossiped about her. Imagine the well side conversations: "I wonder what she did to run this man off?" "Maybe if she took better care of herself her men wouldn't leave?" "Did you the last man she was with? Wow, what a looser. She must be desperate, pathetic."
Then one day she meets Jesus. He speaks to her. He knows her pain. He speaks the truth. "You have had five husbands." We read this statement as an accusation, it sounds like an exposure of sin. What if instead it is a consolation? Instead of hearing his knowledge as judgment, what if He is looking at her saying with compassion: "I know you have been rejected, I know you have been heart broken 5 times over, and you have found food and shelter the only way you know how. I am your savior and know how to love you. I know how to care for the broken and rejected. I know your pain. I want you to know that despite all this I still think you matter. All of those men have left you, but I will not. I know you are living in sin, but I will not reject you for your choice. I know society has cast you to the side, but I have chosen at this moment to speak with you, because I love you."
In the passage John does not give her the dignity of a name. Still, she is one of the first preachers to her community. Her town comes to know their Messiah because the Messiah believed that she mattered. I do not want to give her undo sainthood. I do however, want to propose that when this story was recorded John was not intending to ensure that she suffer the rejection of all Christian society. I believe that in our current treatment of the text we judge her in a way that grieves the heart of God. I believe that we are unjust when we treat a woman who has suffered as much as this woman as a criminal. Instead, we should love her as a victim, that is healing and loved by her creator. We should see her as the voice of truth running back to her home to share the love of Jesus with the very same people who had rejected her.
We have for thousands of years re-victimized a victim. With respect to this woman that is nothing short of a survivor, I would like us all to reconsider the way we see the 'sluts' of scripture, and while we are reconsidering our view of them lets rethink the way we treat the survivors we know.