Read John 4: 5-30, 39-42
I Was Lost, but Now Am Found
In Nicholas Evans’ popular novel, The Horse Whisperer, Annie Graves travels across a continent with her daughter Grace and Grace’s severely traumatised horse, Pilgrim, in a desperate attempt to convince a Montana rancher named Tom Booker to help them; for a friend has told her that Booker is one of that elite group of people with the ability to heal injured horses.
In addition to the challenge of calming Pilgrim, who has been severely injured in a gruesome riding accident, Booker soon discovers that he has two human souls to heal as well. Grace has blocked out all memory of the terrible accident in which her dearest friend was killed and she herself has lost a leg. Crippled for life, she turns her fear and anger inward, blocking anyone’s attempt to help her get on with life.
Her mother, Annie, a high-rolling advertising executive, has alienated herself from both her husband and daughter for years, and is suddenly forced to come face to face with what she has sacrificed because of her career. Grace’s physical and emotional injury following the accident is but a shadow of Annie’s inner alienation from herself. Annie has lost the ability both to give and receive human affection.
It is a story about a woman in search of healing for a wounded animal and her daughter, who ends up finding herself healed in ways she was neither looking for nor expecting.
I believe the gospel story for today is another such story. The Samaritan woman had endured five, maybe six, encounters of the hurtful kind, and had taken to avoiding human company. Isolation was better than more hurt. When she found Jesus waiting at the well, she was on her guard.
In contrast to assumptions this woman was a hardened sinner or sexually promiscuous, I believe the woman is more likely to have been the one who was mistreated and demeaned. She had been divorced at least five times, and was living with a sixth man. Remember that in Jesus’ day, men held almost all the rights to divorce. A man could divorce his wife on the smallest pretext. He only had to attest to ‘something unseemly in her.’
A divorced woman, unless she had independent means, lost all status and value in the community. She was seen as a rejected woman, a disgrace. Her own family was loathe to have her back in their household, and her very existence became precarious. Remember, there were no unemployment benefits in those days. In reality, the options were: find work as a servant, marry again very quickly, become some man’s mistress, work as a prostitute, or starve.
This woman of Samaria was likely to have been greatly misused by men; exploited and then discarded. Her status and dignity in the community had been torn to shreds. And like many of life’s victims, she may have been turned into the village scapegoat to ease the guilty consciences of respectable citizens.
This woman of Samaria was a diminished person; a devalued and a tattered remnant of what God created her to be. Her six encounters with men were all of a damaging kind: used and abused. Her self image was shrunken. Her bruising encounters with the righteous women of the village also became damaging ones. All this had reduced her sense of self worth to near zero…
…Until one day, under the burning heat of the midday sun, unexpectedly she had a transforming encounter.
I invite you to picture her at high noon, when all sensible people would be either indoors, or those out in the fields would be sheltering in the shade. In your mind’s eye, see her picking up the large water jar, slipping out of her dwelling, and scurrying out of the village, through the heat haze, to Jacob’s well.
The other women had been there in the cool of the early morning, chatting and laughing together. And they would be there again in the shade of evening, exchanging the gossip of the day. But this lonely woman makes the journey alone, to avoid the scornful glances and the barbed words. She’s had enough of that pain being inflicted on her. Even the midday heat was preferable to denigration by her village sisters.
As she arrives near the well of Jacob, she has no idea that she is coming to “the well of salvation.” See her surprise as she finds a stranger there. She stops a few metres short of the well, not sure what do. Then Jesus takes the initiative, and a most beautiful encounter takes place.
On one level, of course, Jesus heals someone in a way she is not expecting. It’s the story about a Samaritan woman who comes to a well to get water. She knows her place, is suspicious of the obviously Jewish man who is perched on the well as she approaches it in the heat of the day, and she is understandably taken aback when he not only speaks to her but did something very lovely: he asks for her help. He said to her, “Give me a drink.” This diminished person is asked to give help to the most complete human being who ever lived. Not that she recognised his great soul at that moment.
She is a Samaritan. He is a Jew. She is a woman. He is a man. It is a highly public place. Jesus, as usual, is inviting trouble in his typical unconventional attitude and behaviour. He should not be speaking to a woman in the first place, let alone a member of a tribe of Israel long-despised by the Jewish people. To the woman, it is all disorienting, dislodging, confusing and wonderful – right from the start, but when you are dealing with Jesus, says John, expect the unexpected.
That much in itself is a lesson worth learning, but there is another level to the story. It is hard to tell what is going on in the conversation between Jesus and this woman, but something happens in the encounter. When it starts out, they are perfect strangers. When it ends up, the woman is so excited that she wants everyone to know about the man whom she has just met.
Then the woman leaves her water jar and returns 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?”
She leaves behind what brought her to this moment in the first place because she finds something for which she did not realise she was searching: someone who meets her at a level of her being that no one else has before. And, once she has been met, she feels found. Or, is it that she has found part of herself that has gone missing?
By the end of the story, not only does the woman find herself, a whole town full of people find themselves; find that they ‘belong’ after all; find that, in spite of centuries’ old hatred between two peoples, their worth before God is incontrovertible.
And all because of a conversation that got started at a well with a man who actually saw people and who helped them see themselves.
In this week’s gospel, Jesus puts people in touch with the experience of a love that embraces them at a level deeper than thought and action. When that happens, they find something that was broken inside them coming alive again, something that was lost in them suddenly found. And when that is our inner experience, the exterior dimensions of our lives get changed too. The need for all the old suspicions, all the old rivalries and all the old fears just don’t seem to matter anymore. People come into ‘their souls’ again, which is a place where not only each one of us individually, but all of us collectively, need to be, because ‘soul’ gets lost; or, put more succinctly, we ‘lose soul’ both individually and communally.
Anthropologists have long described a condition called ‘loss of soul’. It is the experience in which a person is ‘out’ of himself, unable to find either the outer connections that keep him in communion with others or the inner ones that keep him rooted in himself. A person who loses her soul is unable to take her place in society, to engage in its rituals, to feel one with its traditions. They are dead to her; and she to them. Until a person regains his soul, he is not really and wholly human, which is why, when this happened to primitive people, it was said a person was possessed or bewitched or ill: because, without his soul, a person had lost touch with all that energised him and humanised him. People who lost their souls often died because of it both inwardly and outwardly, because to be cut off from that central experience of being ‘one’ with oneself was a terminal disease. The worst loneliness of all.
Like the family in The Horse Whisperer, the examples of Samaritan woman in this week’s gospel and the primitives, we can, and do, lose our souls. We lose them whenever we no longer see the connection between who we are and the love that longs only to enfold us in its embrace. Jesus, both in his message and his intimate encounters with others, helped people re-establish that deep connection with themselves where both God and healing are found. He consistently cut through the clear and common sense regulations that people established in order to determine who was worthy and unworthy. By bluntly declaring to the woman at the well that she was worthy to receive the life he came to give, he was also declaring that all were worthy to stoop and drink of that life-giving stream.
You may not have come to this particular ‘well’ today looking for anything more than the ordinary drink you expected to find; but, if you are not careful, he who knows the hidden mysteries and labyrinthine ways of the heart may just ask you for a drink. If he does, give him what he asks. Give whatever it is you have to give; to bring up, to haul up, if necessary out of the deepest depths of your soul, including those darkest places you have hidden even from yourself. For, in giving him that, which is all he asks, you just may feel coming to life in you a gladness you never thought possible and the joy of knowing a love that flows freely to all who simply want to receive it. For the One who meets us here and everywhere we care to find him is the One who simply wants to give us from that life-giving stream.