Apparently, they must each bring their own bucket and rope to draw water from Jacob’s well, because the Samaritan woman pointed out Jesus was lacking the necessary tools. The well is an epidemiological nightmare. Imagine all the households that particular watering hole served. Think of those buckets traveling each day from every household, in all their various states of cleanliness and health. Consider their path from their resting places on dirty floors or messy corners across the dusty landscape and then dipped into the depths of that well to gather the water. I don’t know what was the custom of the time, whether separate buckets and ropes were kept for drawing fresh water or if they were the same ones used for animals and people alike, for carrying and serving and sloshing and washing. Regardless, it seems fair to assume that those tools probably bore some remnants from whichever living quarters they came. Now picture all those woman at the well and all the different sets of hands easing down the various ropes. Hands that cared for children and the elderly and animals and the sick, that cleaned feet and bottoms and dishes and troughs. Whatever dirt or grime, bacteria or virus that was on those hands would grasp the rope and travel with it as was lowered into the water. Whatever the details, it is almost certain the well would have born some degree of contamination.
Think of a group of people you would consider unclean. Even if you’re not willing to admit that you might have this kind of bias in a social sense, in a purely physical sense if you have any bit of concern regarding the transmission of germs, there are some people with whom you would hesitate to share a fork or plate or glass of water. If they were passing around a common cup at your child’s daycare or at the homeless shelter or treatment center for tuberculosis, would you partake free of concern? To Jews, Samaritans were “those people.” John 4:9 tells us “Jews have no sharing with Samaritans.” If they did somehow share eating or drinking utensils the Jews would consider themselves ritually unclean, not out of concern for germs but because they harbored such a deep hatred of the Samaritans and the way they lived.
Now out of that entire group of people you consider unclean, pick out the dirtiest one. The one with the most obvious hacking cough or phlegmy spittle bubbling and drooling down a grimy cheek. The one in the corner alone that even the others in the group are hedging away from. Would you ask them specifically for a swig out of their water bottle?
This is exactly what Jesus did. Possessing free access to all knowledge and power in the universe, instead of walking around Samaria as most Jews would have done in their travels, Jesus walked right through it. And he situated himself at their community well. And when a woman came by who was scorned by that society for her lifestyle, one that likely exposed her to contamination both spiritually and physically, Jesus specifically asked her if she would share a drink from her vessel with him.
This woman lived every hour aware of her brokenness and the shame she bore, so much so that she had arranged her life around it. She was gathering her water at a time that would ensure she’d be less likely to have to confront gossiping tongues or side-eyed glances. When most women drew their water in the cool of the day both for practical and social reasons, this woman had traveled during the hottest time of the day in a harsh climate to gather her water in isolation. I wonder what was her reaction when she encountered Jesus there? Here was this man, a Jewish man at that, sitting at this gathering place for women and he was there at a time when she expected to be able to hide from prying and judging eyes. And he was, shockingly, asking her for water.
The bible expresses the woman’s surprise at this request from a Jewish man but she is soon to find that, beyond just the contempt he might very well have displayed just because of her gender and ethnic identity, his knowledge of her lowly and weak position goes even deeper. Jesus quickly identifies her as a woman who has been intimately involved with several men and is currently living with a man who is not her husband. I don’t think historians are absolutely agreed on the details of her situation; whether she was a prostitute or an adulteress (punishable by stoning at the time) or just a victim of a culture that took and left vulnerable women as property at a husband’s will or death. But it is clear from her actions that something about her is shrouded in a deep shame, something that probably shouldn’t be mentioned in polite conversation with some random male stranger from a people group that considers you their most despicable enemy. Yet Jesus just lays it all out there in the open. She is utterly exposed. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I’d delight to find myself in this position.
We went to see Saving Mr. Banks last weekend. Basically, the movie is about the tension between J.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, and the Disney studio as they attempt to adapt the story for screen. In a key scene, Walt Disney encourages Travers to embrace the Disnified version of her story, creating a whimsical and light world which would help her to re-imagine her difficult childhood in a way that may help her to heal. In one of the most quotable lines of the movie he says it is the job of storytellers to “restore order with imagination.”
As a writer and a person for whom the descriptor of “creative” or “imaginative” has always ranked very high on my list of desirable characteristics, I resonated with this idea. I thought for a bit about what my own story would look like re-told this way. There’s something tempting about reimagining something scarred or deformed or ugly to dispel some of the chaos of it, making a tamer, prettier version we can live with more easily. Maybe a version that allows our selves to be easier to live with. A strawberry-shampooed, perfectly groomed, fluffy, white, perky poodle to cuddle up to instead of a mangy, messy mongrel rescue dog with bad habits that we bring into our homes and let crawl into our beds.
But Jesus is no Disney. He didn’t reframe this woman’s story to make it more palatable or offer her some rose-colored glasses with which to see her life. He doesn’t animate some dancing penguins or burst into showtunes. He goes to her where she is, exposes her weakness and tells her exactly what she needs. And, wonderfully, instead of trying to deny the truth of her situation or smooth it over with a justification or explanation of her own, she accepts the Living Water (cleansing and restoration and refreshment from God) he offers her and then goes and tells the whole town about what happened. In fact, she is particularly struck by his knowledge of her and her situation and discloses this to her entire community. As a result many acknowledged Jesus as the Savior of the world, the Truth who frees us from bondage to shame and fear and death. Truth from Jesus + Truth from the woman + Truth to the community = Salvation for many.
It’s not just Disney that likes to put a prettier spin on reality. Most of us spend a tremendous amount of our energy and our time and resources to change, repackage or smooth over the uglier parts of ourselves and our lives. Like that Samaritan woman, we’ll work really hard to avoid the shame of being caught in weakness or found in a low position. We spend extravagantly, exerting resources of time and finances to understand, possess, drive, wear, collect and maintain things that ensure that we are always putting our best foot forward or at least to avoid our worst face being seen. Whole industries (public relations, beauty and personal care products) are built around building up facades to change images so that we need not be caught in a vulnerable position. Taking it even further, there are entire theologies and philosophies based on the idea that we shouldn’t even think about weaknesses or scarcities because simply entertaining thoughts acknowledging their existence might attract more of them to ourselves or cause them to multiply. (Law of Attraction, The Secret, Prosperity Theology, The New Thought Movement). Famous people like Oprah and Larry King promote these ways of thinking. Best Selling books, wealthy churches have been built around these principles. Imagine your best self. Imagine your best life.
As Walt Disney points out, imagination can be an amazing tool. But truth is even more powerful, especially truth acknowledged before Jesus, the One who knows you and accepts you and loves you no matter what. This Jesus, in fact, comes to where we are most vulnerable and broken and hidden in shame and isolation and asks us to share it with him. So go ahead and offer up to him your buckets contaminated with any kind of filth, he won’t mind. He’ll take it from you and give you, in its place, the cup of communion with Him; a cup that offers cleansing, forgiveness and a permanent relationship with the God who loves you more than you could ever imagine.
Imagination may be able to offer some temporary relief from the reality of our messy lives, but only Truth can give redemption, restoration and freedom.
Then you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.
So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.