February 24, 2008
Immanuel Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Dianne O'Connell
Pealing Off the Labels
Thank you Sara for reading the story of The Woman at the Well. We have often heard this story and pretty much remember that we have a woman and a Samaritan, and furthermore, the woman has had Five Husbands. What more do we need to know about this person than that? We also remember that Jesus seems a bit clairvoyant – he knows more about the woman than she had told him, and he promises her that if she’ll just give him a drink of water from her well, he will reciprocate by giving her Living Water. And she, like us, wonders out loud, What is Living Water?
I like this story. And I like this woman. She’s obviously had a challenging life, and she’s a bit bitter about it. She’s understandably defensive, and has made an effort to avoid the company of people who have put her down through the years. But as the story goes on, she reveals a much deeper human being; a theologically-reflective kind of person; a gifted, articulate individual who cares enough about her people and her community to passionately share her experience of talking and walking with Jesus, with those who have been less than kind or supportive of her in the past.
Just meeting this Jesus had brought her new life, new enthusiasm for living. Just what did Jesus say or do that ignited this re-birth of a spiritually-dying individual? What kind of Living Water did he offer to revive this withered soul?
I would like to suggest that what Jesus did was refuse to let this gal hide behind the labels that others had put on her and that she had adopted as her own.
“Give me a drink,” he said to her.
“What? I’m a woman. I’m a Samaritan. You are a Jew. Go Away!”
Ignoring this, Jesus begins to engage the woman in deeper conversation, talking of “living water”, eternal life. These are things one might talk about with an equal, a friend, at least someone whom you believe would understand what you are talking about. This was not just a request for a cup of water. This would turn into a meaningful, theological discussion. Now I would like to submit that Jesus did not wake up that morning saying to himself,
“I think I will go find a female Samaritan outcast today with whom to discuss eternal life.”
However, Jesus was always open to nurturing the spirituality of men or women with open hearts, ears to hear, eyes to see – whether the individuals recognized these qualities in themselves or not.
And here was such a woman. Jesus saw through the self-perpetuating labels and saw the woman for who she really was, a human being full of potential. A conversation with Jesus saved her from herself, and enabled her to begin to become who she was created to be.
Nettleton of the
It’s easy to believe what others
say of you
especially when its true.
Something deep inside does rebel against those labels,
— schitzo, idealist, gay, bookworm,
alien, illiterate, yuppie, perfectionist,
loner, divorcee, Samaritan, just a woman —
(Rich Bitch or Poor White Trash?
Or a woman who has been married five times!)
it’s not real,
it doesn’t say who you really are
but what protest can you make?
but it’s still the truth,
Married five times? Two deaths, two divorces, and
This fellow now refuses to marry you, but you have
no relative who will take you in.
Are you only defined by the men who
have abandoned or abused you?
But you have, indeed, been married five times,
so what’s the use of fighting it?
Just bite you lip and crawl back into your box
hide the tears and let a little bit more of you die
for a little bit does seem to die
every time it’s said, or implied…
The label is true,
but it fits just part of you,
or used to.
just a woman, they could say worse:
Tramp, loner, mankiller?
Does it really say who you are?
and every time you hear it, you crawl back into your box
the box feels a little more like a prison
and a little more like a coffin
and a little more like a grave
from which there is no escape
in which there is no life.
But you get used to it…
you just accept the label
you just become who they say you are
you just forget what else you might be
you just cave in…
One day you go out for supplies
sneaking out of your box when there should be no one around
to avoid the stares, the sniggers, the hostility.
You come face to face with a man
Who is he?
He asks for your help
He obviously doesn’t know much
No one looks to you for help
They’d rather do without
But before you can stop yourself
you are setting yourself up for another put-down…
You are telling him why you’re not worth talking to…
You label yourself
because you’ve worn those labels for so long
that you feel naked without them…
But he doesn’t recoil;
he offers to do something for you in return
“You give me a drink of your water
and I’ll give you some of mine,
only mine will not just wet your throat
but will well up inside you like a spring of life.”
You know that nothing gets through your calloused hide
into your shrivelled spirit…
But then he speaks again…
he holds up a mirror and shows you yourself
he knows you
he knows not only your labels and your boxes
but he knows where they came from
he knows the truth behind them
he knows the secrets you had almost forgotten…
And yet he doesn’t move in for the kill, like most men,
(excuse me, some men),
he doesn’t expose your vulnerable points
he names the labels only to peel them away
as though they don’t matter to him
He sees through them
As he speaks
something stirs within you
as though living water had been poured on a dry seed
and it had plumped and sprouted in an instant
reaching straight up towards the light.
Labels and scars and defences and fears fall away
and with a sudden rush of blood
you are engaging the stranger…
in animated conversation
Someone you barely recognise as yourself
has begun pouring forth
about the hopes and aspirations of your people
about your fears and insecurities…
about your yearning for the truth
and for the one who will reveal the truth
and put things right
the one who will peel back the layers of hostility and hurt
and reveal the truth of all things to all people.
And suddenly …
this is surely the anointed one
the gifted one
the chosen one
the one who comes to save us, sometimes from ourselves.
For hasn’t what was long dead within you
just been raised to new life
and aren’t you just bursting to tell someone
to let others see for themselves
even those you wouldn’t have dared talk to,
but to whom you now pour forth your story
“Come and see for yourselves…
a man who knew me from the inside out
a man who showed me who I am
who showed me who I was created to be,
a man who opened my grave
and lifted me from the box in which I lay…
a man who saw me for what I had never yet been
and never dared to hope I could be
and invited this unknown real me to come forth and live.”
Come and see for yourselves…
that he might pour into your hearts the living water
of being truly and deeply known
forgiven and accepted…
for this is the One who will raise the world to life
and lead us dancing into the banquet room of heaven.
What would “living water” be for each of us? What labels have we assumed for ourselves that with a little help from our Lord, we could set aside, mark as old news, as being no longer relevant?
What long dormant image or goal did we have for ourselves that we could resurrect and nurture, again with a little help from the Man at the Well?
In the Orthodox tradition, the Woman at the Well has a name – Photini in Greek, or in Russian, Svetlana – meaning “equal to the Apostles.” Like the Apostles, Svetlana Photini was an evangelist, bringing many people to the Lord for a drink of “living water.”
Jesus calls us all to be such evangelists. His simple form of acceptance, his gracious attitude towards the Woman at the Well, wins her heart and soul. She is so moved, that she runs off to tell others that at last she has met someone who knows all about her, who knows all about her people, and who knows all about the love of God that includes her, and them.
Can we, too, be such apostles? After receiving the acceptance and love of our Lord for ourselves, can we turn around – looking past and beyond all those labels -- and offer acceptance and love to others?
I believe that this is our Calling. May the Lord help make it be. Amen.