Jesus meets a lot of people in the Gospel; and everyone who Jesus meets has one thing in common: They have a life, but they're not really living.
Nicodemus, for instance, whom Jesus met in the Gospel last Sunday, thinks he's really living because he's working really hard at living. When Jesus meets Nicodemus, Nicodemus learns that really living is not a product of hard work but a free gift, like being "born" only "again."
The "man blind from birth," whom Jesus meets in the Gospel next Sunday, is completely unaware that there is a difference between having a life and really living. He can't conceive of a life other than the "deathward drift from futile birth" he has thus far experienced.
Lazarus, whom Jesus meets in the Gospel in two more Sundays, is neither alive nor really living. He's dead β very, dead. How dead is he? Lazarus is so dead β four days' dead, that, as the King James Bible puts it, he "stinketh."
Today, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman in the Gospel. She's just surviving; she's not really living; she, however, knows it. Her problem is slightly different. She thinks she's trapped.
Today, as every Sunday, Jesus meets us in the Gospel. We have this in common too.
For generations there has been speculation about the Samaritan woman; about why she came to the well for water in the heat of the day. Most of these speculations have found their focus on her supposed promiscuity, based on Jesus' words to her: "you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband" and assuming that with these words Jesus was not simply making an observation but rather a moral judgment.
There is at least one other, simpler interpretative possibility: Her previous husbands might have just died. No moral judgment necessary.
There were, after all, a lot of widows in the time of Jesus and later in the time of the Evangelist Saint John. There were rebellions β several of them β against the Roman Empire and many were killed, some as rebel combatants and some as innocent bystanders. When it came to killing rebels, Roman legions were not very discriminating. In fact, by the time John's Gospel was written, there has been several major Jewish and Samaritan rebellions and hundreds of thousands of men β and women and children β
had been executed. There was a shortage of men. This was a serious enough problem that, about that same time, a group of Jewish religious scholars met and actually changed the Bible-based rules for Jewish identity to those still observed today. In the Bible, a person is a Jew if they have a Jewish father. (That's what all those "begats" are all about.) But early in the second Century, those rules were changed so that, even today, one is a Jew if they have a Jewish mother. Men died. Widows were legion. Having five husbands might just have been a matter of national survival and not a matter of personal morality.
A matter of personal survival too, for a woman. In the early centuries of the Common Era, a woman without a man β husband, father, brother, son, "significant other" β women had no value; no dignity; she had life, but was not really living. She would have been ostracized; she would have been bullied; she would have been shamed, not necessarily because she was doing something wrong, but simply because she was trying to survive. Some of us know a thing or two about that. So when Jesus meets her in the Gospel, he is not trying to help her deal with her sin, he's trying to help her deal with her life. He is trying to move her from just being alive to
really living; which is precisely what Jesus does with everyone he meets in the Gospel, even today.
Jesus does not meet us in the Gospel to make us feel bad β or good β about ourselves. Jesus meets us in the Gospel so that (he tells us a few chapters later) we "might have life and have it more abundantly."
That's why Jesus showed up in the Gospel at Jacob's well for her. That's why Jesus shows up in the Gospel at the font and the table and the pulpit and the community for us. To give life. To give dignity. To give release from the traps set by situations over which we have no control in which we find ourselves or by others or "society" or even by ourselves. To give dignity in the present. To ensure the future. To give us all we need to be really living.
Jesus meets a lot of people in the Gospel, including you and me, and those whom Jesus meets end up with one thing in common: Life. Life. Life for really living today, tomorrow and everyday -- forever. O Lord: Give us such life!
Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter's Church
in the City of New York