Last Sunday the Gospel Reading was on the Woman at the Well. The reading invites scandal: is Jesus flirting? Hey Babe, I’ve got something for you. She banters back, Really? Whaddya got, sailor? The story has a hint of ridiculousness: she’s saying, I’m not here for fun, I’ve got work to do, and I know what you want and you aren’t getting any.
She even forgets her water bucket.
Who was the woman? Easy? Loose? Sleeping outside of marriage? There’s pain and toughness in her, curiosity and astonishment. Who is this fellow who would talk to someone of the enemy tribe? Jesus is from the Jets and she’s from the Sharks.
That’s a West Side Story reference.
I don’t think it’s useful to avoid the passage’s edginess. Jesus seems to enjoy being the riddle here, enigmatic and obscure. And yet, he knows her, and has identified who she is. Then there is what is missing: judgment. Perhaps she had always been an extension of other men, sometimes protected, sometimes used, vulnerable at one age until reality made her tough, invulnerable to the critiques of others.
One person asked me, “why didn’t anyone just believe him?” People don’t usually just believe – they need proof. First we’re transformed, then we look for language to describe it. After he’d given up heroin, a Jewish friend said to me, “I didn’t believe in the resurrection, until I experienced it myself.”
I think the experience of transformation begins with being recognized, not as an extension of others, not as the cause of pain or pride for others, but by being seen as a person worth loving, without the burdens of what she was carrying. Perhaps that is what the living water, the running water is like: one where life is clearly flourishing, unburdened and unshackled by the fears and limits and shame imposed by other people. She was seen and recognized. And perhaps that was the beginning of her freedom.
She didn’t need the water.