Uniform Lesson for March 19, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: John 4
During the last few weeks, we’ve been studying lessons grouped under the theme “Jesus Calls Us.” Specifically, we’ve explored narratives in which Jesus calls people from the margins of society. In today’s story of the woman at the well, we see Jesus transcend social and cultural boundaries to empower an unlikely agent for change.
The woman at the well
Jesus is headed home to Galilee with his disciples when they journey through Samaria. The relationship between the Jewish and Samaritan peoples is tenuous during this time. Despite occupying the same geographic region and claiming the same ancestors, there is a long-documented history of hostility between these two groups.
Nevertheless, this is where we find Jesus – tired, resting by a well in the middle of the day – when a Samaritan woman draws near. As it was culturally normative to draw water in the morning or evening, the woman’s presence at the well during midday is notable. The writer of John is highlighting something about this woman’s social situation. Scholars speculate that this woman is likely a social outcast. To avoid her community, she chooses to draw water alone, during the heat of the day.
To John’s original audience, this woman’s identity as a Samaritan and her questionable social status indicate that she is an outcast — someone to be ignored and avoided by others. But Jesus subverts expectations and engages her. In fact, Jesus puts himself at her mercy by asking for a drink. The woman is shocked. Simply by speaking to her, Jesus crossed the two lines that should have kept them apart — Jew to Samaritan and religious teacher to a woman of questionable social standing. Jesus, ever the rebel, is unphased by social barriers; his ministry of reconciliation, of breaking down barriers, exceeds social constructs.
From societal outcast to an agent of change
Throughout the Bible, Jesus makes tends to choose social outcasts to be his missional agents. From backwater fishermen to tax collectors, from prostitutes to paralytics, Jesus subverts expectations when picking a lineup for his team. He does it again in this story, choosing a vulnerable, socially marginalized woman to be the agent of change for her people. Our God is a God of the unexpected, and our Creator often chooses those we least expect to initiate the biggest of changes.
This woman’s reality is transformed by her interaction with Jesus. At the beginning of this story, she comes to the well thirsty, drinking jar in hand. But in the end, Jesus tells her that he is the fount of living water, and that only he can provide a wellspring gushing up to eternal life. When this woman returns to the town, she goes without her jar (4:28). She goes with a wellspring of life gushing up inside of her, and that wellspring overflows bringing new life into her community (4:39-42).
Like the disciples in this story, we often scratch our heads and wonder what God is doing even as it happens right before our eyes.
We often put labels on people before we really know them. For instance, as a Pittsburgher, I’ve experienced a rivalry between my city and Philadelphia. We don’t like people from Phili and vice versa. Why? Just because! The list of labels we use to minimize people seems to be never-ending: Conservative Republican or liberal Democrat. Poor and lazy or rich and snobby. Young and disrespectful or old and out of touch. We stereotype as a way of simplifying people into easy-to-manage boxes, boxes that we can disregard based on our own biases and opinions. But socially constructed barriers hurt both ways. They rob others of identity and rob us of opportunities for connection.
As Christians, we are called to follow in Jesus’s footsteps — to be bridge builders in a world of disconnection. But just as often, we find ourselves in the position of the woman at the well, a position of vulnerability. Many of us have been hurt by rejection and the condemnation of others. We know what it is like to be an outcast. This story is a reassurance that Jesus sees us. There is not a line that he won’t cross to envelop us in his love. He has a place for us in his kingdom, and he longs to bring all his children home. Those who have lost the most often truly know the love of our savior. And they know what it’s like to invite others who are lost into a place of safety and acceptance.
Despite all the labels that could have been heaped on the Samaritan woman, Jesus disregards them and chooses to bring her into the community. More than that — He makes her the agent of change by which her whole community is eventually saved. The simple act of setting stereotypes aside, of turning towards the other is enough to transform a whole community.
Question for discussion:
What communities do we think are beyond saving — and can we recognize how prideful it is to believe such a lie? How can we start conversations that heal and unify?
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