Healing Our Past


Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on John 4: 3 – 30. Focus on the power of shame to make the abused become the abuser and how to heal that cycle of violence and shame.

Violence, in most cases proceeds from a sense of shame, with the perpetuators of violence lashing out at whatever or whoever they’ve projected their shame onto.  This in turn leads to a spiral of violence, as those ashamed of being bullied become bullies, the abused become abusers, and the cycle continues, or even escalates.

That cycle of shame and violence doesn’t have to continue, though; Jesus showed us a way out of it.  And this Sunday’s gospel is an excellent case in point.

Jesus is traveling through Samaria, a land populated by Samaritans, whom Judeans despised.  It wasn’t always that way. But in 586 BCE, the King of Babylon conquered Israel, destroyed the Temple that Solomon had built and enslaved the political and religious leadership of Jerusalem.

The phrase “time heals all wounds” did not apply to Israel.  Like most people the Judean’s were looking for someone to blame long after the exile had ended.  Trying to make sense of why God would have allowed this to happen the men of Judea found it convenient to blame the men of Samaria for their exile.

The charge was inter-racial marriage.  By marrying foreign women the Samaritan men had some how upset God.  At least that’s what the Judean’s said.  So leaders like Ezra and Nehemiah demanded that all such men immediately divorce their wives, passing along the experiences of humiliation, abandonment, and exile.

Not to surprisingly most of the Samaritan men refused which led to this humiliating treatment by the leaders of Judea.  In Nehemiah’s own words:

I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God … Thus I cleansed them from everything foreign…Nehemiah 13:25-30

And so began the hatred between Judeans and Samaritans that was centuries old by the time Jesus came to Jacob’s well, and was approached by a woman of Samaria.

It was noon, in the heat of the day, not a time when most women were outside.  Not a time you’d want to be doing heavy lifting much less having to lug it in a heavy jar on your head all the way back to the village.

The other women went to the well early in the morning when the work wouldn’t be quite so hard, and the drudgery of hauling water would be eased by the fellowship shared with other women who’d gathered around the well.

But this woman was one of the people the other women loved to gossip about, and the fact that she showed up at noon was a sure sign that she wasn’t welcome at their morning social hour.

And yet as oppressive as the noonday sun was, it didn’t burn like the stares of the others in the village. So she goes to the well when she sure she’ll be alone.

But she isn’t alone. Jesus is there, and he speaks to her, which is something men only did if they were propositioning her

So having been used and discarded by so many men from the village, it’s little wonder that there’s an edge in the woman’s response to Jesus when he asks where her husband is.  But when she replies that she has none.  Jesus agrees with her but not in the way she is used to being talked to.  Jesus says,  “You are right, for you have had five husbands, which if we were to put it into our context would be like saying:

“You are right, of all the men that you’ve been with – none of them have truly loved you.”

This poor woman has sold her dignity so many times in search of acceptance that this has come to define love for her.  So when Jesus tells her this, the intimacy of it all, causes her to change the subject trying to draw him back into an argument about Jews versus Samaritans.

You can hardly blame her.  If he knows about all her husbands, there is no telling what else he knows about her, and she decides she’d rather not find out.  It’s time to step back from him and cover herself up again.

But it doesn’t work.  When she steps back, he steps toward her.  When she steps out of the light, he steps into it.  He will not let her retreat.  If she’s determined to show him less of herself, then he will show her more of himself.  “I know that the Messiah is coming,” she says, and he says, “I am he.”

This is amazing!  It’s the first time he has said that to another human being, and a woman to boot.  It’s a moment of full disclosure, in which this ultimate outsider and the Son of God stand face to face.  Both stand fully lit at high noon for one bright moment in time, while all the rules, taboos and history that separate them fall to the ground.  It’s one of only two conversations that Jesus has in the Bible, and both with women who are outsiders – one a Samarian the other a Syro-Phoenician woman.

By telling the woman who she is, Jesus shows her who he is.  By confirming her true identity, he reveals his own, and that is how it still happens.  The Messiah is the one who knows who you really are – the good and bad of it, the all of it, the hope that comes from it.

The Messiah is the one who shows you who you are by crossing all boundaries, by breaking through all the social taboos, speaking to you like someone you have known all your life so that you go back and face people you thought you could never face again, speaking to them as boldly as he spoke to you. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.”

What transformed this woman could transform our world.  The woman at the well was despised by her village, which was despised by Judeans, whose ancestors had been humiliated by the Assyrians and then the Babylonians.  From generation to generation – humiliation, resentment, and violence were passed down by people keeping score so that they could even it.

Jesus sets aside all score-keeping, and by treating people, especially the most vulnerable in his society, like this woman with dignity and respect he makes reconciliation possible.  Amen

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