How do you know if a relationship is a good one or a bad one? Easy, you might say. If it is loving, it is good. If it is abusive, it is bad. If it is trusting, it is good. If it is controlling, it is bad. If it is supportive, it is good. If it is violent, it is bad.
But stop for a moment. How many decent, kind, sensible people do you know who are in, or have been in, a bad relationship? Maybe you’ve experienced it yourself. Even good, sensible people get it wrong, sometimes many times. It is not that they are stupid, or self-destructive, or hopelessly naïve. It is just that it is often really difficult to know if a relationship will be a good one, or a bad one.
We’re exploring some relationships in John’s Gospel at the moment. We started last week with Nicodemus. He’d observed Jesus and was intrigued. He wanted to come closer, to know more. Jesus accepted him, challenged him, and said things to him which have been treasured by followers of Christ ever since. He told him: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Today, we’re moving on to a different encounter. Jesus is no longer in Jerusalem where he had met Nicodemus. Things had got a bit hot there. He’s been back in Galilee for a bit. But he’s heading back to Judea. The Gospel tells us that he had to go through Samaria. If, like me, your Palestinian geography is a bit hazy, you probably hear that in the same way as you’d hear the sentence: He had to go through Bonnyrigg to get to Rosewell. But actually, Samaria was not necessarily on the way. Jews routinely travelled between Galilee and Judea on a route which avoided going through Samaria. Jesus had to go through Samaria because he had something to do there. He had someone to meet; someone who knew more than her fair share about bad relationships.
It was Nicodemus who sought out Jesus. Now it is Jesus who is seeking out a particular woman. Where did he go? Not to her house. Not to the market where she bought her groceries. He goes to meet her at the well where she draws water.
Wells were great places for young men to meet girls. Traditionally it was the younger women who had the job of carrying water back to the home. In the Old Testament, there are several stories of men and women meeting at wells. Abraham’s servant met Rebekah at a well and brought her back to Abraham’s household where she became the wife of Isaac, Sarah and Abraham’s son. Moses met his future wife, Zipporah, at a well. In both these stories, the man was in a foreign land, just as Jesus was in Samaria. And there’s another story which conforms to the pattern of these boy-meets-girl-at-a-well stories: a meeting which took place at the very well where Jesus was sitting.
This well isn’t just any well. It is a very special well. For it was at this well that Jacob met Rachel, the woman so gorgeous that he was prepared to work seven years for her father Laban to gain her hand, the woman he so adored that he was prepared to work seven more years after being tricked by Laban into marrying her older sister first. This very well is the setting for one of the greatest romances in the Bible. And here’s Jesus, a young, foreign man, sitting by it, waiting for a young woman. A woman he was there to meet. It’s exciting stuff.
The woman arrives. Unlike Nicodemus, she’s not looking for Jesus. She’s surprised that he talks to her. But when she talks to her, she talks back. A bit like with Nicodemus, their conversation is beset by misunderstandings. Her focus is on the mundane, the everyday, the normal. His focus is on the spiritual, the eternal, the things of salvation. But remember, Jesus sought her out to tell her these things, to include her in his work of salvation. He sought her out, knowing, as he did, all about her.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the setting and its history, and that these are two young people in conversation, the talk turns to relationships, the woman’s relationships.
How do you respond to the facts about her relationships – her five husbands and the man she’s now living with – which Jesus mentions? How you respond might depend on your age, your expectations, your particular sense of morality, or on other sermons you’ve heard. The traditional response to her – informed by the kind of Victorian, patriarchal norms most of us have probably inherited and which some accept and others now reject – is disgust. This response says she must have been a loose woman, a woman of low morals. And many interpreters have spoken of how Jesus forgives her. But that’s all wrong. There’s no word of forgiveness in the text. There’s no need.
The most likely reason for her five failed marriages is that she had been abandoned. And the most likely reason for that is that she and her husbands had been unable to have children. It was perfectly normal then for men to divorce their wives, to abandon them, if they did not bear children. All these men would have blamed the woman. No man then would have thought infertility was anything to do with him. Can you imagine what she’s suffered? This woman is a victim, not a sinner. She has no need of forgiveness, and she certainly deserves no condemnation.
The disciples return. Unlike us, they’d have known the history of this place and seen its significance right away. They knew wells were the dance halls, the nightclubs or dating apps of their day.
Is it just their – let’s name it – anti-Samaritan racism, or their culturally conditions sexism that prevents them asking why Jesus is talking to her? Or are they suddenly afraid that he’s going to leave them and go off with this clearly articulate, confident, quite possibly attractive young woman? As it is, he doesn’t.
While I may have been overplaying the sizzling, sexual tension in this story, it is none-the-less, a story absolutely about relationship with Christ. I’m not talking about the unhealthy ‘Jesus-is-my-boyfriend’ kind of spirituality. In its misguided exclusivity, it distorts what relationship with Christ is truly about. ‘Relationship with Christ’ is a phrase I’m aware I use a lot, without defining it. So what is relationship with Christ? I believe we see it in this story.
Jesus told Nicodemus that God so loved the world that he sent his one and only son, not to condemn the world, but to save it. If you want to see the world which God loves, look in this story. Jesus seeks out a woman and offers her a relationship unlike any she’s known before. He offers a relationship of respect, of trust, of support, of esteem; a relationship without judgement, without condemnation, without the wielding of unequal power; a relationship of solidarity in the face of the disapproval of others; a relationship based on justice; a relationship based on genuine love.
What did she do to deserve it? Nothing. What did she do that would mean she didn’t deserve it? Nothing. She, like all people, no matter who we are, where we come from, what we do or what we’ve done, are loved by God. We are in relationship with Christ when we love, as best we can, the way God loves. At Jacob’s well, we see God’s love in action, a love without boundaries, a love unconstrained by conventions, a love unburdened by conditions.
It is a lovely girl-meets-boy story, but with a wonderful twist. It is also a world-meets-God story, which offers not a happy-ever-after ending, but something much, much deeper. It shows us the love which assures our salvation and embraces us in eternal life.