At a meeting I went to last week the first agenda item was to introduce yourself and say why you were interested in the group. And as the first person said their name, a young, good looking man – a 19 year old, I found out later – asked in a soft voice, if everyone could include their gender pronouns. Some people are even doing that in their email signature, I’ve noticed. As we went around the table, everyone, who I knew, all said what I expected they would, either, ‘he, him, his’ or ‘she, her, hers.’ I assumed the teenager who asked for us to include gender pronouns would say either, ‘they, them, theirs,’ or, opposite my assumption of his gender, she, her, hers. But he said, he, him, his. It was some of the others who surprised me, when they said, they’d rather not identify any pronoun. Just call me Terry – said Terry!
I think it’s a relief, to live in the 21st century’s growing acceptance of gender fluidity, where we don’t get hung up on binary choices that constrict and deny who we are, and which has the potential, at least, to free us up from the hierarchies that have been ingrained in us, and have oppressed so many.
So it’s interesting, I think, that at the same time, the question that still creates a lot of tension for many, namely, ‘can men and women be friends?’ is also unanswered, to any satisfactory degree. The perils and protocol of mixing gender, even a binary understanding, are still being sorted out. 100 years ago, this congregation, like many others, probably worshiped with women on one side and men on the other. Marriage usually occurred right out of high school. And, churches and schools had separate men’s and women’s groups.
In Jesus’ time, men and women mostly didn’t mix in public either. Societal roles were clearly defined. Even in the Temple, women had their own side to worship on, separate from men, and of course only men were priests.
So, ‘can men and women be friends,’ in the bible? Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at the well, in our gospel lesson, and it was a most extraordinary meeting indeed!
This is not just any well, btw, this is Jacob’s well, the same well where Jacob met the love of his life, Rachel. In fact, the ‘town well’ was a traditional place to meet people. Jacob’s own father, Isaac had made the match for his mom Rebekkah at a well. So it was part of the family story, bound up in Jacob’s life, but part of a bigger story, too. Moses had met his wife Zipporah, at the local well, who had been sent there by her father to draw water for the flock. And when Zipporah and her six sisters returned much earlier than expected, their father said, ‘That didn’t take long. Why are you back so soon? 19They said, ‘An Egyptian rescued us from a bunch of shepherds. Why, he even drew water for us and watered the sheep.’ ‘So where is he, said the father? Why did you leave him behind? Invite him so he can have something to eat with us.’ And that’s how Zipporah and Moses met at the well, settling down, with her father’s blessing, got married and had a son they called Gershom, or Sojourner.
I know this custom is true because when we went to Palestine in 2005 we visited Gabi, a young man who lived in a small village in Galilee. He was a student at our Chicago Lutheran Seminary in Hyde Park, but had gone home on spring break. And on the top of his list of places to show us, in his little village, was the town well, where he was happy to tell us the story of meeting a beautiful young woman two years earlier, a seminary student herself from Chicago. So, when Gabi first came here, his plan was to go to Chapel, which for him was like going to the town’s well. Little did he know that the newly remodeled chapel had a living water font as its centerpiece, where the water flowed continuously, splashing over the sides into a pool and sounding like a babbling brook or a bucket being filled.
It was a refreshing, and life giving place, just like the wells of Palestine-Israel, where love blossomed and new relationships began.
Today, I can tell you, the two seminarians, from two different continents, did indeed fall in love, get married, and have a couple of very cute kids!
Jesus, the giver of living water, comes to Jacob’s well thirsty, after a long morning’s journey, and asks the Samaritan woman for a drink. As a man, he has the upper hand, but he is also at a disadvantage because, as a foreigner in Samaria, he has no bucket with him to draw water for himself. They were alone – these two – because his disciples had gone into town to buy food. Man and women meet at the well, Jacob’s well! One story line could have been, is there a budding romance in the offing here?
But, even beyond gender, there are more barriers to separate them. Samaritans do not share things in common with Jews, like the bucket or even a drink of water from the same well. And religiously, they are distant cousins, having been one family, before the Exile, but now estranged. Sort of like Lutherans who separated from Roman Catholics, or like Missouri Synod Lutherans and ELCA Lutherans in America, separate now, but from the same Lutheran birth mother.
So the woman at the well is cautious at first, asking, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” But Jesus reaches past that, and steers the conversation to a more deeply theological one. “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” …“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
So, maybe women and men can be friends – as long as they stick to theological talk?!
But then Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” To which she says she doesn’t have a husband, and Jesus says, I know, for you have had 5 husbands but you don’t have any right now! But even that doesn’t seem to be an opening for a relationship. The woman says, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet,” for now she’s interested in who he is, or might be for her, as a holy person. But the barrier here, is their dispute over where the Temple should be. The Samaritans worshiped on the mountain they were talking on, Mt. Gerizim, but the Jews of course, worshiped in Jerusalem, on Zion.
And, in breaking down this barrier, Jesus says something very new and surprising, “…the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.” Highly gendered, of course. But then Jesus says, “God is spirit, and those who worship [God] must worship in spirit and truth.” This is talk of the new Messianic age, which everyone was anticipating.
And when Jesus identifies himself as the Messiah to her, “the one who speaking to you,” she is excited to return to her city, not even remembering to take her water bucket, because she has a whole new mission now, one that supersedes her gendered servant role, and she announces to her towns’ people, 29”Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he? 30They left the city and were on their way to [Jesus].” Jesus’ followers will break through the gender barrier, and include men, and women, as disciples!
So, ‘the woman at the well’ becomes an evangelist for the Samaritans, and, with Jesus, breaks every barrier that has held her down, gender, religion, and ethnicity – she finds the love of her life. Not of course, a relationship in marriage, but a love of the One who loves her for who she is, just as she is – and she receives life, and living water, at the well.
Our relationship with Jesus, our Lord and our Messiah, is born out of the hope for the healing of our life-scars, the relationships which have hurt us, or tried to define us as less-than, as not worthy because of our gender, or our beliefs and ideas, our ethnicity or race, our status. And Christ finds us and meets us at the well, at the deepest darkest moments of our lives, to give to us, living water, a renewal of our baptism, that gift of grace and unconditional acceptance. The encounter opens our eyes and begins the healing process, so that we may worship this Savior ‘in spirit and truth.’ We turn around and go in a new direction. And our tears turn to joy. And our joy empowers us to share that good news with our own towns’ people. ‘Come and see’ the one who knows me inside and out, and does not shy away from my inmost soul, but offers a healing relationship.
Relationship with Jesus, is more than romance, or friendship even. It is the deepest most intimate relationship we can have – leading us to spirit and truth.