All through John’s gospel, we run into people who have encounters with Jesus, where he tries to get them to make a leap in understanding. And some of them are able to make the leap, and some of them are not. Some of them are able to take on a new perspective, and some of them walk away scratching their heads.
Last week we met one of the head-scratchers—Nicodemus. He comes looking for Jesus because he has a lot of questions about the signs Jesus is doing. But he ends up even more confused because he takes everything Jesus says literally, and he can’t get beyond that one level of meaning. This week we meet one of the people who is able to make the leap—the woman at the well—although it does take her a while to get there.
She comes to the well in the town where she lives, and Jesus is sitting there taking a rest, and the two of them strike up a conversation. He asks her for a drink of water, and she says, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” She’s uncomfortable with his forwardness because back then there were strict social boundaries between Samaritans and Jews, and between women and men.
“If you knew the gift of God,” Jesus answers rather cryptically, “and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked me for a drink, and I would have given you living water.” Again, he’s trying to get her to make a leap in understanding. But she’s not quite ready. She’s still thinking literally, like Nicodemus. She says to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?”
Unlike Nicodemus, however, she doesn’t give up and walk away. She keeps asking questions and pushing Jesus to clarify his answers. And by the time the disciples show up and interrupt the conversation, she’s right on the verge of making that leap and understanding who Jesus is. She goes back home and tells everyone she meets, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
So we’ve got two very similar encounters with two very different outcomes. One person is still in the dark, and the other person discovers the light. And in order to see why, we have to start with the fact that Nicodemus and the woman at the well are opposites in many ways. She’s a woman, and he’s a man. She’s a Samaritan, and he’s a Jew. She has a bit of a past, with all of her husbands, and he’s a moral authority. She’s no one special (notice how John doesn’t even tell us her name), and he’s an important religious leader.
In other words, she’s an outsider, and he’s the epitome of an insider. She lives on the margins, and he’s right at the center. So you’d think he’d have some kind of advantage here. He’s privileged in every other way, so you’d think he’d be the one to get what Jesus is saying. But he isn’t—maybe because his privilege, in this case, is actually working against him. He’s so much a part of the way things are he can’t imagine anything different. He’s so invested in the status quo he can’t see beyond it.
But the woman—she doesn’t care about the way things are, and the status quo has never done anything for her. She’s completely free of all that baggage, and she’s completely open to a new perspective.
So it’s no accident that John puts these stories right next to each other in the gospel, and it’s no accident that he presents us with two people who are total opposites in terms of their position and status. He wants us to see the differences between them, and he wants us to look at ourselves. How much are we a part of the way things are? How deeply invested are we in the status quo?
Those are good questions for us to think about as individuals. But even more, they’re good questions for us to think about as a church. Because churches are always in danger of becoming too comfortable at the center. And what we don’t always recognize is that privilege is really nothing but baggage. All it does is weigh us down and keep us from proclaiming the gospel with conviction.
But the good news is, even when we forget who we are as disciples, and lose sight of our mission, God keeps reaching out to us—just like God does with Nicodemus. He walks away from his encounter with Jesus scratching his head, but that’s not the end of his story. After the crucifixion, he and another disciple get permission from Pilate to take Jesus’ body down from the cross, and then the two of them prepare it for burial and place it in a tomb.
So God apparently kept working on Nicodemus, and there’s a lot of hope in that for us. As individuals and as communities of faith, we’re always either moving closer to God or moving further away. But no matter how far we go, God always calls us back. Amen.