Through Survival to Life

The Rev. Mieke Vandersall
John 4: 1-15
January 9, 2017

To be feared. This is what Jesus was. The reading tells us: the word spread that Jesus was attracting more followers than his cousin John, and more followers following Jesus were fewer followers following Rome, the Emperor, the state.

So he had to go. Jesus was really always on the run, moving somewhere. He was a wanderer, it doesn’t seem like he needed one place, one home, one routine to make him feel grounded and rooted. So he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria to get there.

Jews and Samaritans weren’t friends. To Jews, Samaritans were considered outsiders and enemies. A commentator states, “The breach between Jews and Samaritans can be traced to the Assyrian occupation of northern Palestine in 721 BCE. The source of enmity between Jews and Samaritans was a dispute about the correct location of the cultic center. The Samaritans built a shrine on Mt. Gerizin during the Persian period and claimed that this shrine, not the Jerusalem Temple, was the proper place of worship. The shrine at Mt. Gerizim was destroyed by Jewish troops in 128 BCE, but the schism continued.” (New Interpreters Bible, Commentary, 563)

This goes way back. And Jesus, vulnerable already, running to the next stop, surviving to the next moment of opportunity, steps right into it. Literally. Into Samaria.

The woman, this nameless Samaritan woman we meet at the well, she was feared too.

He finds her, at high noon, at a well. Which is the worst time ever to go to the well. It was hot, the hottest time of the day, as we know. The sun high, it was time for lunch. It was time to be with family. If you are a woman, you were running around feeding everyone, caring for everyone, getting ready for the afternoon’s work.

Which begs these questions: did she have any friends? Any family to take care of? Were people afraid of her too? Was she feared? Would her bad luck rub off on them? Did she threaten them? How did she survive? I think she was just surviving also.

I think we have two scared people at a well at high noon, tired, outsiders to each other, and a power dynamic of centuries of colonialism and sexism at play. And that woman, with nothing to lose, tells Jesus to get his own damn water when he asks her for a drink.

I am reading a book called Nobody Cries When We Die: God, Community and Surviving to Adulthood by Patrick Reyes. He grew up in Salinas, California in a small agricultural community, mostly Latino, highly uneducated, with one of the highest rates of gang violence per capita in the United States.

He writes this: “For Christians with stories similar to my own—and, I would suggest, for many people of color—the first call to life from God that needs to be named here is survival to adulthood…My narrative wrestles with how the status quo has incredible investment in keeping people like me in their place rather than calling us to new life...My first vocational call was exactly that: simply a call to live, to survive. Providing the basics for one’s own life and those immediately around us becomes a calling in and of itself for many of us, especially if we are people of color.”

How is he to live when the world wants him dead, he asks?

How is the nameless woman at the well, the well that their ancestors met at, courted at, sealed promises at, how is she to live, when no one really cares about her being alive and maybe even wants her dead? How does she find her voice?

It happens here. First: go get your own water.” Then, “do you realize that we are from the same people? We are both from Jacob, who gave us this well.” All of this conflict over all of these generations, all of this baggage that comes out in the form of violence, fighting, shunning, oppression, marginalization, colonization, all of this crap that nobody even remembers the roots of, she cuts through it all in that moment by reminding him that she knows the truth, that they are from the same people, that they are equals actually, and who is he for inferring that he is better than their ancestors?

Something in that moment, a larger conversation we are not privy to, or a switch that went off in her that she could no longer hold up, it said “yes: I will live now. I need to live. I need to do more than survive. I have survived this long, and it is time now to live, to actually live beyond the initial calling of survival.”

Patrick Reyes says that Christian vocation is “God’s call to new life for all creation.” Living is our primary vocation.

Let me back up. What does vocation mean? I realize that is a really churchy word, and we don’t like churchy words dangling around here without any explanation or exploration.

Wikipedia says that “the idea of vocation is central to the Christian belief that God has created each person with gifts and talents oriented toward specific purposes and a way of life.”

Theologian Frederick Buechner says that “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

The problem with all of this is that…it presupposes that we have the resources available to us to figure out, to explore, what our deep gladness is, and analyze where the world’s deep hunger is most pronounced. That is the ideal, but rarely the reality.

For Patrick, this was a luxury he didn’t have. The Samaritan woman didn’t have this luxury either, for she was just surviving. Going to get some water at the worst time of day either so she could do it in peace, without stares or whispers, or she would be allowed in to touch and draw from the well, and sustain herself.

It doesn’t seem, really, that Jesus had the luxury of reflection time either, very much. He came from a survivalist kind of place, lucky his mother was alive to raise him, his paternal connection being a bit sketchy, and these things really mattered back then, even more than they do today. He wasn’t wealthy, not even middle class, and pretty early on it was clear that his life would be under threat on a daily basis until there was no where else to go.

In the middle of surviving, they found their life. And life was their vocation.

Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this well water will be thirsty again, but 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.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

Before reading Patrick Reyes’ words, this reading only partially made sense to me. Maybe it is still a partial-sense making, as all of these old words from the Bible we can only understand so much, because their context is hard to pull apart.

What I see now is that before she was surviving. She wouldn’t be at the well at noon if she wasn’t. Jesus was surviving too, running, against threats that were increasing. And Jesus had found life, his vocation, and the woman wanted life, a vocation. She had nothing more to lose and in that she found her voice, her truth-telling voice, and through that she met her match in Jesus. She made it clear that she knew what she was talking about, despite what everyone else said about her, she was smart and she was going to claim it, and she knew in her survival that she was destined for more, for life itself, and so she took this amorphous living water, this water that gave her purpose, that gave her vocation, and survival brought her to life.

We didn’t read this next part but you know what she does next? Well, technically there is more chit chat, important chit chat between them, but then the disciples come back (for they had been on a lunch break) and question Jesus: why are you talking to her? reinforcing that she really has no place to have found her voice, that the status quo has an investment in keeping her in her place, a Samaritan woman.

The woman having none of it put her jar down, cause she didn’t need to carry it anymore and went into the city to tell the people who also were invested in keeping her silent about this thing called life, the vocation to live.

And in the meantime, Jesus kept arguing with the bumbling disciples about living water, the water of life, and food and the difference between it sustaining you to do God’s work and sustaining you to keep anyone considered beneath you in their place.

And through the woman and her voice and her story, she convinced other Samaritans to the power of Jesus, which is the power of giving the middle finger to keeping us in our place and the power of being called to life. And in something rarely done before, they crossed all boundaries of generations of history and ethnicity and invited him to stay with them. They went from feared to beloved.

And she did it. She found new life from survival.

“Christian vocation is God’s call to new life for all creation,” says Patrick Reyes.

I have to keep reminding myself of this. Again and again. The forces of the status-quo keeping us all in our places are strong. They are mighty. They are getting stronger in our political climate. And they were already plenty strong. They have told us lots of lies about ourselves and our worth, our abilities, the part we have to play in this world. At least they have told lots of lies to me. I know I am not alone.

But no, to new life, to living water, that is what we are called into. Not just survival.