What is it like to be someone who is shunned and excluded, someone who finds themself not welcomed simply because of who they are? That is the experience of people in many parts of our world; people who have a different skin colour or religion or appearance. People who are feared by others who have never met them and know nothing about them. It’s something that has happened since records of human behaviour began, and is still happening right here within our own communities.
This morning we meet the Samaritan woman. The Samaritans were people of mixed heritage. At the time of the first exile of Israel, which happened in the 8th century BC, Samaria, which was then Israel’s capital city, was repopulated with people from elsewhere. Those people mixed with and married the Jewish population that had remained, resulting in children who were half Jewish. They became known as Samaritans. The Samaritans were still in the land when the Jews returned from captivity. The Jews shunned them because the Samaritans were not fully Jewish and perhaps because they were perceived as people who had got off lightly in the intervening years.
Was there some bad feeling because they hadn’t endured the challenges of the exile? We can see how easily animosities could be passed on through the generations, creating the stuff of conflict and the foundations of discrimination and exclusion. Labelling of people not because of what they’ve done but simply as a result of their heritage.
So the Samaritan woman is centre stage in this morning’s story. And we are given a number of clues about her. She’s collecting her water in the middle of the day, at the height of the sun, a time of day when nobody would choose to be at the well. We might assume she’s there because that allows her to collect water without interacting with many other people, it’s presumably a safer time of day for her to venture out to the well. She’s had five husbands so we may wonder whether she is a bit older – but she doesn’t appear to have any children to help her with the household chores. And she’s quite a feisty woman – she isn’t cowed when she’s addressed by the Jewish man who appears on her patch.
She was from an excluded group, she was perhaps doubly or triply excluded, but she had something that was vital for life – she had a bucket. We think of this morning’s Gospel as a story about the Samaritan woman and it’s true that her Samaritan heritage is crucial to the story, but it’s not the whole story. What changes if we begin to think about this morning’s Gospel as a story about a woman who had a bucket?
The bucket that she carries to the well has little intrinsic value. It’s a tool, a tool to allow access to the water that sustains life. And notice that when the woman leaves Jesus at the well to go back to her village, she leaves the bucket behind. So the bucket serves its purpose; it allows her to engage with Jesus and to recognise who he is – and then it’s no longer needed. The prize has been won – she has made the connection and is now ready to follow Jesus and to share the news with the people in her community.
The woman with the bucket – as soon as we reframe our understanding of who she is, we can begin to see her in a different way.
She has often been portrayed simply as an outsider, someone from a different community and used as an example of the way that Jesus made no differences between people. That’s all true, but let’s not victimize her. She is at the same time a powerful person. She has in her possession what is needed to enable the maintenance of day to day life. She knows where the well is; she is able to access that well, albeit at a less than preferential time of day and she has the means to access the water that sustains life.
But then she takes things a step further. She cottons on very quickly to what Jesus is saying. She hears the underpinning message in his words – she doesn’t need to be told twice. This woman is no slouch. She knows what she needs to sustain her in a different way and she’s not frightened to ask for it. And having asked for sustenance from Jesus, she goes further still and rushes to tell her people that she thinks she has met the Messiah. Our woman with the bucket goes from having a conversation about water to being the catalyst for transformation within her community.
The disciples may have been hanging around asking what was going on, but meanwhile the woman with the bucket was out there doing mission. She was the one who named Jesus as Messiah and had the courage to go and tell. She was a prophet. She understood that there was something that went deeper than the purest water; something that would feed her body and her soul and she knew that this was too important to keep to herself.
There are many people within our communities who are a bit like the woman with the bucket. People who are a bit different in some way, but who have an ability to see and action something that others haven’t quite grasped. One example would be Greta Thunberg. We know from what she has written that she didn’t fit in very easily, that she often felt excluded in particular situations. And we also know that her difference contributed to her ability to have the determination to find her prophetic voice and to be heard by hundreds of thousands of people across the world.
People find themselves being shunned or excluded for a whole range of reasons – some visible and some less obvious. It’s something that people within minority faith communities are quite likely to have experienced. Increasingly church members report that they are treated differently by some people when they learn that they are people of faith. Our feisty woman with the bucket wasn’t frightened to proclaim her faith – and nor should we be. Our faith community teaches us something about the deeper things that sustain life and bring us hope.
However we personally engage with that living water, whatever it is that we each need to put into our metaphorical bucket, it’s probably something that we hope to find when we come to worship and to pray.
At a time of heightened anxiety and uncertainty, a time when many of us will be directly affected by something over which we have little control, that deep place of life and hope is what might help us to get through. We intend that this Cathedral will be a place of hope in the coming weeks and months; a vehicle for the prophetic voice that reminds us – whether or not we are able to be present in this building – that God’s promise is of eternal life for each one of us.