Sermons

Sun, Mar 19, 2017

This woman is us

Series:Sermons

What makes a good play or film or television show?

 

The sets and costumes can help create a mood or an atmosphere…

but, ultimately, they’re not that important.

Ultimately, they’re not what will capture and hold my attention.

Certainly, the topic is important.

So, too, is the plot.

It needs to be an interesting story––

it needs to be well told…

and it needs to go somewhere.

But, more than that…

what matters is the way that the theme and the plot is developed;

in other words…

the quality of the script-writing is vitally important.

And, taking that even further…

ultimately, for me, it’s about the characters.

A good play or film or show has to have good characters.

Not simple, two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs…

but complex characters…

real characters…

characters to whom I can relate;

characters who connect with me and my life experience;

characters who speak to me––

personally––

even if they’re exaggerated or somewhat over-the-top––like we often find in good comedy…

such as…

the parish council members in ‘the Vicar of Dibley’…

or even Kath and Kim.

It needs characters who help hold up a mirror for us to look into;

characters who help us to reflect upon our quirks and flaws…

our socio-cultural assumptions…

our essential humanity.

It needs characters who have to struggle with real temptations and tragedies;

characters who contend with real questions and doubts…

who wrestle with conflicting emotions and obligations…

who struggle with ambiguous moral choices;

characters who make mistakes and face the consequences.

For me, a good play or film ultimately has to have characters who are real and realistic––

characters with whom I can identify…

and who make me think, “that could be me”.

 

In a way, John’s Gospel does that.

The stories that it contains are seldom real or historical––

in the sense that we understand it.

Rather, they’re symbolic.

And the characters who we meet there are meant to be typical or representative––

characters with whom we’re meant to identify…

characters in whom we see ourselves and our experience.

And today’s story––

about a woman at a well––

is no exception.

Picture the scene.

An unnamed woman comes to a well to draw water.

It was an activity that women, back then, did everyday––

in the absence of piped water and private plumbing.

In other words…

the scene opens with a seemingly ordinary woman…

going about her ordinary life…

doing her daily chores.

And yet…

almost immediately…

there’s a twist in the plot.

This woman comes to the well to draw water…

at midday

and all by herself.

In the world of the first century, a woman simply wouldn’t do that––

not without company, to protect her virtue.

She would have come with other women…

or she would have come with relatives.

In other words, straight away there’s something wrong with this picture.

This isn’t any ordinary woman.

This is someone who is treated as an outcast––

as a social pariah.

It’s like John is setting her up almost as an anti-hero.

And that impression would have only been stronger for John’s intended audience…

as the story unfolds.

Because, later, we discover that she has been married five times.

Now, bear in mind, this is a world where women had no power to divorce––

only men could do that.

And this was a world without any social security system…

and where women depended upon men for their livelihood.

So, five times a man has sent her away…

cast her off…

disposed of her, in a sense…

forcing her to find someone else to look after her…

to keep her from starving or from a life of prostitution.

And, with each one, her reputation sank further…

and her prospects of marrying a “good” man diminished…

so that, now, she can’t even find a man who will marry her…

and she’s latched onto some no-hoper––

some “bum”––

in desperation.

Our heroine, then, cuts a very tragic and pathetic figure:

used and abused…

cast off…

forced to do whatever she had to in order to survive;

treated like dirt…

treated like a cheap whore;

a sad and solitary figure…

probably harbouring feelings of unworthiness and shame…

even self-loathing;

desperately longing to be loved…

but, in so many ways, very, very alone.

 

And yet, she’s a character that we’re invited to identify with.

This woman is us––

all of us––

in every experience we have of life’s unfairness…

and in every case of mistreatment at the hands of others.

This woman is us––

all of us––

in every experience we have of struggling with things that we’re ashamed of…

things that we hide from others––

both things that we have done…

and things that have happened to us over which we have had no control…

but which, if others knew about, would mean we might be judged…

or looked down upon…

or treated like dirt.

This woman is us––

all of us––

in our guilt and shame…

in our sense of unworthiness and self-loathing…

in our pain and isolation…

and in our desperate, desperate need for love and acceptance.

This woman is us––

all of us––

and she represents some of our profoundest fears…

and some of our deepest yearnings in life.

 

And yet, this unnamed woman encounters someone.

Someone special.

A man who, in a strict patriarchal culture, dares to speak to her––

publicly––

and yet, who isn’t a relative.

A man who dares to befriend her…

and yet who doesn’t seek to use her or abuse her.

A man who offers to give her something that she hasn’t even asked for––

seemingly with no strings attached.

A man who appears to know her––

who knows what sort of person she is––

and yet, seemingly, doesn’t care.

Indeed, a man who treats her with dignity and respect…

who argues with her as if she were his peer…

his equal;

who encourages her efforts at understanding…

and who praises her honesty––

when few others are praised in John’s Gospel.

 

In a sense, if this woman is a representative figure in John’s Gospel…

then so is Jesus.

Here, Jesus represents the awesome love and gracious mercy of God:

meeting our guilt and shame with a profound, “I don’t care”;

meeting our sense of unworthiness and self-loathing with unqualified acceptance;

meeting our pain and isolation with intense compassion;

saying, “yes, I know what you have done…

I know all of the mistakes that you have made…

I know all of the secrets that you try to hide…

I know all of the things that you beat yourself up over…

I know the shame that you feel––

that makes you think that you don’t deserve to be loved or forgiven.

I know all that.

And it doesn’t change anything.

Let it go.

Let it all go.

Let my loving acceptance change you––

like a spring of water, welling up inside:

let it wash you…

let it revive you…

let it quench your thirst…

let it fill you with new life”.

And, like the offer that Jesus made to this stereotypical woman at the well…

in the end…

all that we need to do is to accept it as a gift.

 

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