A Meeting Place – 3/27/11 – John 4, Exodus 17

Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’
doesn’t make sense any more.

Jelaluddin Rumi

The poet dreams of a place, a field, where souls can meet and encounter each other as they really are, beyond moral evaluation or other forms of category.

“Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.”  In this field, this meeting place, ideas, language, even the sense that we are completely separate human beings, “each other,” things that we previously experienced as most true, make less sense.  There has been a meeting of souls, and in the process, each has become more human.

We can imagine that Rumi’s field is scattered in small patches around the world in those places that lend themselves especially well to meeting.  When two people, or a group of people, join together – to reminisce, to celebrate, to get to know one another, to talk about whatever might be on their minds.  Two friends who haven’t seen each other in a long time agree to meet together at a favorite restaurant and have a leisurely evening of good food and talk.  A family gathers around a Christmas tree to sing carols and exchange gifts.  Spouses light candles in the bedroom for a time of soft conversation and lovemaking.  A congregation gathers in a sanctuary to join their hearts together in worship and contemplation of God. 

Most of our meeting places involve much more mundane and practical purposes.  A committee meets around a table to plan the work for the upcoming months.  A team meets on the court to practice for the next game.  Colleagues meet in the office to review progress on their current project.

And some meeting places are simply places where people happen to cross paths.  Playgrounds where children play and parents who don’t know each other make small talk.  Parks and walking paths where brief exchanges happen between strangers.

In ancient Palestine, like in many rural villages around the world today, a well could serve any one of these purposes.  Women would come out in the cool of the day, early morning or later evening, taking an empty jar, and make the walk, to fetch the water that would enable them to provide their family with water not only for drinking, but water also for cooking, cleaning, and bathing.  We’re used to the convenience of running water, available at the temperature of our desire with the turn of a handle.  But this isn’t running water.  It’s more like walking water, and it was the woman’s job to do the walking. 

The morning walk to and from the well would have been a meeting time for the women.  The task made more enjoyable with the company of others.  This first chore, before the day’s other countless chores.  A chance to converse about children, ask about how family members are doing, gossip, commiserate, laugh.  An evening walk would be another time to meet.  A break in the action from home duties and a time once again to gather and share in this common task.  To meet one another.  The well was a meeting place, serving a practical and social function. 

There are stories in the Old Testament of wells being places where a romance begins, or, at least, where marriage arrangements have their beginning.  Abraham sent his servant away to find a wife for his son Isaac, and the servant meets up with a woman at a well who offers to draw water for all of his camels – not a small task after the long journey.  This act of hospitality and kindness is a sign to the servant that this woman, Rebekah, is the right woman for Isaac, and they are soon betrothed.  Isaac and Rebekah’s son, Jacob, also meets his wife, Rachel, at a well, only this time it is Jacob who does the feeding of the animals.  When he travels to visit his uncle Laban and sees Rachel, a shepherdess, coming to a well with her sheep, he takes it upon himself to roll the large stone from the top of the well and water the sheep himself.  Rachel, who is Laban’s daughter, eventually becomes his wife.   Generations later, after Jacob’s descendants are living in slavery in Egypt, a young man named Moses, fleeing from that land after killing an Egyptian for mistreating a slave, comes to a well in the land of Midian.  The priest of Midean had seven daughters who were going to the well at that time and were harassed by local shepherds.  Moses wards off the shepherds and helps the young women water their flocks.  The sisters report this to their father who invites Moses to stay with him.  Moses is soon betrothed to one of their priest’s daughters, Zipporah. 

These seemingly chance meetings at these three different wells end of being the way that the people of Israel not only come into being, through the marriages of the patriarchs and matriarchs, without whom there would be no Israel, but also have significance for the one who helps to deliver them from Egypt to become a free people, through Moses. 

You never know who you’re going to meet around a well.      

Jesus’ longest recorded conversation with another person happens around a well, with a Samaritan woman, although neither of them had much business being at that particular well at that particular time.  As John tells it, Jesus had been in Jerusalem, at the Passover festival, the annual celebration that called on Jewish people to make pilgrimage to the temple, to Jerusalem.  It was during this time that Jesus had been visited by Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who came to him at night to ask him questions about God, about Jesus himself, about new birth.  But the festival was over, and Jesus and his disciples were heading back home to Galilee, up north.  John notes, “Jesus left Judea and started back to Galilee.  But he had to go through Samaria.”  That last part is a peculiar statement.  “He had to go through Samaria.”  It’s true that Samaria was the region between Judea, where Jerusalem was, and Galilee.  Going through Samaria was certainly the most direct route.  But there were other routes to get back to Galilee, taken by some with the express purpose of avoiding Samaria.  It’s kind of like saying, Jesus left downtown Cincinnati, and started to head toward Clifton, but he had to go through Over-the-Rhine.  Sure it’s the most direct route, but there are perfectly good ways to bypass that neighborhood and still get to Clifton. 

To say that Samaritans and Jews had it bad for each other would be an understatement.  Their animosity for each other went back centuries and there are stories from around this time of Jews making raids on Samaritan villages in retaliation for an injury done to one of their own.  In 128 BCE Jewish troops had destroyed a religious shrine on Mt. Gerizim which the Samaritans claimed to be the true place of worship for Israel’s God, as opposed to the Jerusalem temple.  Avoiding Samaria, avoiding any kind of encounter there, was an option.  But, John says, Jesus “had to go through Samaria,” which tips us off that something important is going to happen there.

On his trip, John reports that “Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by (a) well,” which happens to be named Jacob’s well.  You never know who you’re going to meet around a well.

As it turns out, we’re not given a whole lot of details about the person he does end up meeting.  John says, “It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water.”  In Jesus’ previous major encounter, we are at least given the name and position of his conversation partner.  It was Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who came at night.  Now, an anonymous woman, of the enemy people, comes at noon.

It’s a strange time to be coming to draw water.  Noon, the heat of the day.  Precisely when the other women would not have been there.  When there would not have been the opportunity, or the burden? of meeting with others.  No chance to converse, to hear gossip.  Perhaps she being the subject of some of that gossip?  We’re not sure, but we can be pretty sure, since John clues us in on the time of day, that she’s not expecting an encounter, and may very well be avoiding one.  Jesus had to go through Samaria.  This woman felt she had to go to the well, the meeting place, at a time when there would be no one else around to meet. 

Except that Jesus is there, tired out by his journey, and, as she arrives, he asks her for a drink.  He, a Jewish man, asks a Samaritan woman for a drink.  Through social convention, the conversation shouldn’t have happened:  Jew and Samaritan talking peaceably; man and unrelated woman talking publicly.  But it ends up being the longest recorded conversation Jesus has with another human being.   

One detail we’re given about the woman a little ways into the conversation might cause us to try and classify her, make some kind of moral evaluation about her character.  Jesus reveals that he’s aware that she has had five husbands, and that the man she’s living with is not her husband.  But that’s all Jesus says about this.  He doesn’t judge her or tell her to repent, or, as he says in a later situation with a woman caught in the act of adultery, “Go and sin no more.”  We don’t know why she has had five husbands.  Death?  Divorce?  Fault of her husbands, or her own?  We aren’t told, and it doesn’t seem to matter to Jesus.  “Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.” 

What is it that enables us to become more human?  More ourselves?  More alive to the fullness of life that God has created within us?  The conversation starts with the most basic of human needs, the need for physical water, and turns quickly to an equally basic human need, the need for spiritual life-giving water.  Jesus tells the woman, “the water I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to life eternal.”  Jesus is offering himself, the only thing we really have to offer others whom we meet.  Here I am.  I am water.  Draw as deeply from me and you are able, and drink.

This story is paired with the Exodus story of the Israelites thirsting for water in the desert.  It’s been over 40 years since Moses met his wife at the well, and now the Israelites come to him, their leader, grumbling, quarreling, begging, for water.  Moses goes to the Lord who asks him to take with him his staff, along with some of the elders of the people.  They are to go to the rock of Horeb.  The Lord says, “I will be standing there in front of you on the rock of Horeb.  Strike the rock, and water will come out of it.  Moses strikes the rock, and the elders are witnesses.  There is no narration of the rock spewing out water.  There is no narration of what might have been meant by the Lord standing in front of the rock.  Water, and Presence, God’s Presence, and life-giving water, are presented almost as the same thing.  The elders are witnesses.  Yes, God has met with us here.  Water is flowing.  God says, Here I am.  I am water.  Drink.

As is perhaps inevitable when a Jew and a Samaritan talk, eventually the topic of the right place for worship arises.  The Samaritan woman says, “’Sir, I see that you are prophet.  Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place of worship is in Jerusalem.’  Jesus says to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…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.  God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.’” 

And so the meeting place, the ultimate meeting place, is suddenly up for grabs.  Unable to be pinpointed on a map. Freed from any particular geography, any particular region, any certain part of the country, part of the city, any certain piece of architecture – a temple, a rock, a well.  The meeting places that matter, those where we encounter one another and stand in awe of God, are available wherever there is Spirit.  Which is to say, anywhere.  This well in Samaria, in the heart of enemy territory, ends up being one of the many places where such a meeting is made available.  The Samaritan woman goes and tells her whole village.  She has been met in her full humanity.  She has been filled with living water.  She has become a witness.