There was a short day almost thirty years ago where I thought, except for some trouble with my car, that I pretty much had it all together, and then I found I was wrong and that turned out to be a real relief!
It was mid-day and I was waiting on the empty subway platform in San Fransisco on the way to a meeting to discuss my work as a youth minister and my possible professional future. And then this black guy, African American came up alongside of me on the platform and I could see that he wasn’t walking too steady and his clothes looked a little rough and he might have smelled, though from work or dirty clothes or booze I don’t remember. And he said, “Where do I get the train to Oakland?” and he was right next to me.
So I looked towards the track to our right and said, “I think you’ll find it over there.” And he raised his voice a bit and said, “I don’t want to know what you think, I want to know what you know.” And I looked down and said, “It’s right over there.” And he said, “Look at me!” And I took a breath and looked up at him – and I saw a man who was probably a bit older than I, and tired, probably harder working than I had ever been, who had a few scars and some real serious dignity that he had likely had to fight for over the years. And I felt sorry, both for him and, more surprisingly, for me, and I wasn’t afraid anymore. And I looked at him and said, “the train for Oakland will be on this platform. And he looked at me for a minute and then said, “Thank you,” and walked away.
And I saw something about me that I hadn’t seen before: how narrow I was, how snobbish, self-serving and insulated by my own concerns from a world that was big and unpredictable and unsafe and full – maybe – of messengers of God that I might have overlooked in my narrowness of vision. I saw that day that I didn’t see much, about myself and about Gods’ world at all.
Today’s Gospel reminds me of that encounter. It starts with a wide-angle shot where nobody seems to see anybody in any detail. Jesus asks the woman at the well for some water and she’s amazed that he doesn’t seem to see she is Samaritan – someone that a good Jew would avoid, keep away from, not share water, utensils, let alone conversation, And she tells him this, then they start talking for real. The pictures become close-ups.
Jesus says something very direct. “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
So maybe the Samaritan woman sees that there is someone, something out of the ordinary here; worth the chance of a direct encounter and she looks at him, and says, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water…are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well? She asks him questions concerned with practicality, history, culture and custom
Then Jesus comes back with one of those memorable one-liners that make the Gospel of John such a majestic document. ‘Everyone who drinks of this 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.’
And if they weren’t looking at each other face to face before, now there’s nothing else in the world but these two looking at each other. And she says, ‘Sir, give me this water.” and a quick and very direct dialogue follows: one, two three.
“Go, call your husband, and come back.”
“I have no husband.”
“Right… you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”
Now pull back and pause for four quick questions: what would you do you if you saw the saviour? What would do you do if the savour saw you? What do you do when the one who is the ultimate word of God’s love and knowledge and compassion and concern is face to face with you and telling you the story of your life?
The man on the subway platform in San Francisco forced me to look at him, and in that moment I saw parts of myself that I had never seen before. But I also realised that when we were looking at each other, when he forced me to meet him face to face, that he forgave me. It took me a little longer to come to terms with the depth of my racism and classism and the shallowness of my egoism: all that took awhile and in some way it is still working its way out. But that was my problem, not his. He had already forgiven me. It was both all over and all new at that moment.
So can you imagine what it would feel like for that woman? All the mistakes made, the wrong roads taken, the commandments broken and defenses and denials made up to protect the little girl who got lost on the wrong way a long time before: most of us know something about that path. Then to have Jesus look on you and know you, and love you and forgive you: all over and all new at that moment. Think of the deep breath you might take at that moment.
Three more questions. What if we looked at all our own history with the deep love and forgiveness of God that we see in Jesus Christ? What if we could see our way clear to forgive and love ourselves that much? What if we could forgive and love each other too?