Vulnerability, Birth and Living Water

Often when I read a text (any text, not just a biblical one), a certain line strikes me more than any other. Most of the time, the “why” I like it is not immediately apparent. I often write these lines down, out of context, and think about them a lot.

When I read John 4, this is the line that struck me: the unnamed woman replies to Jesus’ revelation of living water with: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” I like this statement because it is so sarcastic. She instantly perceives his weaknesses, and does nothing to remedy them, instead she’s sceptical. She refuses to engage with his vulnerability. This is the sarcastic question of a person who has had to build walls to protect herself.

He is a Jew and she is Samaritan, which is grounds enough to stop any kind of interaction between the two of them. Samaria divided Judea and the Galilee, and is situated in the centre of modern-day Israel-Palestine, so Jesus had to cross Samaria to return home. The tension between Judaeans and Samaritans were ancient, dating back to the rivalries between the twelve tribes of Israel. In Jesus’ time period, the Romans, who ruled over Israel, exploited these long-standing rivalries in order to prevent unity and revolt. There were often violent confrontations between Jews and Samaritans in public.

And also, as the story continues to tell us, she has things she’d rather keep hidden. Things that probably prevent her from being over-generous with her heart. She has had five husbands and is currently living with a man who is not any of those men. This woman is often depicted as someone with loose sexual morals, and as a sinner of a particularly gendered kind. Biblical translators have reduced the complex sexual histories of women in the Bible to the title of “prostitute.” This woman probably would have been thought of as a sexually immoral woman in her society, and a lot of that shame has been translated to the way we read this text today.

The woman’s body and her sexuality has been the source of anxiety throughout history.

In Biblical Jewish culture, women were considered unclean when they were menstruating and when they were postpartum. A woman’s sexuality was under control of the men in her life: marriages were mostly arranged and a woman was her husband’s property after marriage. Often,  her sole sexual purpose was reproduction.

This woman has had five husbands – which makes me wonder: What is her story? Is she widowed five times over? Did she get divorced?

This woman would have been an outcast from the other women in her community, because of her sexual deviance. Women’s work in small communities like this was often communal: doing laundry together, washing together, gathering water together. In this story, when she comes to the well alone, it is because of her social isolation from her friends and neighbours.

Her coping mechanism, it seems, is to shut herself up. Given the well-known violence between Jews and Samaritans, and her history with men taking advantage of her, it’s actually not surprising that she is on her guard here – she doesn’t know him, they’re alone at the well, and he could assault her.

Not because she’s insensitive and aloof to the vulnerability of others. Not because she thinks that the suffering of others is negligible compared to hers.

I think she shuts herself off to Jesus’ request because looking at someone else’s vulnerability puts her too much in mind with her own. Maybe seeing the weaknesses of others reminds her painfully of her own failings. She can’t bear another person’s burdens when she has so many of her own.

So when she says this, “you have no bucket, and the well is deep” she seems to be holding on to what she does have: the means to gather water.  And she has no extra energy to help him out.

I have been reading a lot about birth recently. I’m training to be a childbirth doula, which is a professional birth support person. Birth is an essentially social event, primarily because it is a thing we all share, regardless of our differences. We all at one time were born. Because of this, birth is an extremely loaded topic. Whenever I mention that I’m training in this field, people immediately tell me a story about birth, or share an opinion on how birth should look. The comments are usually well-intentioned, but I can’t help thinking that when someone is pregnant, their body becomes social property. We can talk about their body in a way that we rarely talk about bodies in our modest, Mennonite society. Women who give birth often realize that their sex lives and the intimate workings of their bodies have become public knowledge in a way they’ve never been before.

The role of the childbirth doula is to support not only the birthing person, but also the others in the room. They all have emotional stakes in this event, In birth work, we say that if there is some underlying tension between people in the birth room, it can make the labor longer and harder. In my reading, it seems like the “birth room” is almost more of a metaphorical space. If a person is part of a supportive community, it’s probably like the whole community is in there with them – the thoughts and prayers are all bent towards the labouring person. As a doula, it will be my job to navigate and mediate through these possibly conflicting expectations for the birth, and how the birthing person feels about all these people who have such an emotional investment in the labor.

Conversations surrounding birth often get right to the quick of how we view our bodies within society. A simple question like: who should my care provider be? A midwife or a doctor? This question comes loaded with assumptions on either side. Should I receive drugs for pain management? Can I be a vegetarian during pregnancy? Should I do prenatal classes? Should I breast-feed? What, people do bellydancing for pain management!?

All these questions are really asking: what is the best for my body?

Likely, this kind of anxiety surrounding the body is not necessarily foreign to women. There is still a lot of fear of female bodies, and bodies that differ from whatever we define as “normal.” The female body and the perception of sexual deviance has been the source of much anxiety throughout history. The church itself has been instrumental in keeping the female body under wraps – medieval churches viewed the female body as an incarnation of the devil.

Nowadays, this anxiety surrounding bodies extends to queer bodies, disabled bodies, bodies of colour. Instead of celebrating the rawness and holy beauty of the body, we attempt to put it into boxes.

I think that some of the anxiety surrounding the birth process and female sexuality comes from the fact that we’re afraid of what the body can do if left to its own devices. Birth is an intersection of the body’s power and its vulnerability at its height.

Vulnerability is terrifying. When someone is vulnerable with me, I have this kind of fight or flight response. I could stay in the vulnerability and be present to the other person, or I could try to de-escalate the situation, give advice, and brush it off.

I see birth as a moment in life when we can either stare the vulnerability and weaknesses of our social circle straight in the eyes, or we can turn away, allowing it to turn into stagnated pain. Birth is not the only time this happens, either. We often have these encounters with human vulnerability on a daily basis in our interactions with others, from strangers on the street to those we love.

Do I acknowledge the vulnerability or not? And then, do I acknowledge the person behind the vulnerability or not?

Jesus, of course, recognizes the vulnerability in the woman at the well. As she points out, on the surface, it appears like she has everything, and he has nothing. He doesn’t have a bucket, and she does. He tells her that he has living water to give her. Living water that will quench her thirst forever. She brings him straight back to reality: “But why should I get this living water?”

This living water is something that Jesus gives to this woman, and instead of a finite gift of nourishment, the living water represents the potential and empowerment of fully living in her own body, truthfully.

There is another woman in the Bible whose life is constantly linked with the flow of water. Writer Jan Richardson says that “Miriam’s story runs like an underground stream through the story of Exodus of the people of Israel” (345). Miriam grew up in the Nile river delta, and secured her little brother’s freedom by floating him out on the river.

Jewish midrash says that Miriam foresaw Moses’ birth in a dream, in which she sees the birth waters that flow out from her mother at Moses’ birth instigate the emancipation of the Jews from Egypt. When they did escape, Miriam led the women in a dance by the shores of the Red Sea, praising the water and the divine hands that brought them safely to the other side. Legend has it that a well appeared to the Israelites in the desert as they journeyed, and it was called Miriam’s well. This well is said to appear when people are in need, bringing the waters of life.

In many ancient desert religions, water was often viewed as an unstoppable destructive force of nature: it was something to be revered. Miriam incorporates some of this awesome power of water into her story of living water: she sees the potential destruction of the water, and she chooses to work with it, instead of fearing it. She honours this thing that makes humans vulnerable and weak.

The woman in John 4 has a choice here: by accepting the offer of this living water, it means that she has to come to terms with her own weaknesses and failings. She needs to look Jesus in the eye and accept that they both have something to offer the other. They have to mutually acknowledge that they could both use help here.

Jesus goes further to say that worshipping God is something done in spirit, rather than physically. God doesn’t care what mountain she’s on, God will be there anyways.

This woman probably feels like she is in a metaphorical cave, the furthest place from a mountaintop that anyone could possibly be. She has some serious pain in her life that is preventing her from accepting Jesus’ offer. The living water is not necessarily all good – confronting these things may be extremely painful, but the living water will allow her to face the pain with the rushing waterfall of vulnerability and power.

When Jesus speaks of living water here and elsewhere in the gospels, the water is always moving. The water is surrounded by verbs: in various translations, the water is “gushing,” “springing up,” and “flowing.” When I went to Palestine in 2015, our guide showed us the kind of living water that Jesus was talking about. In a desert region, the “mighty Jordan” is little more than a stream, and opportunities for “gushing” and “flowing” are thin on the ground. Jesus was probably thinking about the mountain springs in his home of Galilee, the most fertile area of the land. In Samaria, the well is the only source of water, and it’s dug deep. In Galilee, there are patches of jungle, it’s that lush. To imagine living water like this, even in a literal sense, is probably too good for this woman to imagine.

I like to think of this living water as something that is not necessarily going to fix all her problems, or something that will make her forget all the men who have hurt her in the past. Rather, the living water is something that enables her to carry on, and allows her to open up to the vulnerability in herself and others.

What are the vulnerabilities that we are having trouble facing? What sustains us? Where do we get our living water?


Editor’s Note: This post was originally created by Emily Hunsberger as a sermon for Erb Street Mennonite Church. Emily is one of 9 young adults currently participating in a PiE initiative called “Preach It!” that matches passionate young preachers with local congregations. The text Emily is referring to is John 4:1-30.

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