Jesus tells her everything she has ever done.
He is traveling home to Galilee through Samaria, which lies between Israel and Judea. Samaritans are the people who stayed behind when Assyria conquered Israel and took most of the Israelites into exile. Samaritans stayed in the Promised Land and intermarried with the occupying Assyrians; over the period of the exile, worship practices also diverged. Despite — or perhaps even because of — their shared heritage, Jewish people and Samaritans don’t get along; the existing tensions have been encouraged and exacerbated by the occupying Roman forces, since divided and in-fighting groups have less ability to revolt and throw off oppressors.
Jesus, traveling through Samaria, has stopped at Jacob’s well, resting for a while in the mid-day heat while the disciples go into town for food.
A woman comes to the well to draw water, and Jesus — having no bucket of his own — says, “give me a drink”.
She is a Samaritan woman — Jesus so much as talking to her, let alone demanding a drink from the same vessel she uses, flies in the face of social convention.
Her first response to Jesus is wary, guarded — “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
She is at the well in the sweltering heat of the mid-day sun, alone, rather than going in the cool of the morning with the support and company of the other women of her village. She is isolated, an outcast, whether through societal censure or her own choice because the cost of intimacy became too high, and the hurt too deep, for relationship with society to feel worthwhile.
She is a woman in a patriarchal society, isolated even from the community that would usually be her support.
Perhaps she feels more than a little on edge, alone with a strange man at the well, when she had hoped to get her water and return home without the burden of potentially hostile human interaction.
But Jesus does not reply with hostility, as a Samaritan woman might expect from a Jewish man — or, indeed, as anyone who has been repeatedly hurt might fear from a stranger.
Jesus answers her, “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.”
Now, this is a bit much. She just came to the well to fill her jars in peace, not to get into an argument with some dude who is trying to mansplain water to her, right after he asked her for a drink!
Skeptical, she replies, “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, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”
Jesus tells her, “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.”
Now, this sounds pretty good — maybe too good to be true. The day is hot. Her water jars are heavy. Every day, she comes back to this well. Every day, she fills her jars and lugs them home. Every day, she is thirsty again. And this Jesus fellow says she doesn’t need to keep doing that?
She responds, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus says, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”
And here the Samaritan woman, who was perhaps starting to enjoy this interaction — some playful banter, a person interacting with her as a full human — has to make a decision.
How much of herself will she share with this stranger? How vulnerable will she make herself?
She has had five husbands, and the man she is living with now is not her husband. No matter what the circumstances of her five marriages, whether her husbands have died or whether she is divorced, she has been hurt deeply and repeatedly.
If she admits to having no husband, will she continue to be safe with this strange man?
She is practiced at hiding— going to the well when it will be vacant, sharing little of her life with others lest they cast her out for having had too many husbands, for living with a man who is not her husband, for being who she is.
How often do we hide ourselves, telling half-true narratives that make us seem less broken, less odd, and more acceptable?
As a queer Mennonite, I am all too familiar with closets, these socially-constructed tombs where I hide, afraid that if I am fully known I will no longer be acceptable, no longer be loved, no longer be welcomed into community. Since I am married to a man and usually perceived as a woman, hiding felt like the easy option—for a while. Hiding my queerness is the default— people assume, based on my spouse’s gender and their perception of mine, that I am straight.
I spent five years in the closet after I realized I’m not straight. Five years of telling myself it didn’t matter, because I’d fallen for a man. Five years of telling myself it wasn’t relevant, that it would never come up in conversation, simply because of my spouse’s gender. Five years of self-censoring, carefully wording statements to avoid lying while at the same time not telling my whole truth. Five years of hiding who I truly am from the world, of trimming off the parts of myself I thought would make me unacceptable. Five years of telling myself that for some reason, my spouse’s identity erased my own.
The truth is, it does matter, and I’m only beginning to understand the long-term consequences of attempting to trim off parts of my identity for that long. And of course, those consequences only multiply for people who are closeted longer, or who can’t come out because their social setting is hostile to their identities
Over the past couple years, since I came out as queer, I have also been navigating my gender identity — an aspect of who I am that feels even less societally accepted than my sexuality.
I’ve come to realize that I am nonbinary, meaning that my gender is neither male nor female; my pronouns are they and them, rather than she and her (for instance, “Sylvia is our guest-preacher today. They are a participant in PiE’s Preach It! program, and they co-lead Queerly Christian”.)
Like most of you, I grew up thinking male and female were my only options. I knew I wasn’t male, so I must be female — right?
This has been a journey of gradual self-discovery, as I have gotten to know other nonbinary people and begun to realize the ways in which female doesn’t quite fit right — my dislike of being addressed as “ma’am” or “miss”, my distaste for using “Mrs”, “Miss”, or “Ms” for myself, my unease at being addressed with a group as “ladies” or “ladies and gentlemen”, and my discomfort in gender-segregated spaces such as gendered washrooms and women’s groups. It’s not all negative, though: there is also the thrill of clothes fitting the way I want them to, the joy of matching my earrings to my menswear, my delight in bow ties and vests, and the pleasure of hearing people use my pronouns.
While I’ve been out-and-proud queer for about two years, I still spent about a year closeted about my gender before gradually coming out this spring and summer.
Telling my truth is an act of deep vulnerability. It’s scary. What if people reject me, once they know who I truly am? What if they don’t believe me when I declare my identity, or think I’m in some way “better than” other queer people because I “pass” as cis and straight? What if they don’t use my pronouns, and it hurts more because I know I asked them to? It takes a lot of courage to speak my truth, even though I’m privileged to be surrounded by welcoming people. But it has gotten easier with practice, and by now it is harder to not declare my queerness than it is to come out.
Knowing what it is to hide, I also know how precious it is to be seen and loved for who I truly am. Before I was out to most people about my gender, but after I’d started dressing in more masculine styles, my dad’s cousin asked me at a family gathering whether I had a new name or pronouns. She asked when we were alone, so she didn’t risk outing me to anyone else, and while I hadn’t changed my name or pronouns at that point, I felt incredibly seen and embraced in that moment. She had noticed that there was something going on with my gender, and wanted to know if there were changes she should make to support me in my identity.
Knowing that people in my family support me has made it much easier to be open about my gender, and to live into the person God created me to be.
Coming back to the Samaritan woman, this outcast woman practiced at hiding —
Here she is at the well, finally having a real conversation with another person, yet still holding her past close to her chest. She has been hurt before, and has learned to hide because the cost of truth-telling is high — but the cost of hiding is isolation, a deep and abiding loneliness that a chance encounter with a stranger — and a conversation that stays in safe territory — will not lift.
Jesus tells her to fetch her husband and return, and she must make a decision.
She could stay closeted about her marital status. She could leave now, pretend she was fetching her husband, and simply go home with her water having accomplished what she set out to do.
But if she leaves and does not return, she will not receive this living water — and it sure would be nice not to keep coming back to this well every day.
And so she chooses to come out, in at least a small way: “I have no husband”.
In response, Jesus tells her everything she has ever done — letting her know that he sees the whole socially-unacceptable truth of her life, that he sees her full humanity. He proceeds to have a theological discussion with her — a discussion among equals about the points of difference between Jewish and Samaritan practice, in which Jesus declares that a time is coming when these differences will be obsolete.
She is a marginalized Samaritan woman, an outcast in her own society, and definitely not expecting to be seen as an equal by a Jewish man.
Jesus tells her everything she has ever done. Not as an indictment, not with judgment. Jesus sees her. Knows her—and not just the story she tells, not just the tidy narrative wrapped up with a bow to make herself seem more acceptable. Jesus sees the whole truth— the beautiful, the painful, and the societally unacceptable— respects her, and welcomes her into community. Jesus tells her everything she has ever done, and offers her the living water.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally created by Sylvia Hook as a sermon for Waterloo North Mennonite Church. They are one of 9 young adults currently participating in a PiE initiative called “Preach It!” that matches passionate young preachers with local congregations. The text they refer to is John 4:1-30.
Sylvia Hook (they/them) is a nonbinary queer Mennonite who is passionate about queer Christian community and queer worship. They are one of the cofounders and leaders of Queerly Christian, a worship-based queer Christian group through PiE. Sylvia is one of the world’s leading experts on queer hymns and the creator of queerhymns.org, a free resource with information on queer hymns and queer worship resources. When they have time and energy, Sylvia loves cooking and riding their bicycle (not simultaneously); when they do not have time and energy, they do these things anyway because they are necessary, but do not enjoy them. Sylvia lives in Kitchener with their spouse, and is an involved member at Erb Street Mennonite Church in Waterloo.