A Reflection on John 4: 5-42 by Rev. Dr. Katherine Godby
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well
Years ago it occurred to me why I love Jesus. Jesus sees me.
I was at a meeting of the elders of my church—this was probably 15 years ago—and someone was leading a short devotional about Jesus. I don’t remember what the exact scripture was, but it hit me like a ton of bricks: all the stories of Jesus that felt especially important to me were stories of Jesus seeing people. Seeing past the pain that motivated their sin. Seeing past the fear that led them down wrong pathways. Jesus looked at people of all types and varieties and saw their essence, saw the image of God still sparkling within them, saw the grace and beauty beneath layers of life’s grime.
And Jesus’ seeing carries within it healing. That is the power, the force, the energy behind his ability to heal.
In his amazing book, Beauty: Rediscovering the True Sources of Compassion, Serenity, and Hope, John O’Donohue writes: “It is heart-rending to see people who have no respect for themselves and are unaware of any light or beauty in their lives….Sadly, many people do not even suspect that behind the veils of anxiety, emptiness, and labour, there dwells a beauty of essence….Tragically, it does seem possible for a person to utterly destroy their sense of inner beauty. Sometimes this is the result of being badly hurt….At some deep unconscious level these people become blind servants of a certain pattern of inner destructiveness. Gradually they lose sight of beauty and light.”
I know that was true for me. Throughout my twenties and into my thirties it was quite normal for me to “beat myself up” with thoughts arising from self-rejection. A “pattern of inner destructiveness,” as O’Donohue puts it, did indeed lead to a blindness of my own beauty and light. In my early thirties I happened to encounter several people who, incarnating the Spirit of Jesus, took the time to see me, and when they did, I began to heal. They saw the beauty of who I really am, and I slowly began to trust that their seeing of me was more reliable than my own sight, blurred as it had been through the years by tightly-bound dysfunctional family dynamics enacted from within a culture of sexism.
Jesus seeing breaks through those boundaries. Family dynamics, cultural prohibitions, habits, customs, laws, social conventions are no obstacles for Jesus’ way of seeing.
In our Lenten story of “the woman at the well,” Jesus encounters a foreigner, an unnamed Samaritan woman. He should have despised her for her foreignness—Samaritans were considered ‘dirty’—and for her gender. But instead of turning from her, Jesus speaks to her, engages her. He sees her, knows her, knows the source of her pain, engages her intellectual acumen by discussing with her as he would with a man the most important topic of concern between Jews and Samaritans (the correct location of the cultic place of worship), and then compliments the spirit he must see in her by revealing to her that he is the Messiah she seeks.
Darryl Trimiew has noted the sub-rosa morality so prevalent among otherwise progressive individuals. Sub-rosa morality obfuscates our ability to make sound moral decisions because its inherent self-deception keeps us from asking incisive, perhaps painful, questions of ourselves. Sub-rosists are invested in the notion that their moral position is entirely justifiable; they think of themselves as standing with the oppressed. Sub-rosists experience both vague unease and moral vindication simultaneously . . . On a conscious level they believe that their position is morally defensible even as they sense vaguely that something has gone wrong in their moral reasoning. Yet, on a conscious level, they steadfastly refrain from ferreting out the source of their conflict.
I mention sub-rosa morality because it plays such a large role in our inability to see as Jesus sees. The disciples thought they were on the right track, following Jesus. But in their encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, did they ask themselves the uncomfortable questions that might have helped them see past the social convention, the law, the custom that viewed her as ‘dirty’? Sexism, racism, heterosexism, age-ism, classism—all of the ‘isms’ that place such tight boundaries around The Other—thrive in a patriarchal system because people, even liberals like many of us who try to be open and welcoming, do not pause and do the sometimes very uncomfortable work of allowing themselves/ourselves to see as Jesus sees.