Sometimes you’ve got to challenge your preconceptions.
Take the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4. Jesus goes to Samaria and asks a woman to draw him some water from the local well. It’s noon and it’s hot and no-one in their right mind wants to be carrying heavy jars full of water at that time of day. The inference is that the woman is there, alone, for a reason; that’s backed up later in the conversation when Jesus reveals that she’s had five husbands and she’s not married to the guy she’s currently with.
So, test your preconceptions: why had she had five husbands?
The traditional explanation I grew up with is that she was immoral. Put bluntly, she’d been sleeping around town, and she went to the well alone because she was an outcast. The man she’s currently with? Just her latest conquest.
Okay, so where exactly does John say that? There’s an argument to say it’s inferred, but adultery wasn’t the only ground for divorce at the time. It’s possible she was just too outspoken. It’s possible, if statistically unlikely, that she’d been widowed five times. It’s possible that she couldn’t have children. Why do we assume immorality?
Sure, living with someone who wasn’t her husband could imply a problematic relationship in that culture. But maybe that’s less about remorseless promiscuity and more about finding comfort where it can be found. After all, losing five husbands and a community is going to leave scars, regardless of who’s responsible. Maybe it’s a case of outcasts banding together.
Of course, it’s possible that she was guilty as charged, but look at how the story plays out – she becomes, effectively, an evangelist bringing the townsfolk to Jesus. We don’t hear “Go and sin no more” and the encounter it’s most reminiscent of to me is Jesus’s first meeting with Nathaniel. There Jesus displays supernatural knowledge of a situation and ends with the calling of a disciple. Nathaniel’s sarcasm, the woman’s marital status… Where these people started is less important than where they end up.
(There may also be something a little subversive about how the outcast woman ends up discussing theology and evangelising, while the male disciples are off sorting out food for everyone.)
Whatever her circumstances, this anonymous woman ends the encounter as both a recipient and an agent of grace. Maybe we need to recognise the ambiguity of the meeting, to use it to place ourselves within the story. No matter how sordid or oppressed or abusive our past, healing and forgiveness and grace are freely available. And if that’s not true for society’s outcasts then it’s a cheap parody of ‘grace’ that’s really just legalism disguising itself with nice hymns.
This ambiguity should also force us to ask questions, to see these people individuals. It’s easy to stereotype people, or turn them into icons that obscure their humanity (look at how Mary of Nazareth and Mary Magdalene have come to represent the dichotomy between virginity and promiscuity when the reality is far more complicated and human). Jesus treated the woman at the well as a individual; the church should do no less when meeting with outcasts, when thinking about making proclamations.
“Be kinder than is necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.” The woman at the well was in that situation, so are the people we meet, so are we. Our preconceptions and prejudices hinder rather than help; following Christ should challenge our assumptions and lead us into a bigger, richer, wilder and more complicated world than we ever imagined.