Friday, May 29, 2009

2-24-2008: 3rd Lent (A)

Exodus 17:3-7/Psalm 95/Romans 5:1-2,5-8/John 4:5-42
My grandmother wouldn’t allow a Bible in the house when I was young because, she said, it’s filled with all those scandalous stories. No doubt she was thinking of today’s gospel of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. It’s ripe with sexual innuendo and double entendre. Through this scene of forbidden social intercourse Jesus breaks a number of taboos: he enters Samaritan territory; he talks with a woman; he talks with a Samaritan woman; he wants to drink her water; and he engages her at a well (wells being notorious as sites of biblical romance).

We might surmise that the Samaritan woman was no prude. Perhaps the gospel assumes the reader will view her as Jews did: calling her a prostitute, outright, would be too good for her. But Jesus knew other women like her, the Magdalene being the most famous (despite the current revisionist interpretation). And then there was the woman about to be stoned for committing adultery. Jesus is left alone with her the gospel says – what a scandal that must have been. And that woman who crashed Simon the Pharisee’s dinner party to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears -- then, the gospel tells us, she lets down her hair in order to dry them (a euphemism, scholars tell us, for disrobing). No wonder the fastidious Simon was shocked and scandalized – well he should have been!

Jesus is Savior precisely because he offers freedom -- from addictions, from the things that enslave us. The woman at the well is an addict as well, albeit to husbands. Her testimony, the proof of her conversion, is to run through town shouting she met a man who told her everything she’d ever done. Half the town goes to see Jesus after that; most, I would suspect, hoping to hear the everything she’d ever done (the prurient transcending time and culture). The apostles, having conveniently disappeared, return quite amazed (shocked would be a better translation) that Jesus was with a Samaritan woman and quickly change the subject: Let’s talk about food.

Nothing seems to have changed in two thousand years. We still change the subject; we continue to interpret this gospel with Eucharistic explanations. All well and good, I suppose: the Eucharist is part of the big picture after all. But, truth be told, we have yet to come to terms with the underlying tension that is the historical core of this story (and many like it), which the accusation of scandal invites us to examine. Salvation, by definition, always finds itself immersed in compromising positions and scandalous encounters. The prohibition against giving scandal has silenced many an endeavor. It is a useless and silly prohibition since, in the light of cultural differences, nearly anything can give scandal, depending on circumstance and interpretation. Instead of changing the subject and talk about lunch, perhaps we need to begin to honestly examine that elemental and ever so complicated aspect of our nature -- how we relate as sexual beings: to others, to ourselves, and to God.

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