What makes us believe? Why does anyone believe?
Last week we heard about Nicodemus; he believed. Believed in Jesus. Even though the Institution that granted him power and status didn’t believe. Even though the education he had received didn’t believe. So he came at night; maybe so there would be less distractions, but also probably so no one need know he believed. In the midst of dark and night, Nicodemus came to see Jesus….because he believed.
Nicodemus believed because of what he had seen—lives that had been changed by this One known as Jesus. Nicodemus had seen and heard of life-changing events that can only come from the Source of all life. These stories of lives changing for the better, they brought Nicodemus hope and belief and made him brave enough to go and see and ask.
What made the woman from Samaria in our Gospel today believe? She has no power, no status, no education—-she isn’t even given a name in our story. She is the opposite of last week’s visitor to Jesus. Instead of in darkness, she meets Jesus in the heat of the day. Now, she may have secrecy in common with Nicodemus, well, not so much secrecy as the avoidance of others. After all, most women come to the well for household water in the morning, before it gets too hot. But she is here when the other women are not—in the heat of the day. Alone.
This woman has nothing that should make her feel brave enough, nothing to make her feel worthy enough, to question this Hebrew, this Jew. But she does anyway. She is audacious. Maybe her thirst is even greater than Jesus’ thirst; after all, he never does get his cup of water. And in their common thirst—Jesus sees her. He sees her. He listens; And he answers her. Always drawn to the outsider, the outlier, the one kept to the edges is this Jesus.
He answers her and offers a long drink of hope. Even though she is one who society has deemed practically without value. This society where a woman without a husband has no home, no security; she has no children, so no future. It isn’t her poor character that is revealed by her succession of husbands. It is the society’s injustice toward women Jesus exposes. 5 husbands? If divorce is in her past it is because men could get a writ of divorce for a variety of reasons, and there wasn’t anything a woman could do to prevent it. If a husband’s death is in her past, the woman would have to remarry. Marriage is what provided her a home. Homes belonged to men, so women had to live with a husband or her father or another male family member. There are very few women who had any capacity to be able to live as an independent woman outside of marriage. Society would cast a long sideways glance at this unlucky woman for whom 5 husbands have failed to provide her security or a future. Like all women, her life is not in her own hands.
And in the heat of the day she comes for water. And meets the Christ. Who looks her straight on and sees her; He sees her; he knows her. And he gives this audacious woman answers. Answers that quench her thirst.
Is that why she believes? Because she is seen; she is known. She is accepted as who she is; the injustice that shackles her is named. She is accepted. Acknowledged. Seen. The conversation Jesus has with her is longer than any other conversation Jesus has in Scripture. She engages him more than any other leader, ruler, stakeholder, follower in the histories we have of Jesus’s life.That alone speaks to the mission of Jesus.
And then something happens. In my experience and in the stories from Scripture, something always happens when we find ourselves in the presence of Jesus. Jesus—who is Messiah, who is the Christ, the Anointed One. Love in the flesh.
This unnamed woman walks away from her Love Encounter Changed. Changed in such a way that she must go and give witness, give witness to Love: the Love offered, the Love taken, the Love that is possible. And here’s the amazing thing—this unnamed woman with no status, power, or education; this one who comes alone because her society has failed to see her value: she is believed. By the society that has not known what to do with her. She is believed. Think of how compelling this woman must have been. She must have been lit up from the inside out. Metaphorically Glowing somehow.
Her witness to love is so compelling that others go. She has used Jesus’ very own words: Come and see. And they do. The folx go and see and hear for themselves. They stand close to Love and the presence of Love changes them. And They believe! Authentic Love is that powerful. Raw love is hard to ignore, hard to look away from once you see it. Can you imagine this scene? Can you imagine yourself in this story? Have you known this thirst?
Or maybe you identify more with our Hebrew siblings in today’s story from Exodus? These ones who have been liberated, have been freed, and yet are still shackled. Their request is a simple one: We are thirsty; give us water. A basic human need. First level on Maslow’s hierarchy of human need. A need that cannot be ignored if we expect these people to continue. But Moses is annoyed. Please notice that it’s not God who is annoyed with the request for water. Moses is the one who feels he has been quarreled with and who claims they are testing God. Moses wants them to completely trust and get with the program already. After all, God opened a sea so you could walk through to your safety, people, just trust and believe already!
But, Beloved, let’s remember: Moses doesn’t completely share his fellow Hebrews’ history. He is a Hebrew son of a Pharaoh. He hasn’t known what his siblings know. He didn’t live what they lived. Enslaved. Oppressed. Shackled. For generations.
Oppression leeches into our hearts, our minds, our spirits. Often leaving physical scars, but oppression leaves psychological scars as well. Our Hebrew siblings in today’s story want to believe; they have believed, but when they are experiencing hardship— life-threatening thirst—they are brought right back to the generations of oppression. Wiping out hope. Drying up belief.
And let’s remember Beloved, many of our neighbors have experienced oppression. Maybe even some of us in this room. Poverty oppresses; prejudice oppresses; abuse oppresses; misogyny and the patriarchy oppresses. Human beings cannot move or change or grow if their basic human needs are not met. We cannot expect people to alter their expectations of life, their expectations for their own lives, when their basic needs are not a certainty they can count on; thirst comes in many forms.
But God is patient. 40 years of wandering in the wilderness patient. God doesn’t chastise them or shame them for the inability to believe in this time of life-threatening thirst. God meets them in their thirst and provides water from unexpected places and sources. Through human intervention, the disgruntled Moses.
Hmmm….maybe that’s a key to belief. Human intervention. A human intercessor. Moses, Jesus, this audacious unnamed woman who has been seen.
The power of the presence of Love in the flesh. This is what can change everything. Or, at least, create enough change to stir up hope, to foment belief.
Beloved: what makes you believe……?
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.