Thursday, March 15, 2018
Conversation at the Well
In the 1974 award-wining movie, “The Conversation,” a brilliant but occupationally paranoid surveillance expert is hired to listen in on an ongoing conversation between a young man and woman who stroll frequently outside during their lunch hour. The movie reminds me of how many of us, for decades, have listened in on the quietly intoxicating conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. With each new wave of listeners has come new insight, a new understanding of the story.
“Five husbands? Jesus is being kind, just like he was to the Magdalene!” (Almost sounds like a comment on social media.)
Think of how long it took for preachers to question their use of this woman and others as examples of promiscuity. Bringing the woman’s own method of questioning to the text, we now discover what it is to re-imagine her, to wonder things like: Is she a victim of domestic violence? How did she get to be so smart, well informed, inquisitive. . . ? Is there more here than another instance of Jesus being nice to fallen women? Is she a fallen woman? Is Mary Magdalene not fallen? Whoa . . .
Christians have a rich history of institutional bias around women who have the temerity to think, speak, write, create art, or live and serve independently of patriarchal structures. This woman is still coming to life for us as we remove the layers of culture. Jesus’ response encourages her independence from structures of thought and culture. What she does not do and say is as telling as what she does: She does not seek shelter from the bright noonday light or shrink back from filling her jug despite the conventions of time and modesty. She does not merely comply with Jesus’ request for water but engages him in a conversation going deep, fast. She responds to his need but does this on her terms, looking for meaning and insight, not the platitudes and beliefs she has been taught.
Her reward is a glimpse, then an open door to a completely different life.
Convention and tradition can be soul killers, but so can outright rejection of these tools when there has been no time to dig around in them first, to see what purposes they served, what needs they addressed. This woman knew her Torah and her community, flaws and all. She was able then to proclaim and be heard because the community also knew her. She did not stand on expertise to proclaim Jesus. She stood on experience, the intimacy of being known and her credibility as one who would testify honestly about her encounter.
Perhaps Lent is an invitation to unveil ourselves for a while, to come out into the squares of community life and testify. Yes, that’s a risky, vulnerable move and it probably won’t work on social media, but it helps us understand who we are and how God can use our gifts and experiences in service to the kingdom.
The young couple in the movie were both sweetly in love, and plotting a crime. The surveillance guy eventually retreated to the privacy of his apartment, pulling away from his voyeuristic behavior but having nowhere else to go.
I don’t know about you, but the more I see and engage with others, in person, the less I feel the strangeness of distance and the curiosity that breeds condemnation and a flattening of life.
Where are the wells in your life, and who might you find there, ready to listen and speak?
Rev. Dr. Mary Louise McCullough
SFTS MDiv 2002