Knowing and Being Known
Mar 15, 2020
We all have a different vision of eternity; one of mine is that it’s where we can most fully be who God created us to be. We see glimpses of that in the here and now, in our best moments, but will most completely be ourselves, as God intended us to be, in God’s perfect kingdom.
There’s a notion of that idea in today’s Gospel lesson. Because the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is about identity – knowing and being known. Before we go there, though, let’s remind ourselves of some details imbedded in this account.
Detail #1 – Jesus has chosen to go to Galilee by way of Samaria. That’s meaningless to us but was quite significant in the first century. That’s because most Samaritans had a deep-seated animosity toward their Jewish kin, which dated from the 900’s BCE, and, in return, the Jewish people considered the Samaritans to be apostates from the true faith.
I could explain why, but let’s suffice it to say that although they shared the same founding history, by the first-century, they shared nothing else, including food, drink, or utensils. So, when Jesus speaks with the woman at the well and asks her for a drink, he is shattering social convention in two ways – she’s a Samaritan and female – and therefore “should” be shunned.
Detail #2 – The body of the story presents itself in three acts, according to commentator Meda Stamper. The first act is all about water: Jesus is thirsty…the woman is wary of his boundary-crossing request…which then leads to his reference to living water that quenches one’s thirst permanently.
The second act is about the woman and the life she has led, especially her sketchy history with men, which has imposed on her a negative reputation. (We know this because she comes to the well at noon, the hottest part of the day, rather than the cooler times when other women gather there to socialize and collect water.)
I like what commentator Scott Hoezee says is obvious about her, despite her questionable relationships: “One thing becomes clear in the course of her conversations with Jesus: she is not a religious ignoramus. This woman knows some theology! This woman has thought about spiritual matters. She’s aware of the promised Messiah, knows something of the controversy between the Jews and the Samaritans about where God may (or may not) be appropriately worshipped. The town long since wrote her off as a bad sort of person, but inside her beat the heart of someone thirsty for God.” (1)
The third act is that conversation about worship in Spirit and truth, which leads to Jesus revealing himself as the Messiah, the one who she knows is coming. The rest of the text is the follow-up to this astounding interaction. (3)
Detail #3 – This event is life-changing for the woman because, she says, she has been entirely known by Jesus, and this being known has enabled her to know him. She is someone thirsty for God, and in Jesus, that thirst is quenched.
Pastor and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote that “the Messiah is the one in whose presence we know who we really are – the good and bad of it, the hope in it.” There’s no hiding the parts of ourselves or the parts of our lives that we would just as soon forget. (3)
But, there’s the other side of being entirely known by Jesus; there’s also no hiding that which we are too humble or too afraid to acknowledge. I’m thinking of our gifts, our abilities, our positive characteristics that are always with us, but not always obvious to us or others. For the woman at the well it might have been intelligence, or spirituality, or courage. These characteristics also make up our true selves that are kept alive by living water – grace.
Author Philip Yancey wrote a book about grace; in it he says that, “Grace, like water, flows downward …. No matter how low we sink, grace flows to that lowest part.” (4) But, being grace, it recycles and becomes a spring, gushing up, to sustain us and to refresh the world.
We all know people who, in the presence of Jesus, are closer to being their true selves than we feel we are, and who are kept going by grace, the living water, so that they are a fountain of grace in a thirsty world. Most of them are hesitant to admit or realize this truth about themselves, but Jesus knows it, and they often are the ones who we most want to imitate.
I have read at least 10 books about Saint (Mother) Teresa of Calcutta, but the one I finished recently made her struggle to be who she truly was the clearest. To make a long story short, at the age of 12 she heard a Jesuit missionary in India give a presentation at her church in Albania. The experience impacted her profoundly, and from then on she wanted to be a missionary in India. By the time she was 18, her goal was to go to Bengal and work with the Jesuits among the poverty-stricken people there.
But, the only way for her to do missionary work was to become a sister. So that’s what she did—choosing the only order that ministered in Bengal, the congregation of Our Lady of Loreto. Following years of training, she went to India, but much to her dismay, her superiors wanted her to be a teacher, and she ended up at high school in Calcutta, where she eventually became the principal. For years she taught in the relative comfort of the school, did well, was admired and, amazingly, during that time she never went to visit the poor who were living in the slums nearby.
Then, during a train ride to Darjeeling, she found herself in the presence of Jesus, and like the woman at the well, felt “known” by her Lord. She received what she labeled a “call within a call” to renounce her quiet life inside the religious community and go out into the streets to serve the poor, which had been her original vision.
Making that happen was not easy; she had to obtain permission to leave her order and yet remain a sister and to start her own order. This was a long and difficult process, but more than two years later, on Christmas Day 1948, she walked out of the convent, and the doors shut behind her.
She later said, “The transition was very difficult. In the convent, on a practical level, I lived without difficulties; I never lacked for anything. Now everything was different. Now I was sleeping on the floor, and at night the hut was infested by mice and rates. I ate what the people I helped ate, and only when there was a bit of food. It was a tremendous change, but it did not weigh on me. I had chosen this life to fulfill the gospel to the letter, especially where it says, ‘I was hungry and you gave me food…I was naked and you clothed me…I was in prison and you came to me.’ I was loving Jesus in the poorest of the poor of Calcutta, and when I loved like that, I did not feel the pain and fatigue.” (4)
Can you imagine? She started her ministry alone, with no financial or personal support, and it became a worldwide mission, touching the lives of millions. That’s why she’s a Saint. Was she perfect? No. Did she struggle with doubt and dark thoughts? Yes. Yet, she was fully known by Jesus and lived out of that identity. She came close, I think, to being who God intended her to be.
Most of us are not St. Teresa’s, I’m guessing. Yet, we are refreshed by the living water of grace, beginning with our baptisms. Nothing about us is hidden from Jesus; his living water, his grace, empowers us to be who we are. AMEN
(1) The Lectionary Gospel by Scott Hoezee, March 9, 2020, John 4:5-42, www.cep.calvinseminary.org
(2) Commentary of John 4:5-42 by Meda Stamper, www.workingpreacher.org
(3) A Deeper Family Story by Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, March 8, 2020, www.workingpreacher.org
(4) Conversations with Mother Teresa by Renzo Allegri, 2011, The Word Among Us Press, pg. 164