I was recently at a conference on storytelling in which every one of the major presenters were asked to share what their favorite Bible passage is. It got me thinking about how I am asked that from time to time. One of the presenters, who happens to also be a preacher, said asking preachers to name their favorite Bible passage is like asking them which of their children they love the most. Still, he had an answer. I love the Bible, too, and my answer to this question has varied over a lifetime, but I have an answer for now. It is the story of the woman at the well and Jesus, found in John 4. Here are some of my reasons why:
1. It makes a case for women preachers/evangelists – The woman in this passage is the first PERSON in the Gospel of John that Jesus tells he is the Messiah, which she has basically figured out. Then she runs and tells others, and brings other people to Jesus. Yeah, that is what preachers and evangelists do. So if it was good enough for Jesus, why not for the church?
2. It is a great passage to show people how they are filling in the gaps – I love showing people that they have added things to the story that are not actually in the story. I do this with all kinds of Bible passages, and I help people understand that I think the text means for us to do that, but it also means for us to be aware that we are doing it. So I ask people to tell me why she has had so many husbands and why she is just living with a man now. So often people tell me she is a prostitute. I don’t get why that is our first go-to answer. She could be widowed. She could be divorced. She could be tired of making a legal commitment to a man only to be disappointed, or she could have had so many husbands that now she is viewed as cursed and no one else will have her. Any of those things could be true, and we can fill in with any of those things, as long as we acknowledge we are filling them in. Once I have shown people what they did there, I then ask how Jesus feels about her having all these men. Again, the first response is almost always some level of disapproval. Why do we think that? Absolutely nothing in the text makes such an implication. Maybe we jump to that conclusion because we think Jesus is calling her out when he brings it up. But maybe Jesus just wants to be on honest footing – let’s get the thing you don’t want me to know out of the way from the beginning so we can move on from there.
3. The English major in me loves the power of the symbolism – If this passage is read alongside the one just before it, where Nicodemus comes to Jesus, it is hard to miss the symbolism. Here is the “enlightened” teacher who is supposed to understand all things, but who comes to Jesus in the dark and leaves as confused (or more confused) as he came. Then there is this rejected, Samaritan (read enemy of the Jews) woman (read not a man) who meets Jesus in the bright of day and who talks theology with Jesus like a trained person might, figures out he is the Messiah, and then becomes the teacher. Okay, it isn’t subtle, but it is still powerful.
4. It is readily soundtracked – In my unofficial plan to soundtrack the entire Bible, this one has a plethora of options. If I think about it from the woman’s perspective, Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” or Christina Aguilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man” both work. If I think about it from Jesus’ perspective, then I can use Maroon 5’s “She Will Be Loved.”
5. The passage has changed for me as I have read it with other people – I read this once with a recovering alcoholic, and she shared what it was really like to be dying for a drink, and to just want that desire quenched. I read this passage with a fireman, and suddenly I understood what it meant to be the water in this passage – to be the living, moving force that was an symbol of salvation. Finally, I prepared a devotional on this passage in the Holy Land, and I realized that the three big religions in tension with one another all around me found their Jesus in that passage. Jesus is a Jewish man. Jesus is a prophet, as he is to Islam. And Jesus is the Messiah, as he is to Christians. Our job, as pilgrims in the midst of that space, was to be the disciples and keep our mouths shut for once.
6. I have experienced this passage with people who mean a great deal to me – this passage, and the Gospel of John as a whole, will always be dear to me because my dissertation advisor Jaime Clark-Soles specializes in Johannine literature, and because it will always be alive with the people who have performed our Holy Week drama “Last Call.” I will always hear those people in the vibrations of this story.
7. I was really there – Look, this passage is a girl power playground for me. It is the longest single conversation Jesus has with anyone, and it is a woman! And I already mentioned the importance of it for making a case for women preachers. But when I stood tantalizingly close to Jacob’s well, watching our guide start to raise the bucket up out of the water, when the elderly priest filling bottles with water from the well scolded the guide and said, “Uh uh uh – women’s work,” I did not care at all about my feminist commitments. I just wanted to touch the water. So the guide called me over, and I turned the crank. I did the women’s work. I felt how the bucket floated, and then I felt the sudden weight as it hit the surface. The heaviness that was also light, because I was touching a place that Jesus had walked. Because I was standing where Jesus had talked, and not to just anyone, but to a woman. Because I was standing in the place where Jesus told her he was the Messiah, and he set her free to go tell others. And I can tell you, there is no sweeter water on the planet than the water that sprung alive there.