Sunday’s Lectionary reading was the story, from John 4, of Jesus and the woman at the well. As such, I have come across the story, in different guises, along various virtual paths I have wandered over the past twenty-four hours – a story, and its retellings, that always trouble me.
A little knowledge, it is said, is a dangerous thing to possess. We know that this woman has had five husbands, and that the man she was living with was not her husband. And – reading through the lens of Hollywood infidelity and serial monogamy – we typically, almost automatically, cast her as an immoral woman, an adulteress divorcee, a femme fatal ... and judge, or perhaps admire, her.
But this is not Hollywood. This is a small community, where everyone knows everyone else’s business (though not because they have read about it in the glossy magazines) and such accusations could destroy your reputation. If this woman was sexually immoral, men might well pay her for sex (if they thought they could get away with it) but why would anyone marry her, unless they had to?
In fact, we know of a situation which would require men to marry her. According to the ancient laws on which this society was built, if a man died childless, his brother was required to marry his widow, with the first-born son being counted as the deceased’s; with all subsequent brothers being so bound until the obligation is fulfilled. While this sounds appalling to our twenty-first-century western sensibilities, it guaranteed provision for the widow (in a time when widows were particularly vulnerable) and (in an agrarian society bound to the land) kept the land from passing out of the family.
This custom was familiar enough that Jesus is specifically questioned about it by a group of Sadducees (Luke 20:27-40), wanting to know which one of many brothers will be counted as the rightful husband in the resurrection (though Sadducees did not believe in resurrection – their concern was not pastoral, but rather to trap Jesus in speaking against the Law).
So when we meet the woman at the well, we must do so with an open mind. We must at least entertain the possibility that this woman is doubly ‘cursed’ – every man she has married has died (the latest attempting to cheat death on a technicality), and she is childless. We must entertain the possibility that the women of the town avoid her not because they see her as a threat to their own marriages, but because – through no action on her part – her presence makes them feel guilty about having husbands and children ... or that this woman’s increasingly bitter jealousy has made it hard for even the most sympathetic to keep reaching out to her. And if this woman is serially-widowed and barren, she is surely – in the minds of her neighbours, and very probably in her own mind too – rejected by God.
At the well, she meets a fool – a man who doesn’t understand, or doesn’t play by, the rules. A Jew, engaging a Samaritan in conversation; more than that, seeking their help; more than that, asking to drink from the same vessel ... a Jewish man, speaking to a woman he was not related to, without chaperone. Moreover, this man clearly doesn’t realise what he is saying or who he is speaking to: what could possibly be more inappropriate than pressing riddles about life on the kiss-of-death woman?
(And they are riddles: Jesus is not speaking plainly here. Again, we like to fool ourselves that he is, and that this woman either misses the point or is a sassy raconteur – is either foolish or not to be taken for a fool; is not as wise as us, or not as modest.)
Clearly a fool ... but then he says something that turns everything on its head. He knows exactly who he is talking to. He knows, because God has revealed it to him. And if, knowing whom he is speaking to, he is speaking to her at all – yet alone about life – then surely God has not rejected her after all...?
The thing is, I don’t know this woman’s story. But God does. I don’t know what Jesus said to the villagers, which caused them to conclude he was, indeed, the saviour of the world. But if his initial encounter at the well is any clue, it was perhaps not his rational wisdom but his passionate foolishness ... his disregard for the rules that locate us higher than some and lower than others.
That is the insight of the fool in every time and place (consider the court jester, the village idiot). Wisdom is not having the answers, or winning the argument (the sprung trap which lies in wait for apologetics). It turns out that the fool is the wisest of all, for he or she sees the world – and all who live in it – from the perspective of heaven.