This sermon was first preached at Kalamazoo First Congregational Church on February 24, 2019. You can listen to the recording here.
Text: John 4:7-15
This month, Pastor Nathan and I have both chosen to write our sermons in conversation with African American theologians and this week, I have focused on learning from the Rev. Dr. Mitzi J. Smith, who is the first African American woman to earn a PhD in New Testament from Harvard. Part of what drew me to her work is the way the she holds Biblical texts together with current situations of injustice, seeking not just the way that the Bible can inform our work for justice, but also the ways that the stories of black women in crisis can inform our reading of the Bible.
Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts honor you, God, source and sustainer of all life. Amen.
Women need water. Women need access to water.
Access to water is actually something that the United Nations has deemed a basic human right, but only recently. In 2010 the UN recognized access to safe drinking water as a human right, and in 2015 they recognized access to water sufficient for sanitation as a human right.
So, people need water.
But the lack of access to water disproportionately impacts women. Women are usually the ones walking to wells and pumps to collect water for household use. Women are the ones who do the majority of domestic labor that depends on water—cooking and laundering and cleaning. And in communities like Flint and Detroit, where water service has been shut off for large numbers of people whose water bills were overdue, single mothers make up a disproportionate number of the households impacted.
Which is why in 2000, nearly 20 years ago, the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women recognized that access to water is a key component of empowering women around the globe. Women need water. Women need access to water before they can gain access to education or economic development opportunities.
But also, women need to be a part of building the new systems that provide access to water. That UN report published in 2000 cites an example of a community in Nepal that received outside intervention to provide greater access to clean water. After the new water services—wells and public taps—were installed, women in the community complained that their water-collection times increased by four-to-five times—drastic increases in the burden they shouldered, instead of relief. And this was because the very public location of these new water services—along busy roads—prevented women from bathing, laundering, or managing menstruation on site. With these new services, they had to carry loads of water home, multiple times a day instead of tending to their needs onsite. Women need water, and they need to be involved in building the systems that provide water. Let me make it even more specific. Women of color need water, and they need to be central in building the systems that provide water access.
Paternalism—the idea that people with power know better than people in need how to meet their needs—is an attitude that damages women, and especially women of color, because power in our society is distributed not only along gender lines, but also racial and ethnic lines. And paternalism is a big problem in the church. Christian charity organizations are notorious for coming up with solutions to problems that do little more than make people with power and resources feel a little less guilty for the inequality. The most insidious form paternalism takes in the church is in the attitude that physical or emotional needs are less important than “spiritual” well-being.
And so, people who are struggling to find shelter are expected to listen to a sermon before they can meet their basic physical needs of food and sleep; gay and lesbian Christians are told that they must be celibate to be faithful; abuse by clergy is excused or covered up and victims are told that their inability to forgive is a worse sin than the physical or emotional harm done to them; and topics like money, economics, racism, or sexism are deemed “unspiritual” and too political—inappropriate for church.
One of the things I am learning from black theologians is the ways that this paternalism has impacted our reading of scripture.
For instance, this Samaritan woman that Jesus meets at a well is someone that, like Mary Magdalene, has taken on a kind of mythology. A lot of commentaries and sermons will talk about her as promiscuous, or ashamed, or sinful, or shameful. She is assumed to be someone who has either had sinful sexual relationships, or who has been exploited sexually, or most commonly, both. She is compared to prostitutes, to adulterers, to mistresses.
But you know what? None of that is actually in this story.
It’s all inferred. John mentions that she comes to the well at noon. Biblical scholars ask why? Wouldn’t women usually get water in the cool morning hours? Why is she alone? I’ve even heard people ask, “why is she coming at the hottest time of day?” which betrays a pretty extreme lack of outdoor experience. If you’ve spent a summer day outside, you know that the hottest time of day is not noon, but late afternoon, when the sun has been warming the air and the earth all day. This barrage of questions seems to betray a kind of morbid desire to characterize this woman as a sinner.
And yes, in the latter part of this interaction, they do discuss her marital status. Jesus somehow knows that she has been married multiple times, and that she currently lives with a man who is not her husband. But there is no data in the text to support the assumption that this arrangement is taboo, or even sexual. This man who is not her husband could be her grandfather, or her brother, or her brother-in-law. We don’t know.
And what Mitzi Smith points out in her commentary on this passage is that to infer a moral failure when we do not know this woman’s story is the same kind of paternalism that treats every single black mother as a “welfare queen” whose moral failures justify denying her physical needs.
Reading this interaction as one between Jesus a morally bankrupt woman makes it a story of Jesus saving someone spiritually. But if we read the text as it stands, the very basic survival needs come to the foreground. This is a story about a woman who needs water, just like the millions of women who need water in our world today.
Jesus is thirsty. He needs water. This woman also needs water, and has the tools to access it. Jesus relies on her hospitality, and then begins a conversation about God providing living water—not spiritual water, but moving, fresh, available water. Aqueducts provided living water. The Roman Empire promised living water, but that promise had not been realized for this woman, who still relied on a well that had existed for generations.
In this story, Jesus recognizes and shares the very real physical needs that this woman has to spend hours attending to every day just to survive. And what he promises her is not the assurance of going to heaven. He does not invite her to repent. He does not even give his very common assurance “your sins are forgiven.” Instead, he affirms her assessment of her own situation—“what you have said is true,” and he offers her a new quality of life. “With the water I can give you, you will do more than survive. You will have eternal life—life that is boundless and abundant.” This isn’t a dismissal of the woman’s physical needs as less important. It is an acknowledgment that she cannot experience spiritual abundance until those physical needs are met.
I know this room is full of people who were told by other churches that they had to forsake their sexual orientation or gender identity—to deny their basic human needs for affection and love and self-love—in order to save their souls. But those churches were wrong. Because Jesus has met us with a different offer. Spiritual health is not something that we access by denying or minimizing our other needs. It is when we honor our physical and emotional needs that we begin to experience the spiritual abundance Jesus offers. This church has been a spring of living water for me—a place in which I have discovered so much more of the abundance God offers.
And, we must keep working to make this a place where thirsty people can join us, and trust that their needs will be taken seriously. Who are the people whose problems we assume we have the resources to fix? Do we, like the developers in Nepal, settle for solutions that make sense to us, without actually listening—without inviting people to be involved in building the systems that provide for their needs? Without acknowledging the ways we might contribute to injustice through our ignorance or arrogance? Who are the people I am still reluctant to invite to our church, because I’m not confident that we can meet their basic needs, let alone offer abundant life?
These are uncomfortable questions, because they expose ways we are still inhibited by racism and sexism and privilege, but friends, I am able to ask these questions from this pulpit on Sunday morning because of the power of Christ at work in this community. It is because so many of us are learning to live abundant lives, learning to honor our physical and emotional needs and expect God to meet us in them, that I have hope that we can draw the circle wider. That we can learn to read the Bible differently. That we can learn to read each other differently. That we can learn to recognize our own lingering prejudices and paternalism and follow Jesus on a new road to authentic relationships with people whose needs are different from our own.
Can we draw the circle wide enough that people without secure housing are with us—part of us, not outsiders? Can we draw the circle wide enough that a queer black Christian can bring all their blackness to this church and not feel out of place? Can we draw the circle wide enough that Native Americans putting their bodies on the line to protect access to clean water can expect our bodies to be with them on that line? I believe that we can, because we recognize that saying “all are welcome” is not enough. We know that becoming a welcoming community is work. We know that hospitality is now about our own comfort, but about committing our resources and energy toward someone else’s well-being. We are on this journey already, and by God’s grace, we will continue to grow in our capacity to welcome all those who are thirsting—all those who are struggling to survive—all those to whom Jesus is offering abundant, boundless life.