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Lindsay Hardin Freeman

You don’t expect it to happen at “Gentle Yoga,” of all places. But the other day, as I was standing in line at the YMCA waiting for another class to end, a stocky white-haired woman in sweatpants walked up to me.

“Get out of the way,” she said. “I always go in first.”

She’d done the same thing before. I’d moved over before. But I was tired of moving over for her and just stood there, looking at her.

Boom! Using the side of her body, she bulldozed herself against me, throwing me off balance. But thanks to growing up with three older brothers, I instinctively hip-checked her, pushing her back. Her eyes widened. “Get out of the way!”

Yikes. At that point, the health benefits of Gentle Yoga seemed negligible.

The previous class ended, finally. I opened the door and she walked in. Behind me. Next time, I’ll probably use the other door and keep my balance, in more ways than one.

In the meantime, I’m getting tired of cranky old women. I hope I’m not turning into one myself. I obviously am.

But just in case, that’s why I particularly like the story that shows up this Lent in our lectionary — the infamous Samaritan woman by the well. The woman came to the well mid-day to draw water, apparently at a time she wouldn’t have to see perky young women and happily married grandmothers. Jesus is there, alone, while his disciples have gone into town for food. Thirsty and tired, Jesus asks the woman for water, a seemingly simple request. But right from the start, she tosses his words back like fish into water.

Don’t go any further before you read the biblical story for yourself. (John 3:1-42)

The Samaritan woman — one of my favorite people in biblical history — is so irritable that she makes Oscar the Grouch look like Shirley Temple. 

And yet she is the one that Jesus chooses to talk to more than anyone else in the Bible. No one is recorded as having talked to him as long as she does. That’s a big deal — and overlooked for centuries.

Jesus and the woman (wish we knew her name but we don’t) argue, debate, and counter each other, verbally thrusting and parrying along the way. He finally points out that she has been married five times and the man she is currently living with is not her husband. 

(What’s with all those marriages? Most likely, she had been handed down from brother to brother, in the ancient Hebrew Levirate system that, in its own idiosyncratic way, protected a woman’s right to bear a child if her husband died. Whether or not there was affection did not count.)

No wonder she was irritable. No wonder she went for water in the middle of the day, while other women would be at home in the shade. Through no fault of her own, she would have been a laughing stock.

Humiliation and fatigue are written all over this poor woman. Yet Jesus seems to enjoy talking with her, probably because she’s not asking him for anything. She doesn’t ask him for healing. She doesn’t want food. She doesn’t pander to him. Like a worthy debate champion, she lofts questions at him, using wry humor and sarcasm as her main tool. And she’s smart. She knows her history, her faith, her own mind.

Lots going on here — and surprisingly, many commonalities between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, including: They shared the same bloodlines. They knew their sacred history. They were both people of story, people of God, people of the world. They were both cast-outs in their own cultures. Jesus had just come from difficult times with the Pharisees, that branch of Judaism that tended to keep track of details. Of late, they had been keeping numbers on who was baptizing more people — John the Baptist or Jesus. Tiresome for Jesus. Irritating.

But at that well these two found each other. Somehow Jesus broke through her defenses, fully responding to her cryptic and rather skeptical nature. And it’s pretty clear that Jesus enjoyed her company.

Jesus’ love for her brings her best qualities forward: the woman’s intellect, her debate skills, her humor. Jesus knew she was worthy — worthy of the abundant life which God had promised. And perhaps because she was valued for who she was — bright, well spoken, humorous and smart — she came to life. Racing back from the well, she urged her fellow townspeople to go and see “that man by the well who told me everything…”

The Samaritan woman was an evangelist, one of the first. She was bright and outspoken; she was a woman of humor. Most of all, Jesus considered her worthy — worthy of the abundant life which God had promised. Whether she knew it or not, she had indeed herself been dunked in God’s well of living water and transformed.

But for me, the bottom line is still this: Jesus talked to her — a skeptical, cynical, and sarcastic woman — longer than anyone else in the Bible. That gives us all hope for the future. Can’t get much better than that.

The Rev. Lindsay Hardin Freeman is the author of Bible Women: All the Words of the Bible and Why They Matter, The Scarlet Cord: Conversations with God’s Chosen Women, and several other books for children and adults. She currently serves as adjunct clergy at St. David’s Episcopal Church, Minnetonka, Minnesota.

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