identity - it's that samaritan woman again

Knowing God as Liberator: John 4: 1-30

when I was at school, we used to get our school reports in these little books, you get them on bits of paper now, where we are at least, my son and daughter’s reports come in an envelope on a little piece of paper. but when I was at school, I used to get these reports in books, and I was quite well behaved at school, for the main, so I wasn’t worried too much about them, but one of my failings at school was that I didn’t necessarily apply myself like I could have done. and the thing that used to frustrate me so much when I saw it written in a report was that sentence:

‘she is not working to her full potential.’

this used to hack me off cos I used to think. ‘how do you know’? ‘how do you know what my full potential is’? ‘you have no idea of most of the stuff that goes on in my head’ ‘no idea some of the stuff that I’m dealing with in my life’ ‘I’m just a schoolgirl to you’ ‘but I’m so much more’ ‘my potential is caught up in so much more than the stuff that I do at school.’

now, to be fair, they probably had it right, maybe they knew me better than I thought they did. for that moment, school was pretty much the most of my life, as it is between 5 and 16/18.

but, there was something in that frustration that still resonates with me today. there is so much around us that tells us who we are.

so much around us tells us that we are not matching up, that we don’t quite fit, that we need to look this way, like this footie team, dress this way in order to be good enough, and if we don’t? there’s a host of people ready to tell us which category we get to fit into – geek, loner, ugly, loser, stupid. and even if you’re lucky enough to be in one of the ‘good’ categories – smart, popular, good-looking, sporty. Is that all you are? The label that someone else fits onto you, seems to be ever so small. One whole person, one tiny label. It doesn’t seem enough somehow.

The woman who came to the well that day, what were her labels? well to be honest some of her labels I can’t say in good company, but lets just say that one of her labels was ‘outcast’ she was a woman of ill repute as they used to say about a million years ago, the word’s not so nice nowadays. She was a Samaritan – now the Samaritans were to the Jews, what the chavs are to the skaters nowadays, not worth a second glance, nothing. And she was a woman, second class in that society. a nothing, an inferior, an outcast – her labels defined her life, she was going to collect water at noon, because in the heat of the day is when no-one collects water, and if she was anything then she was a no-one.

But one day it’s different, as she climbs the hill to the well, she looks up and there sitting by the well, is a man, she can see by his dress he’s a Jewish man, okay, what’s he after? He must know the kind of women who come to the well at noon. So she goes to draw her water from the well, curious about the Jewish man, but he does the last thing that she expects – he speaks to her. and not only does he speak to her, he asks her for some of her water. In his very first words to this woman he strips away her labels, she is not a nothing, she is worth speaking to, she is not an inferior, she can offer him something – the water, she is not an outcast, Jewish men don’t speak to outcasts, therefore she cannot be one.

no wonder she is amazed by his question, what’s he doing? sometimes the labels that we are given, even if they aren’t our labels, can become comfortable, it’s a bit disconcerting if someone treats you like your smart if for most of your life people have treated you like you’re stupid, if someone suddenly asks your opinion, if your opinion has been deemed worthless up to this point. but these are all nothing compared to what Jesus did with this Samaritan woman, she must have thought that he was mad.

And then he starts talking about living Water. She’s come to the well for water, and he offers her a water upgrade. And what an upgrade, this is the Water of eternal life, which can start now. This woman who has a no-life is offered abundant life, life that flows out to all around. And she who is now stripped of all her labels dares to say ‘give me this water’. The differences are gone, it no longer matters that she is a Samaritan, a woman, an outcast, all that matters is that she has been offered living water and she wants it, so Jesus gives it to her and in doing so re-labels her.

They go through this lovely conversation where they discover that she has been married and divorced five times and that the man she is now with is not her husband. In those days she would not have had a choice in that, she is merely picked up and discarded at the whim of the man who would divorce her at the drop of a hat. She was treated badly in that society and it was those in that place that labelled her outcast, not worth speaking to. Jesus shows that label for what it is, nothing, it is the label that is nothing, not her. So Jesus re-labels her, the living Water that wells up into eternal life for people, is Jesus.

And Jesus’ labels for her? preacher, water-giver, prophet. She who is not worth speaking to, speaks words of life to her community, she who is to take water for herself at noon, gives Living Water to her community, she who is not worth listening to, has heard the word of God to her heart, and it brings her back to life.

When Jesus encounters people, he not only defies the labels that are given to them - sinners? I’ll have dinner with them - he not only does that, but he re-labels them, he redefines them and they become what he says they can become. In a very real way Jesus is the best teacher, he really knows what my full potential is and can be and he is the one who can transform you to be the person he has made you to be. He has the power to strip away those labels that aren’t yours and to re-label you with your true definition, because he created you.

And your first label, I’ll give it to you – LOVED. that’s your first label, LOVED, just as you are.

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