Bethany Blount had come into work early to interview a candidate for a new job at her tech company. As the story in the April edition of The Atlantic Monthly tells it, Bethany held a senior position with the company, and she sat down with the job applicant looking the part of a Silicon Valley tech manager – that is, a hoodie, jeans, and sneakers. But the interview went strangely: the young man looking for work was rude and dismissive. He’d seen her job title, she knew, and he had to know she would decide whether he moved on to the next level or not – still he acted like he couldn’t be bothered to speak with her. Later, a vice president at the company said she’d had the same experience. For fun, Bethany sent in a junior staffer who needed practice reviewing applicants and happened to be a man, and you can guess what happened: this time, the job applicant was outgoing and friendly. He went out of his way to make a good impression, even though it was too late.
There are a lot of lessons in that story, but the most jarring is that Bethany and the vice-president were women, working in Silicon Valley, and the young man coming in to be interviewed for the job had assumed they didn’t matter. He could see all the signs – their dress, their titles, their behaviour – and yet he couldn’t see past his own stereotypes. He assumed (because that’s the culture in Silicon Valley), that the man had to be the important person. And he missed out.
We might call it a modern-day version of the woman at the well story we hear in our gospel today. Jesus meets a Samaritan woman, coming to collect water at the town well. Let’s consider this woman for a moment: based on the exchange that happens with Jesus, scholars have traditionally described this woman as a prostitute, pointing to Jesus’s shocking revelation that she is living with a man who is not even her husband! And here she was getting her water at noon, when everyone knew that “proper women” had already fetched their water in the morning and were well on in their washing by then. So here she is – a lazy, Samaritan woman with too many husbands, and of questionable morals. The narrative was right there in front of Jesus.
So what, does Jesus do? He asks her for a drink, which is a big deal, as we know from her reaction. “Why would you, a Jew, ask to share a drink from a Samaritan, like me?” The theological exchange that follows is one of the longest in the gospel. I guess John was either so shocked by the event that he had to get it all down, or perhaps he felt it might serve the followers of Jesus later. What Jesus basically says to the woman is: what’s a cup of water, when I have so much more to offer? You should be asking me for a drink, from the living water of God” Now think on this: if it was shocking for Jesus to ask for a drink for this woman, how much more shocking must it have been for him to be offering her a drink back? And yet he does, and she accepts it.
They next have an interesting exchange about her marital history, as if Jesus is testing her: she admits that she has no husband, when asked to fetch the man in question, and Jesus confirms her history. But where is the judgement in his tone? Let’s set aside the fact that a growing number of scholars are questioning our interpretation of this woman’s past – she may have been divorced, she may have been widowed multiple times, we don’t know. The reality is: Jesus doesn’t care. The very way he raises it and then moves on to a welcoming discussion about grace and faith, suggests he was actually emphasizing to the woman how much he didn’t care about the stories being told, or the past that was nipping at her feet, or the stereotypes people were so keen to attach to her. He was saying: I know who you are. None of that matters. Because you matter.
It is really an extraordinary exchange in the Bible. Because what we have is Jesus breaking the rules of society without a thought, having an in-depth conversation with someone who would have been seen as outside the circle. And then, this Samaritan woman doesn’t just drift from the picture – she becomes someone who spreads the gospel to others. Jesus includes her, honours her, and empowers her. He crumbles up the stereotype in front of everyone watching and tosses it down the well.
The other day, I saw a Youtube clip of an interview with Ewan MacGregor, the Scottish actor, who is currently a voice for one of the characters in the new Beauty and the Beast movie. A faux-controversy has developed around this movie because one of the characters in it is openly gay – a big deal with Disney, whose made its coin off a patriarchal idea of the genders, but do we really care about this in 2017? However, in the interview Ewan MacGregor made a joke about how some people might best avoid the movie, because, as he put it: “What would Jesus say?”
Well, what would Jesus say? How many examples do we need to hear of the welcoming back of the prodigal son, Jesus’s urging aid for the Good Samaritan, and, even this morning, conversing freely and with respect with the woman at the well, for us to know the answer to that. Jesus sets repeated examples of throwing out stereotypes, of rejecting narratives that stomped people down, and casting wide the door to those who would be invited inside. If we must be careful about how false narratives slip into our own thinking, let us also be mindful when false narratives of our faith are just allowed to drift out there, to be picked up and used to wrongful ends.
This morning’s gospel is a feminist gospel. Jesus and the woman have a discussion as he would with the disciples. He refuses to accept – or even consider – the sexist gossip that the villagers are saying. It is not what matters – it is coming together in relationship, one of mutual respect and kindness, that counts to Jesus.
It is such an easy trap for us humans, to follow the stories our experience, our prejudices, our culture want to tell about people that we don’t even know. Sexism and racism and Islamophobia are what results. And each time, we miss, like the young man at the tech company, an opportunity – we miss the potential of a larger community, we miss a life-changing moment at the well of the living water.
Don’t fall into this trap. Remember this story in the gospel. And yes, indeed, ask yourself, each and every day: What would Jesus say? What would Jesus do? We know the answer.