After being out of the spotlight for more than a decade, Monica Lewinsky recorded a TED talk where she tells how, as a 22 year old intern, she had an affair with her boss. Some of you know her name from rap lyrics and retrospect – in fact, after her story broke, many asked why she didn’t change her name! Others of a certain age remember her story well – her public shame was plastered all over the internet in a most unflattering way. When this scandal was reported, I was busy raising two kids and building a business, plenty self-righteous in my church-going, devotional-reading ways. I watched just enough national news to assume I knew her “type” – some loose bimbo making love to President Clinton in his office, probably as manipulative and power hungry as I imagined him to be.
But as I watch Monica tell her story now, I am shocked at how differently I feel toward her. As the survivor of my own #MeToo moment, along with a counseling experience gone bad, I understand Monica’s vulnerability and feel empathy for her experience. And as a seminary student who’s read more than my share of research about honor and shame, patriarchy and power, I realize that Monica’s story is one of millions about women who go “looking for love in all the wrong places” and the men who take advantage of them.
One of the self-descriptors Monica uses is that she was “seen by many but known by few.” Doesn’t that describe a lot of people in your world? We see them often, maybe daily, but we only see the exterior view, the one they want us to see. Or maybe just as often, we see the view we want to see. We make assumptions based on how they are dressed, where they hang out, who their friends are. We cast judgement and lump them into categories without ever actually hearing their stories. They are seen by many, but known by few.
Let me tell you the story of another woman.
It’s recorded in the gospel of John, chapter 4. When we meet her, she’s gathering water, a mundane task she’s done every other day. Whether from familiarity with John’s gospel or the mention of gathering water, you probably already know whose story I’ll tell. You might even have some unconscious assumptions about her come to mind.
But John gives us far fewer details about the Samaritan woman than the Starr report gave us about Lewinsky. We don’t know her name or ancestral background. We don’t know if shame brought her to the well at the hottest hour of the day. And we don’t know why she was married five times, or why she was living out of wedlock with another man.
She is seen by many, but known by few.
We make plenty of assumptions about her, though. One commentary calls her a 5-time loser who is currently committed to an illicit affair. I daresay many of the sermons you’ve heard on this chapter assume her immorality; I daresay many of us who heard about Lewinsky in the 90s assumed the same and more. But when we view the text through a 21st century lens of what a 5-time divorcee would look like (Elizabeth Taylor comes to mind), we may be reading something into the text that simply isn’t there. One of my seminary professors urged us to consider the presuppositions of a patriarchal society in 1st Century Palestine. The Samaritan woman may have been widowed at a young age (even 13!)– she may have been divorced because she was barren – in either case she would have been in dire financial straits with need of a provider. She may have settled for being a concubine or a slave, just to have her daily needs met. Jesus knows all this about her, and brings up the fact of her 5 marriages. But Jesus suggests no shame, no condescension, no condemnation.
So why does Jesus engage her in conversation?
Perhaps because of the woman’s willingness to ask for help – “Sir, give me this water!” She is thirsty for more than she knows. In chapter 3, John describes a conversation which Nicodemus initiates with Jesus under dark of night. Nicodemus is a man – a Jew – a religious leader – a respected member of the community. Now in chapter 4, it seems John wants to show us the extremes to which Jesus will go to share Living water, and introduces a character at the far opposite end of the spectrum from Nicodemus.
A woman. A Samaritan. A nobody, An outcast in the community.
John’s gospel is full of irony and this woman’s story is one of the best examples. In contrast to the conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus initiates the conversation with this woman in broad daylight! Nicodemus thought Jesus came only for Israel – the children of the promise – Jesus shows he came with a promise for all children.
The Samaritan woman realizes Jesus is a prophet; we see the conversation switch from physical water to spiritual worship. She focuses on God’s will and presses on with hope for a Messiah, one who will be her salvation. She knows the coming Messiah is a shared expectation of Jews and Samaritans. We also know that Jesus affirms this expectation with his emphatic pronouncement ego eimi – I AM – the one speaking to you. And based on what we know from the text itself, this is the longest conversation Jesus is recorded to have had with anyone.
As her story progresses we learn that the disciples return, astonished at this turn of events but more concerned about Jesus eating lunch than his engaging lesson with a woman. The woman seems undaunted by the disciples discomfort and (as a recipient of living water) runs off without her water jug, ready to share her testimony with an entire town. And while she is an unlikely emissary for the good news (as was Mary Magdalene at the tomb), she nevertheless becomes an evangelist to the Samaritan people, and the text says “many Samaritans believed in her testimony.”
Two stories, two women, seen by many but known by few. I don’t know if Lewinsky is a believer, but the fact that she is able to move beyond her shame and the notoriety of her name is evident. She seems to have found hope, if not redemption, in sharing her story with others. While we don’t know the Samaritan woman’s name, she is finally known by the one who can take away her shame. Jesus offers her love and acceptance, not accusation. Though seen by many, she is known by the One who matters most, and that makes all the difference in the rest of her story.