She is one of my favorite characters in the entire biblical story. She is strong. She is challenging. She is engaging. When others maybe would have walked away, she hangs in there. She is not afraid of give and take. When she encounters Jesus, she seizes the opportunity for some answers. She persists. In the end, the conversation that she has with Jesus is the longest conversation that Jesus has with anyone in any of the Gospel narratives. She is the woman at the well. Her story is found in John 4.
There are only a few details of her life that the story reveals. She is a Samaritan. She has had five husbands. She is currently living with a man who is not her husband. That’s it. That is all we know. We do not know her name. We know nothing about her family of origin, or if she has children. Her age is not given, nor is her relationship with the people of her village.
The details of the life of the woman at the well are pretty much lost to history, but that has not stopped people from filling in the gaps and creating rather fanciful narratives about her life– most of which are uncharitable at best.
I remember hearing these narratives as a child. They were my first impression of the woman at the well.
Five husbands? What a loose woman!
Living with a man who is not her husband? She had to have been a prostitute.
Going to well at high noon, in the heat of the day? She only did that to hide her shame over her less-than-reputable life.
Thank goodness she meets Jesus, and Jesus forgives her sin!
Only – he doesn’t. There is no mention of sin in the story — hers or anyone else’s, and there is no word spoken about forgiveness. Living water – yes! But forgiveness – no! And none of the other narratives above stand up beneath the weight of scrutiny when one actually reads the story that is in the bible.
We have simply made up those stories. We have read a few details, and then we filled in the rest. We have overwritten this woman’s story with our own expectations of imposition.
Isn’t that what often happens, however, not just with people in the bible, but with people we encounter as we make our way through this world?
We see someone who doesn’t look like us, doesn’t act like us, has an identifiable characteristic or two, and in our minds, without a thought or a care, we spin an entire narrative about their lives. We see a detail or two, and we imagine the rest. We fill in the gaps with what fits our own expectations of imposition, and we write someone’s story for them, rather than allowing them to write the narrative of their own lives. In short, we “story-o-type” them. We create a story that fits the “type” of person we think them to be – and rarely is that story positive, charitable, or for the good. Rarely is that story true.
We see a youngish looking mom with a couple of rambunctious children in the check-out line at the grocery story at 10:00 at night, and how quickly we assume that her parenting skills are sub-par for keeping her kids up so late. We story-o-type her. What we don’t know is that she just got back into town after a 10 hour drive from her hometown where she was taking her turn with her siblings, caring for their mom who has cancer.
We encounter a young man walking down the street, hands in his pockets, listening to the headphones in his ears. We greet him. He does not reciprocate, and we assume that at best he is rude. At worst, he is stoned. We story-o-type him. What we don’t know is that he is listening to a speech that the has to give as a memorized presentation for a scholarship competition.
We encounter an old man with a long beard and a worn coat, and we assume that he is at least down on his luck, if not homeless and an alcoholic. We story-o-type him. What we don’t know is that he is a retired CEO from a major engineering company, has embraced a simplified life,and is traveling the country giving free lectures about reducing your carbon footprint.
We see a student who dresses well, is always on time, always has assignments done ahead of time. Polite. Thoughtful. Engaged, and we assume that this student has it all together. No cares. No worries. We story-o-type this student. What we don’t know is that this student is a Dreamer, an undocumented immigrant who came to this country with her family when she was five, is simply trying to make it in this world, but lives everyday in fear that her family will be ripped apart and her dreams shattered.
Story-o-typing – we do it all the time. We see or think we know a few details, and we spin an entire narrative about others’ lives. But the woman at the well challenges us not to. The woman at the well challenges us to let people tell their own stories — and then listen to them. Learn from them, and be enriched by them. The woman at the well invites us to check our impulse to story-o-type, and instead actually get to know people — and the stories they live.
When I realized that pretty much everything I assumed to be true about the woman at the well was just that — an assumption — her story came alive for me. As a Samaritan, she is an outsider – and Jesus not only talks to her, but talks longer to her than anyone else. Let me repeat that. Jesus talks to her (an outsider woman!) longer than he talks with anyone else! How cool is that? In their conversation, Jesus sees her, and she sees Jesus — for who he is — the Messiah. She recognizes him, when most others do not. How cool is that? At the end of it all, she becomes a witness to her entire village. How cool is that?
And yet, I missed all of these amazing things about this woman when I story-o-typed her. So, take a look at the woman at the well. Read her story, and may she both challenge and invite you to step away from story-o-typing and open yourself to who people really are — their real life hopes, dreams, struggles, challenges, joys, and sorrows. I guarantee you, you will be the richer for it.
March 22, 2017