Is the Lord among us or not?

Exodus 17:1-7 ; John 4:5-42

When I was a kid, I was pretty scrawny. I was gangly, and awkward, and there’s a picture of me floating around out there with a permanent that made me look exactly like the comedian Carrot Top. Remember him? I was incredibly shy, and if the teacher called on me in class, my heart would race and tears would well up in my eyes. I wasn’t very sporty. And, I was afraid of a lot of things. I used to be so afraid of the dark that I’d sleep with all the lights on in my bedroom…even though it meant I wouldn’t sleep very soundly. I didn’t like to be home alone, and I did ridiculous things like try to microwave water in a Dixie cup, which caused the molten hot wax to give my hand second degree burns.

One time, my mom gave me a pair of scissors and asked me to cut apart a bundle of brand new socks. I cut too closely to the fabric, and ended up putting a hole in every single one of those new socks.

I did things like that a lot when I was growing up. And, I’ve done a bunch of ridiculous things since that time.

But, when I introduce myself to people, those aren’t the kinds of stories I like to tell. Who would want to tell their own story this way?

This is the question I found myself asking as I read the story of the people of Israel quarreling about water. Why would the people want their story remembered this way? Why would they choose to tell stories that highlighted their weakness, their humanness, their lack of trust in the God who had provided for them time and again.

The simple answer, I think, is that they chose to tell these stories about their insufficiencies so that God’s sufficiency would be made known to all who read. In other words, they talked about their failings so that everyone would see God’s faithfulness and love.

But, I also think that they chose to tell their story this way because deep down all of us have stories like these – stories that we’d usually hide or cover over because they don’t show us at our best. Wouldn’t we rather share the stories that make us look as good as we hope we can be rather than let the world know of all of our failings?

The people of Israel remembered their struggles. They told and re-told stories of suffering and their response to it. In this particular story, they were lacking something they needed desperately – water. They were thirsting to death in the wilderness. They asked (like so often we ask when bad things are happening), “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Where is God in all this?

They don’t hide this shadowy part of their history. Instead, they speak it out into the light, and somehow that makes it all easier to deal with. They doubted. They argued. They complained. But, God provided them exactly what they needed anyway.

I wonder if the woman we encounter in John 4 was asking this question, too –  “Is the Lord among us or not?” – as she made her way to Jacob’s well at noon. I imagine the sun was hot, and nearly everyone would have collected the day’s water hours earlier. Yet, she chose to come at noon. I had often heard this story told that she avoided going earlier in the day because she was an adulteress – married five times, and now living with someone she wasn’t married to – but our text doesn’t give us all of that information. It is possible that she had been widowed 5 times, or that her husbands had all left her because she couldn’t have children. We simply don’t know that she was at fault in her circumstances. But, what we do know is that she went to the well at an unusual time, perhaps because she was hiding from the watchful eyes of others.

When she gets to the well, she encounters a man – and not just any man, a Jewish man. She came to the well when she did to avoid the watchful eyes of others, but ended up being met by someone she likely thought wouldn’t give her the time of day.

She came to the well because she needed water for the day. She couldn’t avoid going to the well, even if she might have liked to. But, she could choose to go at a time when she was least likely to run into people along the way.

But, just like the one time you run to the store with your hair a mess and paint-covered sweatpants on, just when she hoped she wouldn’t see anyone, she saw the person she was afraid would judge her the most.

Jews and Samaritans didn’t interact with each other. Or, as it says in our passage, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” To compound all that, women and men didn’t freely interact with each other either. There at the well was a man, and – not just a man – a Jewish man.

Jesus asks her for a drink, and then we have a conversation that reminds me a lot of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus back in chapter 3. Jesus talks about water, and the woman first thinks he is talking about the physical water in Jacob’s well, just like Nicodemus got stuck on the idea of being born again. They go back and forth about water, but then the woman begins to talk about worship. Jesus’ knowledge of her life situation seemed to shake her up inside. He saw her and he knew her. He knew her story before she had to tell it to him. He knew all of the things that had probably caused her to hide herself under the heat of the day, and yet he still spoke to her.

Most of the time when I read the story about Jesus and the woman at the well, I focus on Jesus’ actions: he knew everything about this woman, but he didn’t push her away. He could’ve judged her or ostracized her, but he didn’t. But, lately I’ve been looking at this story from the woman’s perspective. She had been through a tremendous amount in her life. She knew what it felt like to be ostracized and to suffer. She came to the well at an off-time perhaps because she just didn’t want to deal with it anymore.

I know what that’s like.

And when she saw this Jewish man at the well, she probably thought she was going to be ignored and pushed away again, or that he might judge her.

Instead, he initiates the conversation. And, it is to this nameless woman at the well that Jesus reveals who he truly is. She talks about waiting for the Messiah, and he says, “‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” We miss this in the English, but in the Greek, Jesus says to her, “I AM, the one who is speaking to you.”

She comes to the well carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. After she encounters Jesus, she leaves her water jar behind and tells everyone she sees that she met a man who knew everything about her. He knew, and he still spoke to her. He knew, and he told her who he was. He knew her, and even though she would have had every reason to hide her story from him, he told her who he was and she went and told the world.

How much time, and energy, and effort do we spend trying to hide from God…to hide our shame so that we can appear worthy…when all the time God already knows our shame and our hurts and comes to meet us anyway? I wonder what it might look like for each of us to own up to those stories, to share those hurts, to ask out loud “Is the Lord among us or not?” Perhaps when we do that, we will find that we have been loved and embraced the whole time, we were just so busy trying to spin our stories more positively that we didn’t even notice.

I’ve always thought it was interesting that the woman at the well isn’t given a name in our story, and yet she was important enough to Jesus that he talked with her and revealed who he was to her. Could it be that she is left nameless in the text not because she wasn’t important enough to be named, but precisely because her story could be any of our stories? We all have things in our lives – places where we’ve been wounded, or things that we’re ashamed of, or things that we go the extra mile to gloss over because we wonder if people would love us if they knew – but just like Jesus met her and knew her and loved her, Jesus meets us and knows us and loves us. And when he reveals himself to us, we all have the opportunity to lay down our jars and tell others, “He told me everything I have ever done.”

Some religious traditions have given the woman at the well the name Photine – “the luminous one” – and she is considered “equal to the apostles” for her life’s work of sharing the truth about Jesus with those around her.

In the times of pain when we ask “Is the Lord among us or not?” and in the times of shame and woundedness where we feel unworthy of God’s love, it is precisely in those times that God is waiting for us and reminding us that none of these things are unknown to God. Jesus invites us to lay down our shame, our pain, our brokenness – to question and to wrestle and to doubt. Jesus knows all of those things we meticulously clean up and hide from others, and he loves us anyway.

Carl Jung believed that every person is made up of two parts – the persona, which is who we think we are and who others think we are – and our shadow side. The shadow side is, as Jung described it, “that hidden, repressed, for the most part inferior and guilt-laden personality.” [1] Jung did not believe it was good for us to leave that shadow side in the shadows. In fact, he thought that by reflecting on those hidden parts of ourselves and finding which things are helpful for us and which are not, that we become more truly who we are.

Though Jung did not put any of this in religious words at all, I can’t help but think of that idea of the shadow side here in our passages about the thirsty Israelites and the thirsty woman at the well. Through these remarkable stories of our faith, we are invited to come to our God who already knows the whole of who we are – both the parts of ourselves we like to show to the world, and the parts of ourselves we’d rather hide – and loves us just the same. We come to the well, or we journey through the wilderness, looking for water to quench our thirst, all the while God is offering us the water that never runs out.

Today, let’s throw off the burden of hiding those shames, and embrace the knowing, loving embrace of God – God, who loves even our shadowy selves.


[1] The Shadow

About April Fiet

April is a pastor, writer, wife, and mom of two kids. Find out more about April here, and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter. April writes for At the Table with April Fiet and for That Reformed Blog.

  • Wonderful post, April, and very timely for me: my church does not follow the lectionary at all but we happened to be talking in a women’s study group about whether we should tell other people when we think they aren’t living as they should. During the discussion the usual suspects were mentioned: “Well, Jesus DID tell the adulterous woman to go and sin no more” and “Well, Jesus DID zero in on the woman at the well’s sinful lifestyle.” But like you say, the text doesn’t tell us she was at fault for the state she was living in. I really appreciate what you have said here about the persona and shadow side, and how Jesus loves and embraces all of that. Thanks so much.