The story of the woman at the well from John Chapter 4 is a story I used to find annoying. I think, because it was an overdone story about Jesus being Jesus. It gets overused as a salvation story for a way of life that is no longer feels like an issue. Women, in general, in my country are not cast out of society or judged for being married several times or living with a partner to whom they aren’t legally married.
I understand that it’s an object lesson for the nourishing water of eternal life, and I’m sure we’ve used it as a symbol for grace in the Methodist tradition over and over again. This is fine. I also think we’ve used it to speak to different types of churches and practices and how they matter less than acknowledging Christ’s presence. These are all fine and good (Also, for my theological friends, I know these are oversimplifications).
I used to think the most interesting thing was just that Jesus is talking to a woman from a different background and crossing boundaries of class, ethnicity, and lifestyle. This is still a good mode of speaking to mission, outreach, and evangelism. In fact, we often call this woman the first evangelist. She runs into town to tell everyone about Jesus.
I think these are all fine explorations of this. But I think this story has some more things to offer us. For the rural church, particularly, this story gives us the potential for a creative exploration of an extremely valuable rural practice – gossip.
We speak to the sin of gossip, the way it can tear apart families, communities, and churches. We talk about it with such disdain, and we all love it. I think it’s such an interesting rural past time because it’s how news spreads. “Oh, Didn’t you hear” or “I hear that church is getting a female pastor,” or “I heard they let them have coffee in the sanctuary.”
But, then the gossip can be of use. Oh, Mark and Maria’s house burned down, didn’t you hear? They lost everything…Herb and I are giving them the bed out of our guest room.” Or, “I have a friend that’s going through a hard time, don’t you have connections at the women’s resource center?”
See, with this story, Jesus knows these things about this woman because he’s Jesus. Especially in the gospel of John, he sort of knows the story before it happens. However, since we aren’t Jesus, the way we would find out about this woman is through the rumor mill. We would hear of her marriages, the man she is living with. I think we would also hear about the struggles of single parents, of the elderly trying to cope with loss, or of dozens of other things.
Gossip is one way of gaining what Michael Corbett calls “Deep Place Sensitive Knowledge.” And with that knowledge we can begin to connect and create together. Just like Jesus offers the woman new life, our using of the rumor mill to find and help people, to seek out companionship, creative solutions, and simple clarification of information creates a lot of potential. When it begins to offer new life, connection to community, and a sense of creative hope, it is then sanctified.
With sanctified gossip, we move past neutral or toxic spreading of information, and toward a sense of rural faith that knows how to use what it has so it can better it’s community. If we teach the value of using this information to help, create, and understand in our churches and communities, then we can begin to open up futures just by listening to the grape vine.