Here Lies . . . An Unlikely Candidate

The Blog That Speaks: Here Lies . . . An Unlikely Candidate

Have you ever considered the epitaph you want on your headstone after you die?

Consider a woman named Kay who had her recipe for Kay’s Fudge on her headstone (side note: Does this mean that she literally took her recipe to her grave? … Yes … you may roll your eyes and groan). However, be forewarned that the recipe’s placement does not mean it is mouth-watering delicious. According to Stacey Conradt in “29 Unforgettable Epitaphs,” the recipe was tried and found wanting.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Then there is the use of humor like Merv Griffin. According to Conradt, the well-known talk show host and creator of Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune chose the following epitaph: I will not be right back after this message.

A number of years ago, I had my own musings about my epitaph. It resulted in selecting a phrase that would impact how I lived out my life today when I chose the words: Here lies a woman of grace.

Becoming a woman of grace is not easy for a person like me who is intense, has a bend toward perfectionism, and has a little OCD to boot. Perhaps any one of those characteristics could eliminate me as a likely candidate to be a woman of grace. So, in my pursuit of such an objective, I began to implement some practices. One of the practices involves repeating three concepts to myself each morning:[1]

  1. Because I tend to take on too much responsibility for others and seek tangible outcomes, I say, “Pam, you are participant in Christ’s ministry. You are not responsible for the outcome.”
  2. Because society emphasizes speed, tying it to intelligence and success, I tell myself, “Pam, there is no reward for speed today.”
  3. Because God’s Spirit is continually moving in the world, I say, “Pam, every interaction you have today, whether it be verbally or by text/email, is sacred as the Spirit is moving in you, the other, and the space in between to bring healing.

An epitaph that centers on grace may seem to kick against the goads in a culture that embraces a system of meritocracy.

Such a system is heard in common phrases like, “You earned it” or “You deserve this.” Michael Sandel argues in his book The Tyranny of Merit that we live in a nation built on meritocracy in that we are to distribute rewards based only on merit, producing winners and losers. This results in attitudes of hubris for the winners and humiliation for the losers,[2] creating a divide between likely and unlikely candidates based on merit and cultivating a culture of honor and shame.

Some of us carry attitudes of pride because, based on our societal rank, title, degree, income or ethnicity, we are blessed by God because we have worked so hard or because we have won the ethnic lottery. Others of us struggle with shame because we are not good enough. We are not deserving based on our merits nor our ethnicity. We compare ourselves and compete with others, but when we are labeled “not good enough,” blame and envy emerge.

Yet, as Sandel points out, merit does matter. If we need a contractor or a surgeon, we want persons who are competent, who are the best for the job. However, as Sandel notes, a system of meritocracy may also foster human agency in that we believe that we determine our own fate in life. This may spill over into our theology by believing that God rewards us when we are good, but God punishes when we are bad. That is, in Sandel words:

“Although God is the one who bestows the rewards and punishments, he does so according to people’s merits, not arbitrarily.”[3]

This theology, however, is contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus enters the world that he created, being the only one who comes from outside societal systems, thereby being able to break the powerful grasp of the entrenched rules of society.[4] He is described in John’s Gospel as being full of grace and truth (1:14), which implies abundance (see also 1:16). As Patrick Oden indicates, this grace is displayed when Jesus empties himself and resists the established conventions of society by being crucified by the world’s ruling system. When Jesus Christ defeats death, the resurrection becomes an invitation by Jesus for us to reject the world’s patterns and experience a full life, lived out in the Spirit’s power.[5]

The fact that Jesus does not cling to a higher status is exemplified in John 4 in a story that centers on a Samaritan woman, an unlikely candidate to participate in God’s grace in the world. To have a fuller understanding of the portrait John paints of this woman, it is necessary to highlight the context in which this story is placed.

The world of antiquity into which Jesus came was not unlike contemporary culture. It adhered to the importance of achieving a higher status as dictated by having a proper bloodline and by maintaining the rules of meritocracy, fostering comparison and competition. John opposes the world’s value of having the right bloodline when he writes:

“But to all who have received him—those who believe in his name —he has given the right to become God’s children—children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband’s decision, but by God” (italics mine; see 1:12-13).

He then challenges the significance of a proper bloodline or nationality when he repeatedly emphasizes “the world,” such as God loving the world (3:16-17; see also 1:29).

John’s Gospel also exhibits the priority placed on higher status by alluding to comparison and competition. In 3:25-26, John the Baptist’s disciples complain that everyone is now flocking to Jesus. They are envious of Jesus’ success while John’s popularity is waning. In 4:1-2 this theme of comparison and competition continues when it is being said that Jesus is baptizing more people than John the Baptist, but it really is Jesus’ disciples who are baptizing others. John’s assertion about who is doing the baptizing is a possible attempt to avert a sense of superiority if some had been baptized by Jesus.[6]

By the time readers arrive at John 4, they have been introduced to a grace that defies the importance of both having the right bloodline and a system of meritocracy, and this story continues this theme. It begins quite simply: Jesus asks a Samaritan woman for a drink. This is an unexpected request so much so that the woman is quite direct in naming the cultural barriers:

I am a Samaritan woman, and you are a Jewish man.

This story bears witness to Jesus’ crossing of three cultural barriers: ethnicity, theology, and gender.[7] His crossing of these barriers shows the nature of grace: it is willing to risk one’s reputation to offer the gift of God (v. 10).

First, Jesus crosses the barrier of ethnicity by talking to a Samaritan.

The conflict between the Jews and Samaritans revolved around ethnicity: a disagreement about the Samaritans’ origins.

  • The Samaritans believed they were the direct descendants of a faithful group of ancient Israel. In short, they were pure and the faithful ones.
  • The Jews believed that the origins of Samaritans occurred when the Assyrians colonized the Northern Kingdom with people from several other Mesopotamian towns, and then some Jews in that region intermarried with them. In other words, the Samaritans were impure and the sinful ones.[8]

Like the Jews and Samaritans, when we are in conflict with others, we tend to cling to “information that affirms” our previous conclusions about our opponents (see When Enemy Images Emerge). If we are presented with positive information about them, we tend to disregard it and center on the negative that supports our views. And so it was with the conflict between Jews and Samaritans: Jewish stories painted the Samaritans in a negative light and Jews in a positive light, and vice versa. Thus, it is understandable that this Samaritan woman would see herself as an unlikely candidate to converse with a Jewish man.

While perhaps this barrier between Jews and Samaritans could be early signs of xenophobia, for Jesus, it is an opportunity to participate in the ministry of grace by offering grace to someone of a different ethnicity.

But it’s not only because of her ethnicity that she is an unlikely candidate; it also is because of her religious beliefs.

This unfolds after 4:16 in which Jesus instructs the woman to go call her husband, and she responds with: “I have no husband.” Jesus says to her, “Right you are when you said, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the man you are living with now is not your husband.”

This is not the first time John’s Gospel underscores Jesus’ supernatural knowledge about another person; it also occurs in 1:47-49 with Nathaniel, resulting in Nathaniel calling Jesus the Son of God. In the case of the Samaritan woman, she determines that because of his supernatural knowledge about her, Jesus is a prophet; thus, it is possible that the woman perceives an opportunity to obtain answers to some of her theological questions[9] since theological issues have contributed to the divide between Jews and Samaritans:

  • The Samaritans centered on worshipping physically on Mount Gerizim;
  • The Jews focused their worship in Jerusalem on Mount Zion.

And each was convinced their beliefs were correct and the other was wrong. But how does Jesus respond?

As New Testament scholar, R. G. Estrada notes, Jesus addresses the issue, but he does so in such a way that completely reconfigures the idea of the place of worship.

  • Jesus indicates that true worshippers worship God in the Spirit. This indicates that the realm of the Spirit is the most important place of worship, not Mount Gerizim nor Mount Zion.
  • Thus, if we are worshiping in the realm of the Spirit, we will reject practices that generate hatred that are based on differing ethnicities or philosophical views.
  • This does not mean we will agree, but neither will we exclude the other on the basis of differences in philosophy or ethnicity.[10]
  • Worship in the Spirit is worshipping in grace, willing to respect who we are and who others are in the body of Jesus Christ.

But there is a third reason this Samaritan is an unlikely candidate. It is pointed out in verse 9 and also stressed in verse 27: it is because of her gender, her being a woman.

In some Jewish circles, rabbis are to avoid conversations with women, and the disciples knew this, so when they returned from buying food, they are shocked to find their teacher alone talking with a woman. Here we see the rules of status in society: be of the right gender, and you have more power and respect.

Yet, Jesus dispenses with such rules. Instead, in v. 26, he reveals his true identity: he is the Messiah. It is one of the rare occasions in the Gospels that he does so, and it occurs here with an unlikely candidate, a Samaritan woman.

At this point, the woman returns to the village where she declares in v. 29: “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Surely he can’t be the Messiah, can he?” And the townspeople begin to come.

John’s story is one that undercuts the weight that is placed on status by portraying an unlikely candidate as a recipient of grace. It is upon receiving grace that she invites others to come and see.

The story then closes with the Samaritans persuading Jesus to stay with them an additional two days, resulting in their saying that Jesus is the savior of the world (v. 42). It is a reminder that becoming children of God is not based on ethnicity, theological tradition, nor gender but on the generative gracious power of God (v. 12-13).[11]

This is God’s ministry of grace in action that usurps the importance placed on higher status through a system of meritocracy and proper bloodline. It brazenly appears in the face of categories that mark some deserving and others undeserving. This story beckons us to rethink about the cultural categories of likely and unlikely candidates and how we pigeonhole ourselves and others within such categories based on our current world’s systems. 

Like the Samaritan woman, status does not matter in the realm of grace. There is no winning of the ethnic lottery nor is there meritocracy; thus, no shame. Christ’s ministry of grace is currently at work in the world in the power and presence of the Spirit, and we are invited to participate in it, to see the Spirit working:

  • In the checkout line;
  • With the person restocking shelves;
  • With the driver who is waiting at a stoplight;
  • With the neighbor who has the dog that barks incessantly;
  • With the server at the restaurant, whether the service is great or mediocre;
  • The person at the office, the military base, the senior center, or school.

As recipients of God’s grace in Jesus, we are being called to be participants of God’s ministry of grace, vessels of healing in the world.

And it may simply begin by asking for or giving a drink of water.

[1] These are original with Dr. Alan Wolfelt which I have fashioned for my purposes.

[2] Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 29-30, Kindle Edition.

[3] Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit, 41.

[4] Patrick Oden points this out in Hope for the Oppressor: Discovering Freedom through Transformative Community. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2019).

[5] Oden, Hope for the Oppressor.

[6] Marianne Meye Thompson, John: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015), 97.

[7] I am drawing from Marianne Meye Thompson who writes, “neither her gender, nor her ethnicity, nor her religious commitments or practices are a barrier to Jesus’ gracious gift to her.” John: A Commentary, 99. See also Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 585.

[8] H. G. M. Williamson, “Samaritans,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight (Downers Grove: IVP, 1992), 725, Accordance edition.

[9] Thompson, John: A Commentary, 103.

[10] For fuller development of these thoughts see paper presented by Rodolfo Galvan Estrada, III at Society for Pentecostal Studies in 2017 called “John 4:23–24: The Spirit and Ethnoracial Tension in Worship.”

[11] Thompson, John, 32.