The Grace of Being Known
by Reverend Teri Daily
So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (John 4:28-29, ESV)
I have to confess that I spent a whole segment of my adult life avoiding encounters with people. I was a physicians in the only pediatric practice in Lee County, North Carolina, and I was the only pediatrician in Johnson County, Arkansas. I loved my patients. But after scheduled encounters all day, I longed for quiet. So Dave and I developed some guidelines that now, looking back, seem pretty desperate. Number one–Avoid the church nursery. Dave would send me to the car immediately after the worship service, while he went to the nursery to pick up Emma and Wilson. Number two–Have two phone lines. Our time in North Carolina was before the widespread use of cell phones or caller ID, so that meant two landlines. One was listed; the other was known by four friends in town, our family, and out of town friends. Number three–Shop at off hours. This was to avoid the awkward encounter in Walmart when a mother would say to her child, “J.D., there’s Dr. Daily. Take your shoe off.” And number four–As a pediatrician, never, ever eat at a restaurant on Kids Eat Free night.
Like I said, now I’m kind of embarrassed at the extremes to which I went to avoid encounters with patients. But I also understand better why I did it. I needed to step out of my role as a physician at times. I wanted times and places where I could be seen and known as a mother, wife, daughter, sister, and friend, but, most of all, as a unique individual and child of God. Maybe it wasn’t really privacy that I wanted; maybe I actually wanted to be known more fully. And that leads me to today’s gospel reading…
The gospel of John is full of intimate encounters. Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the middle of the night; there’s the moment when the crowd walks away and Jesus and the woman caught in adultery are the only ones left; Mary anoints Jesus’ feet; Jesus washes the disciples feet. These encounters exhibit a deep familiarity. And in our gospel for today, the famous meeting of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, a striking intimacy marks their exchange as well.
“Give me a drink of water,” Jesus says. The woman replies with a hint of challenge: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” The revelation of who Jesus is begins right away: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The conversation continues and ultimately the woman finds that Jesus is none other than the Messiah himself. But in the midst of this revelation, the woman herself is also revealed. Jesus tells her, “Go, call your husband.” When she replies that she has no husband, her marital history is laid out in its entirety: “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”
Now too often in the Church we make this Samaritan woman into an icon of immorality. But we don’t know from this passage if her five husbands died in succession, or if she has been divorced or abandoned. And it’s been pointed out that at the moment of this encounter she may be in a Levirate marriage, where a widow who has no children is taken in by her husband’s brother so that she may produce an heir. In that case, the two may not technically be considered “married.” Some also speculate that no respectable woman would come to the well in the heat of the day but, frankly, maybe she is busy and has other things to get done that day, too. And Jesus never says to her “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” as he does to the woman caught in adultery. The truth is that we tend to wrap this Samaritan woman in stories of our choosing, instead of seeing her as she is–which is how Jesus sees her. When the woman goes back to the city to tell people about her encounter with Jesus, we are told by the gospel writer that she says predominantly one thing: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” What this Samaritan woman experienced at the well was not primarily judgment, but the grace of being known.
Now that doesn’t mean that there’s no judgment in this passage. Every time we come face to face with God, we become acutely aware that there’s a difference between who we are and who we are called to be—and that discernment is what’s also called judgment. But in this conversation with Jesus, the Samaritan woman is both fully known and fully loved. Jesus offers her living water at the same moment that he acknowledges her as she truly is. Any judgment in this passage takes place in the midst of God’s overwhelming love and mercy.
But to leave the story there would be to leave the story only half told. As a friend of mine once said, the woman comes to the well that day and leaves with a new job—that of evangelist. And as she runs to tell her friends about the man she has met, we imagine that her life will never be quite the same. So here’s the funny thing: it’s the grace of being known and accepted just as she is that actually ends up changing her; in other words, it’s not the requirement to change but the freedom to be who she is that makes transformation possible.
That’s part of the beauty of a church family–here we risk knowing each other and being known by each other for who we truly are. In a world that teaches us to fear rejection and failure, the grace of being both fully known (with all of our idiosyncrasies, gifts, and faults) and fully accepted and loved is an incredibly freeing experience. And when and where we see this grace, it is nothing less than a reflection of God’s love for us.
This grace is especially important in the season of Lent—the part of the church year when we’re called to a period of prayer, self-examination, and repentance. Self-examination requires a willingness to be vulnerable and honest—to see ourselves with all of our gifts and all of our faults. And we are only able to do that in light of the fact that God’s love for us always precedes any worthiness on our own part. Knowing ourselves as known and loved is really the only way we can have the courage to see ourselves as we truly are.
I think the experience of the woman at the well that day must have changed the way she saw other people. And I think our own experience of being simultaneously known and loved changes the way we see others, too. We certainly can’t have the kind of intimacy with everyone that we have with our biological family, or our friends, or our church family. Part of allowing people we meet to be who they are means honoring the distance between us, too. But we can resolve to see the people we meet in our day to day lives as they really are; we can engage in what Barbara Brown Taylor calls “the practice of encountering others.” She describes it this way:
…it is the practice of coming face-to-face with another human being…and at least entertaining the possibility that this is one of the faces of God.
…this spiritual practice requires no special setting, no personal trainer, no expensive equipment. It can be done anywhere, by anyone who resolves to do it. A good way to warm up is to focus on one of the human beings who usually sneak right past you because they are performing some mundane service such as taking your order or handing you change. The next time you go to the grocery store, try engaging the cashier. You do not have to invite her home for lunch or anything, but take a look at her face while she is trying to find “arugula” on her laminated list of produce.
Here is someone who exists even when she is not ringing up your groceries, as hard as that may be for you to imagine. She is someone’s daughter, maybe someone’s mother as well. She has a home she returns to when she hangs up her apron here, a kitchen that smells of last night’s supper, a bed where she occasionally lies awake at night wrestling with her own demons and angels. Do not go too far with this or you risk turning her into a character in your own novel, which is part of her problem already. It is enough for you to acknowledge her when she hands you your change.
“You saved eleven dollars and six cents by shopping at Winn Dixie today,” she says, looking right at you. All that is required of you is to look back. Just meet her eyes for a moment when you say, “Thanks.” Sometimes that is all another person needs to know that she has been seen–not the cashier but the person–but even if she does not seem to notice, the encounter has occurred. You noticed, and because you did, neither of you will ever be quite the same again. 
I think a huge part of the grace people felt around Jesus was the grace of being known for who they truly were. It’s a grace that we, too, can share with those in our church community and with others who are close to us. But even with those we meet casually–through the spiritual practice of encountering others–we can at least share the grace of being seen. We can at least, according to Taylor, see the person in front of us not as someone we “can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince, or control,”  but as a unique individual, a child of God, the face of the resurrected Christ. See, the same grace that allows us to do the inner work of self-examination–the grace of being known and loved as we are–also turns us outward and invites us to see others as they are. Like the great commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself,” maybe true grace is always bi-directional like that.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World (New York: HarperOne, 2009) pp. 94-95.
 Taylor, p. 93.