Seen By Many, Known By Few

After being out of the spotlight for more than 10 years, Monica Lewinski recorded a TED talk where she tells how, as a 22 year old intern, she had an affair with her boss (and the public shaming that followed). Some of you know her name only in rap lyrics and retrospect – others of a certain age remember her story well which was plastered all over the internet in a most unflattering way. When Monica’s story broke, I was busy raising two kids and building a business, self-righteous in my church-going, devotional-reading ways. I watched just enough national news to assume I knew her “type” – loose bimbo making love to President Clinton in his office, probably as manipulative and power hungry as I imagined him to be.

As I watch Monica tell her story, I am shocked at how differently I feel toward her now. As a mother of a 23 year old, I wonder if my daughter might ever be intimidated by a boss, or infatuated with a much older boyfriend. As a wounded survivor of a counseling experience gone bad, I understand Monica’s vulnerability and feel empathy for her experience. And as a seminary student who’s read more than my share of research about honor and shame, patriarchy and power, I realize that Monica’s story is one of millions about women who go “looking for love in all the wrong places” and the men who take advantage of them.

One of the self-descriptors Monica uses is that she was “seen by many but known by few.” Doesn’t that describe a lot of people in your world? We see them often, maybe daily, but we only see the exterior view, the one they want us to see. Just as often perhaps, we see the view we want to see. We make assumptions based on how they are dressed, where they hang out, who their friends are. We make judgments and lump them into categories without ever actually listening to their stories. They are seen by many, but known by few

Monica’s story reminds me of another woman’s story from John 4, but we don’t know her name. She is gathering water, a mundane job she’s done every other day, when she meets a man who will turn her world upside down. Many of you guessed whose story I was telling as soon as I mentioned the water. You might have even had some unconscious assumptions about her come to mind.

But in the text itself, John gives us far fewer details about the Samaritan woman than the Starr report gave us about Monica Lewinsky. We don’t know her name or why she came to the well at the hottest hour of the day. And we don’t know why she was married five times, or why she was living out of wedlock with another man. She was seen by many, but known by few.

We do make plenty of assumptions about her, though. One commentary calls her a 5-time loser who’s currently committed to an illicit affair. I daresay most of the sermons you’ve heard on this chapter assume her immorality; I daresay most of us who heard about Monica Lewinsky in the 90s assumed the same and more. But when we view scripture through a 21st century lens of what a 5-time divorcee would look like, we may be reading something into the text that simply isn’t there. In that patriarchal first century society, she may have been widowed at a young age (even 13!)– she may have been divorced because she was barren – in either case she would have been in dire financial straits with need of a provider. She may have settled for being a concubine or a slave, just to have her daily needs met. Jesus knows all this about her, bringing up the fact of her 5 marriages. But Jesus suggests no shame, no condescension, no condemnation.

So why is Jesus engaging in conversation with her?

Perhaps because of her willingness to ask for help – “Sir, give me this water!” She is thirsty for more than she knows. As the woman engages Jesus in theological discourse (the longest recorded conversation Jesus has with anyone!), she realizes Jesus is a prophet and the talk moves from physical water to spiritual worship. Jesus sees her as a precious sister whose thirst won’t be satisfied with water from the well. He affirms her hope in the coming Messiah by saying I AM – the one speaking to you. Now a recipient of living water, the woman runs off without her water jug, ready to share her testimony with an entire town.

Think of those who are different from us in race, gender, or economic standing – the ones who are “seen by many and known by few.” Maybe they are spiritually seeking living water, like the Samaritan woman at the well. As kingdom people, maybe we’ll have to travel through Samaria today, an unfamiliar path with a well on the way. Jesus offers the same living water to Pharisees and fishermen, to sinners and Samaritans.

May the same be true of us.

"Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life." John 4:13-14

Dawn Gentry Johnson City, TN MDIV student at Emmanuel Christian Seminary Member of Grandview Christian Church