My earliest favorite funny book was Amelia Bedelia, the account (first of a series) of a maid who causes quite a ruckus because she takes everything way too literally. She reads Mrs. Roger's "to do" list for her, and when it says, "put the lights out," she hangs them on the backyard clothesline; when it says, "change the towels", she cuts the towels into different shapes; when it says, "dress the chicken," she dons it in leiderhosen and matching socks. It was/is all so playful and fun, because we readers (even though children) know better, feel maybe a tad bit superior to this dotty but nice lady and that's good for our developing egos, and, at the end, this Comedy of Errors turns into All's Well that Ends Well as Mr. and Mrs. Rogers take a bite of Amelia Bedelia's unbelievably delicious lemon meringue pie baked especially for them. No matter how screwed up she may be, they'll always want Amelia Bedelia around. We do, too, because it's so fun to see what new and otherwise obvious things she’ll ridiculously misunderstand in many a subsequent book.
Chances are you already know all of this this because you read these books as a child, too. And loved the playful happy spirit emanating from their pages! (And how they wackily helped grow confidence in our nascent intelligence….)
This Sunday's gospel lectionary reading is John 4:5-42, the relatively well-known story aka "The Woman at the Well." It's Jesus encounter with a Samaritan woman who comes to her local well in the middle of the day, by herself, to get water. Common ways of understanding this woman are: 1) as a ‘sinner’, because she is living with a man out of wedlock; 2) as a person shunned by her community, because she’s at the well in the middle of the day by herself; 3) as a bold student, because she publicly asks Jesus all sorts of questions about what he is teaching; 4) as the ‘Other’ who Jesus shows no hesitation to educate and embrace.
How about also seeing her as the Amelia Bedelia of her day??
I take my lead from NT scholar Dr. Craig Koester’s essay Comedy, Humor and the Gospel of John, found in the book Word, Theology and Community in John, edited by John Painter, R. Alan Culpepper, and Fernando F. Segovia (2002, Chalice Press)
Koester notes that it’s just like the Jesus-Nicodemus encounter of the previous chapter in John. There, Nicodemus can’t wrap his mind around the concept of being born again, because how can a grown man re-enter his mother’s womb? Here, the Samaritan woman can't understand the nature of the "living water" that Jesus offers her lonely, spurned soul. In v. 11, she wonders how a man without a bucket can make this offer. When Jesus responds in v. 13-14 that everyone who drinks of the water he gives will never be thirsty but will have eternal life she responds excitedly in v. 15 that she indeed wants this water so she’ll never be thirsty or have to come to this well ever again.
Koester goes on to note we readers know what Jesus is talking about when he mentions "living water," and we expect them both to next launch into a theological discussion on the topic. But no! It becomes an Amelia Bedelia-type comedy as the Samaritan woman can't move beyond overly literal thinking even as it leads to ridiculous conclusions - water from a man who doesn't bring a bucket and magical plumbing ending trips to the well.
Looking at the story this way, with our comic lenses, it's all pretty funny! And, actually, helps us grow confidence in our faith, as we are playfully invited to feel one step ahead of the woman in her journey to understanding. It's not a haughty superiority but, as Koester suggests, a feeling of relief and greater love for Jesus and compassion for our fellow disciples. Like the woman, we, too, have been confused by what Jesus has been trying to say to us, and we, too have and will say silly laughable things in our efforts to understand the deeper truths. And will nevertheless continue to be invited with great joy into Kingdom Community.
This story invites us to laugh at ourselves as we laugh at this comical "other," and rejoice in the fact that despite the confusion and chaos, things doesn’t end with dissolution of community but instead lead to its expansion. Later in the story, the woman, now sort-of getting what Jesus is talking about ("Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" v. 29), brings the whole town to come and hear him, and to believe. And, indeed, they do, saying, "It is no longer because of what you (the woman) said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world." (vs. 42)
You can't help but smile and shake your head wondering…knowing…that sometime, frequently, these villagers are going to miss the boat like the woman, and rest of us, taking literally something deep Jesus is metaphorically trying to say, like "All who would be my followers take up your cross and follow me."