A couple of weeks ago I found myself watching a late night movie. It was an old movie, and I was surprised it held my attention. Its star was an actress who had been part of my growing up and who died tragically when I was only fifteen. Her life has been the source of many books and the Internet is filled with pictures of this beautiful woman. Her name was Norma Jeane Baker. She preferred to be known as Marilyn Monroe, the sex goddess of her generation and a legend even today.
I have rarely watched her movies in the years since. This one happened to be The Prince and the Showgirl. Ostensibly the movie tells the mundane story of the Grand Duke Charles, who has brought the sixteen-year- old King Charles to London for the coronation of King Edward XVII. The Duke’s country is in danger of being torn apart. Neither guardian nor young king gets along with the other, and war is about to break out. One evening the Duke has a young actress, Elsie Marina, brought to his suite for the night. She has clearly been used for these purposes before and is resentful of her role as a convenience to others. Nevertheless, over the course of the story, she reconciles the King to his guardian, charms the Duke’s difficult mother, behaves impeccably at the coronation, rescues the family from a series of small disasters, releases the Duke from his stiff and unemotional existence, and generally spreads hope and happiness among those she touches. No one, of course, credits her with these achievements. She is merely a flighty little call girl. Infatuated, the Duke invites her to accompany him on his journey home, promising to shower her with gifts and jewels.
Gravely she declines his offer. “Last night at the embassy party,” she tells him, “I heard them speak of you as a brilliant politician with a great future. My presence would merely hinder your career. It is time for me to go.” Turning, she walks from the house and disappears into the crowds outside, leaving one rather self-important and very average politician to his own devices while the true heroine goes unrecognized.
Marilyn Monroe gave a brilliant performance as a witty, clever, kind young woman who understood life and people only too well. I think it was perhaps the first time I had been very conscious of the depth of her talent.
On the one level, we have the plot–an arrogant, self -important male not understanding the true beauty and value of the woman he saw only as an object.
But there was another irony here. All the while the movie is rolling along, there is another plot. For in this movie everyone is attired in exquisite period costume. It is the turn of the century, and Edwardian gowns litter the set– until you come to Marilyn Monroe. She is outfitted in a skin-tight white satin gown that has clearly been designed more with an eye to her assets than to the occasion. Moreover, the camera guarantees that the audience will be left in no doubt as to what exactly those assets might be. It seems that Hollywood wasn’t much interested in Marilyn as an actress or a person either.
I couldn’t help reflecting on the little brunette who had been passed from foster home to orphanage, married at sixteen, and who had struggled through marriages with Arthur Miller and Joe Di Maggio—always trying to find someone who cared enough to see her for who she was and not for who she pretended to be. There is a story that once, while walking unrecognized in Los Angeles, she turned to her friend and said, “Would you like to see her?” In an instant, she became “Marilyn the Movie Star,” and they had to leap into a taxi to escape the sudden crowds. Being beautiful had proved to be a passport to nothing but further exploitation. Empty, she died of an overdose at an age when most of us are just beginning.
Marilyn, of course, was far from being alone in her sense of not belonging, of wanting something better, of longing to be loved. She is still famous because in some way she touches us in our own sadness and need. Her story is a very human story of hopes and dreams, mistakes and misunderstanding, joy and pain. She is also something of a mystery as, in truth, we are all mysteries to each other in the end. She craved intimacy and was never able to attain it. And without intimacy we die.
So it is with today’s gospel. An outcast woman travels to the well in the heat of the noonday sun. An outcast: able to come to the well only when others had gathered in companionship at the well earlier in the day. A much married outcast, despised, living with a man to whom she is not married. She is on the slippery slope from respectability to disgrace. She is the wrong age, the wrong nationality, the wrong gender, a loser in her own time. She could anticipate going to her grave worn out, poor, and rejected.
She arrives at that well to draw water only to find her way blocked by the inconvenience of yet another man. And so the encounter begins. On the one hand, Jesus has no means of getting the water–he has no bucket. On the other, she has no life because she is understood as being fit for no more than the chores.
Jesus demands water. Confrontation. Astonishment. Maybe suspicion. A Jew asking a Samaritan and a woman for the blessing of water? What does he want? Everyone always wants something, after all.
The conversation is open, honest, passionate. The dialog is fast and tense, probing a mystery and a felt promise.
“Give me a drink.”
“How come you ask for a drink from an outcast like me?”
“If you only knew me you would ask me for living water.”
“Don’t be stupid. You have no bucket. What’s this about living water anyway?”
“Drink of the living water and you will never be thirsty again.”
“Give it to me.”
The woman is careful to hedge her bets. “Sir, give me this water so I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” She has recognized the integrity with which this man speaks. She may not know what the living water is, but she knows she wants it. And she knows she is tired of the chores–tired of drawing water. She’ll settle for either possibility.
But Jesus isn’t finished yet.
“Go, call your husband, and come back.”
“I have no husband.”
“You are right in saying you have no husband; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.”
The shame is out. She is exposed, condemned. What other response can there be? She has broken the rules. What more could be said?
But what are these words falling from the lips of this prophet? “…the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.” And Jesus had said she spoke the truth. Jesus meant her! Jesus meant that she was included. She–a true worshipper. Not condemned but included, not rejected but embraced, not despised but loved, no longer alone, but received in relationship. And now Jesus shares with her the truth about himself. “I am he.” The Messiah.
Jesus sees this woman. He has received her just as she is. Knowing everything about her seedy life, the holy one of God has drawn her into the inner circle of life. The disciples don’t get it. They are so stunned to find him at the well talking to a Samaritan woman that they don’t even dare ask. All the disciples can talk about is how Jesus managed to get food before they had fetched it from the city. It is the woman who holds the truth. The truth standing before her very eyes. She becomes the one who goes out. The apostle. It is she who carries the good news to the city—the news that God’s love is for the whole world. And such is the power of her testimony, that they came out of the city to hear him. They listened and dared to ask him to stay so that they, too, could believe.
Jesus’ invitation to the woman is his invitation to us. To come just as we are. To tell the truth about ourselves and know it will set us free. To tell the truth so that we may know what it is to be embraced by love. To tell the truth that we might know we are loved and live. To live in intimacy with the Lord, “for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”