November 8, 2020
This morning we read about one of the more famous stories in the bible. John chapter 4: this is the meeting between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at a water well. Sometimes I think the way we interpret this passage says as much about us as it does the passage. After researching, I have formed an opinion that leads me to think that this story has been misinterpreted over the years by habit, in part because we read it in isolation from the rest of John’s gospel and in part because of the Church’s history of the treatment of women. So let me lay my cards out on the table here: I don’t think the Samaritan woman is a prostitute. I’ve read several commentaries on this story and l lean towards the notion that she does not have a shady past as many interpretations have suggested. She might have, but nothing in the scripture alludes to that. And John makes so many references to specific details in this story that to exclude the important details about the one of the central figures doesn’t make sense. And I don’t think Jesus forgives her for anything. Rather, I think he calls her not to repent of her sins but to life-giving faith. This is the longest recorded conversation that Jesus has with an individual in the bible. So today I want to focus on 4 different themes that make up the entire context of this story.
1 - The Meeting
2 - The Woman
3 - The Water
and last is the most important component
4 - Delivering The Message (Most Important)
1. First - The Meeting. This meeting between Jesus and the woman shouldn’t even be happening in the first place. But it did happen.
We have seen it in movies before when a racial divide or cultural divide exists and overshadows the meeting of two people or a group of people. The tension is there and we can tell by the body language and the hesitation that the individuals are keenly aware of it. It happened in the football movie “The Blindside”. Sandra Bullocks character is the white, wealthy, affluent adoptive mother of Michael Oher, the black high school football player who was more or less abandoned by his birth mother. Now Sandra Bullock finds his birth mother in a bad part of town and wants to meet her. Her arrival in the housing projects complex is met with strange glares from the other residents. But she is determined to ignore the social awkwardness and complete her task.
It goes something like this: What do you want? You're probably not supposed to be here. We shouldn’t even be talking. If anyone see us, we’ll both be in trouble. The gospel of John makes it clear that both Jesus and the woman knew of the racial divide between the Jews and the Samaritans. And, of course, the social impropriety of that time when men and women would not have normally interacted in public alone. A man would not approach a woman in public and converse with her without her husband present. And yet here they were at a water well, conversing. The woman, who is not named, was almost suspicious. The first thing Jesus says is “ can you give me a drink?” But he might as well have said “I reject the social convention that we are not allowed to speak”. He didn’t have a pale or anything to hold the water in. Was he supposed to drink from her pale? I can envision this woman looking around first to make sure nobody else was observing their interaction, like looking over her shoulder. The contention between Jews and Samaritans had been well established among the populations for centuries.
The region around Samaria had been invaded by the Assyrians 700 years before. Samaria became a place of refuge for all the outlaws of Judea and we can find descriptions of this in the old testament in the book of Joshua. (Joshua 20:6-7; 21:21). The Samaritans willingly received Jewish criminals and refugees from justice. Violators of the Jewish laws, and those who had been excommunicated, found safety for themselves in Samaria, greatly increasing the hatred which existed between the two nations. They were considered less than a pure race because of the intermarriages with gentiles and pagans after their invasion by the Assyrians. The jews even called them half breeds. The jews to the south in Jerusalem and around Judea thought this to be the bad “part of town”. The samaritans were a rough crowd. They had chosen a new place to worship, Mount Gerizim instead of in Jerusalem. Their worship was a mixture of traditional Jewish practices mixed in the pagan idolatry. Geographically speaking it’s perfectly possible to travel down to the coastal plain and up to Galilee without passing through Samaria at all. Yet verse 3 & 4 says “ so he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee and he had to go through Samaria. It doesn’t say why he had to go through Samaria. But we know in those days it would be uncommon. I feel like this is the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry, that maybe the reason to go through Samaria was put things in motion. To engage, in discussion religious and philosophical, not just a woman, but a Samaritan in public.
And she is not there at a normal time of day, either. Which leads into the second observation.
2 - Who is this woman? My guess is sheprobably feels alone and isolated from her community. But Jesus connects with her, so carefully to draw her attention to his message without focusing on her current station in life. Back then the women were in charge of getting water for the day. And they usually went together, in a group. in the morning or in the evening. This is highlighted in verse 6:
Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
So there is a specific reference to the time of day, which probably would not have been mentioned if it didn’t provide some context as to why she is there alone, in the heat of the day. at an odd time of day to be fetching water. And Jesus is there and asks her for a drink. After she counters with her hesitation - “how can you ask me for a drink, you’re a jewish man, I’m a samaritan woman”……Jesus tells her that if she knew the gift of God and who it was that was asking her for a drink, she would have approached him instead and asked him for a drink and he would have given her “ living water”. Later in the scripture, Jesus does a mea culpa, so to speak. He realizes she is suspicious and probably nervous and he tells her to go get her husband and come back, So as to maybe formalize the conversation and eliminate the taboo of their awkward encounter. And this just opens the dialogue even deeper. She acknowledges that she doesn’t have a husband. But before she can provide any explanation, Jesus fills in the details:
Verse 17 & 18:
You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband.
In those days the law did not allow women to divorce their husbands just for the heck of it. The opposite was true, though. Typically, only the man could request a divorce. So this notion that she may have had a rough past is probably not her fault. She could have easily been divorced by her previous husbands, rejected by them. She could have lost husbands to death from war or disease. But John does not provide any more details to her situation and Jesus beings to engage her in a discussion about worshiping God.
3 - Water is the undisputed source of life,Water is physically required by all humans.
Let me paint the picture here so we can understand man’s desire for water during this time period.
Paved roads are a luxury. They are easy on our tires, make the ride more comfortable. There was a time when people traveled by foot or by animal. On dirt roads. Long dusty dirt roads. Have you ever been hiking or camping out in our beautiful national forests during the summer. We have done it a few times as our girls have gotten older. Its so dusty and dry in some places that a bottle of fresh clean water takes on a new meaning. I feel like when were are out hiking.. I drink a lot of water. When I have a chance to quench my thirst, I can probably down this whole thing in a few seconds. Nothing satisfies better. I can’t imagine what it must have been like during the time of Jesus when fresh water was not readily available out of a tap to put in our convenient plastic bottles. You had to hike, out to a well somewhere with a bucket or down to a spring or river and fetch a provisional amount of water for consumption or cooking, or cleaning. And then probably return several times during the day. Unfortunately, this is still a common task for many people around the world today. So being thirsty was always on the minds of the people of that day. But Jesus speaks of living water. He has her attention.
However, our polite but gutsy woman pointed out the obvious: "You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?" (John 4:11).
To quench her spiritual thirst, Jesus first confesses the truth about plain regular water: "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again" (John 4:13). Then Jesus made a bold promise: "Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst"(John 4:14). In one sentence he shifted from everyday life to everlasting life. Wasthis woman ready for that leap of faith? Not quite. She wanted whatever he was offering, but only so she could avoid returning to the well day after day. I understand this motivation. We’re eager to satisfy our physical desires, and often overlook our spiritual needs.
Last and most important piece of this story.
4 - Delivering the message.
Her last bit of cynicism and suspicion extends from his knowledge of her marital status and she puts the final test to him in verse 19:
I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
Believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. ...
The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers 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 truth.
Her last hesitation challenges his explanation about God.
Well.. I know there is a messiah coming some day, and when he gets here, he will explain everything.
She goes and tells her village that she may have met the messiah. She has no authority or education that would validate her claim in the eyes of the other residents of her village. Verse 28:
Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?”
She is an outcast, not a respected member of society. And yet her enthusiasm is all that is needed to convince them to come see this man. I sometimes feel that way about talking about my faith with other people. It’s not an educated faith. It’s not an experienced faith. I have no credentials that would back up any of my claims. But I’m not discussing religion. Our woman from the well is not discussing religion. Man invented religion as way to get to God. She is talking about her encounter with Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God’s way to get to man. And what does he do there? He seeks and accepts hospitality. He engages in conversation, conversation that does not remain at the level of comparing beliefs and practices but rather moves on to bear witness to God’s desire for people who worship in spirit and truth, that is, for people who love God and are loved by God and who are, just so, alive and free and without fear. He makes connections with people. He finds friends. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). As disciples of Jesus, we too are sent into the world ... to be witnesses to the desire of God among those who are close and familiar to us, certainly, but also among those whom we might be tempted to regard as “other” – among our Samaritans, whoever they might be. Certainly, there are Christians today for whom we might say that Muslims, people other faiths, immigrants are their “Samaritans”: they regard them as Others, religiously and politically suspect, people to be suspicious of and held at arm’s length.
But the way of Jesus runs through foreign territory, through the territory of the outsiders…until the outsider becomes a believer, the believer becomes a follower, the follower becomes a disciple and the disciple spreads the message of Jesus Christ. Amen