BIBLE READING: John 4: 5-42
Jesus does a lot of travelling in John’s gospel. He makes the trip to Jerusalem, not once, but several times. By the fourth chapter, he has in fact already been there, overturning tables in the Temple. At the point where our text begins today, Jesus has been in the Judean countryside with his disciples. The Pharisees have noted that the baptisms overseen by Jesus are now more than those performed by John. Learning of this prompts Jesus to head back north to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria.
As with so much in John’s gospel, there is more than one way to read this innocuous statement. Going through Samaria is indeed at this time the fastest way to get back to Galilee from Judah. But the Greek word translated here as “had to” is the same used elsewhere in this gospel to indicate what God wills, intends, to happen. And if it is God’s will, it is Jesus’ also. And so he goes.
They arrive, tired and hungry, at the Samaritan city of Sychar. Jesus stays sitting by Jacob’s well while his disciples go to the city to buy food. With the words, “It was about noon.” the scene is not only set, but the drama about to begin is foreshadowed. Now, since all of you are of course faithfully reading and meditating on the Lenten bible studies, you will have already read of Nicodemus’ nocturnal encounter with Jesus in chapter 3. When we are told that Nicodemus comes by night, we are cued ahead of time that he is in the dark. Here the Samaritan woman enters at the brightest part of the day.
She comes to draw water from the well and Jesus, without hesitation, asks her for a drink. It is she who hesitates, drawn up short in shock. Her responding question and the author’s aside let us know that Jesus has just crossed some major social boundaries.
First of all, it is not considered proper for a man to address a woman in a public place. Hence, the disciples’ astonishment upon their return that Jesus is engaged in conversation with a woman.
Second, Jesus is a Jew and she is a Samaritan. The rift between these two peoples began over 700 years before when the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, removed its people, repopulated the area with five other conquered peoples and renamed it Samaria. The people of Samaria were instructed in the worship of Yahweh, yet they also continued to worship the gods of their native cultures. Years later, the Samaritans resisted the insistence that the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem was the only true place of worship and built a shrine on Mt.Gerizim, which Jewish troops destroyed just over a hundred years before this encounter at the well.
To the typical Jew of the time, this unnamed Samaritan woman would not have been worth a second glance. Jesus sees her and asks her for help. Already he models a giving up of power and privilege for the sake of the other, an act that will come to full glory on the cross and in death, an act that the church is commissioned to take up.
Jesus continues with the conversation: 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.’
Intrigued by what kind of water Jesus refers to – fresh, running water or life-giving water – she decides to take the bait and continue the conversation. Focused still on the first meaning of living water, Jesus pushes her towards the second. She perceives that what he offers her is something she does need but it is not until Jesus revels his knowledge of her past and present marital status does she grant him the status of a prophet.
Much has been made by commentators about the reasons for this woman’s five husbands and current state, most of it laying the blame at her feet for moral laxity, which revels more about the commentators than it does about the woman. The reasons, which could very well include infertility, do not concern Jesus. He does not judge her. He is offering to her what she needs in order to come to trust in him. It is this that gives me much hope for the church. When we get off track, as we have done and no doubt will do in future, our story tells us that Christ will come and offer to us what we need in order to trust again, in order to re-turn to God.
And the Samaritan woman’s growing trust comes to light as she seeks an answer from Jesus about an important question for her people – where is the true place of worship? Jesus’ answer does not solve this dilemma, his answer abolishes the entire problem. It is the spirit of worship, not the place that matters to God. Dividing walls tumble, the possibility of impossible connections are glimpsed and the Samaritan woman catches sight of just who it might be that said to her, “Give me a drink.” She states her knowledge of the coming Messiah. Jesus himself, for the first time in the gospel, confesses to her, “I am.”
It is at this moment that the disciples return. The woman leaves her water-jar as a spring of water begins gushing up to eternal life within her, a spring from which others will also soon draw life-giving water. She returns to the city, likely to the very people the disciples of Jesus have just bought food from, and gives witness to whom she has just encountered. She foreshadows Mary’s testimony to the disciples of her encounter with the resurrected Christ. ‘Come and see’, the Samaritan woman implores her people. And her passionate testimony impels them to find out for themselves.
Meanwhile, Jesus has lost his appetite. The disciples, oblivious to what has just occurred, try to get Jesus to eat. But he has feasted on doing what he had to do – the will of the One who sent him. The response of the Samaritan woman, has reenergized him. Laying down power in asking for a drink, he has gifted her with living water and her responding trust has fed I AM. Eventually, the response to Jesus’ continuing overturning of tables will be death on a cross. But we are gifted with the knowledge that there is a response even to that.
Jesus goes on to give the disciples (that’s us) a wake up call. There is much pain and division in need of healing. There are souls yearning to hear and see the good news Jesus brings and is. There is an unnoticed, unnamed Samaritan woman we could learn a thing or two from. Including, like John the Baptist, her willingness to diminish in importance as her people make their own connection with the Saviour of the world.
We can expect that our encounters with Jesus will challenge our comfortable existence. We can expect to taste and see that God is good. We can expect trouble. We can expect our role as sign and foretaste of God’s reign to be important but not the be all and end all…that is Jesus – our present, our future, our hope. Come and see….