BIBLE READING: John 4:5-42 Jesus and the woman at the well
I have shared before some of the artwork of Dr. He Qi. He is the first person from mainland China to have received his Ph.D. in religious art after the Cultural Revolution and is currently an artist in residence at Yale Divinity School. His future plans include the creation of an illustrated Bible that will be published in several languages, including English.
In his artwork, He Qi presents Christian stories and themes to the people of his homeland through images that draw on traditional Chinese painting techniques and folk customs. The manner in which he combines familiar stories and unfamiliar imagery evoke the sort of unsettling emotions that Jesus' disciples must have felt upon first hearing his stories.
Let's look at his interpretation of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. Often He Qi uses very vibrant primary colours to give his paintings the impression of complex movement and life, but in some instances he relies on the more earthy shades of green, yellow, and brown as in this scene. Here Jesus is seated at Jacob's well and a young woman is standing before him; their red mouths accentuate the strange conversation that is about to take place. The central focus of the painting is the outstretched hand of Jesus set against the backdrop of the opening of the well. In one simple gesture – Jesus' reaching out in both compassion and spiritual direction.
There is much about this story that can be said from both a theological and historical perspective. The attitude among Jews towards Samaritans was a source of the bitterness and hatred that extended as far back as 700 years before the time of Christ when the Assyrians destroyed the Kingdom of Israel, removed its inhabitants, and settled communities from five different regions of its growing empire in their place. These outsiders intermarried with the few Israelites who remained. The Samaritans were not Jews, but their claims on such prophets as Moses and Jacob, and on such traditions as Abraham's near sacrifice of Isaac on their own Mount Gerazim, infuriated the Jews who had spent the last five centuries making sure they got it all right, from their worship of God in the Jerusalem Temple to their strict observance of the law.
How unlikely it is, then, that Jesus the Jew would find himself in the company of a Samaritan, and a woman reviled among even her own community. She was the outsider, but as such, she was in the most likely position to hear and respond to the good news that Jesus came to proclaim. And here is what John wants us to see in all its glory: though it was Moses to whom God, the great "I am," spoke in the fire of the burning bush - Moses the most exalted prophet among the Samaritans, Moses who struck the rock at Horeb so that the thirst of the Israelites might be quenched - it was to this lowly woman, this Samaritan, that the Son of God would first reveal his name and mission. There had no doubt been ample opportunity for such a disclosure prior to this time - with his disciples, for example, or even with one who might best understand the theological significance of his calling, Nicodemus. But in the Gospel of John Jesus speaks the first of his "I am" sayings to the one who, in the eyes of nearly everyone who could be asked, was the least deserving of all: "I am he, the one who is speaking to you" (John 4:26).
And this brings me back to the outstretched hand of Jesus framed so neatly in He Qi's painting by the circular mouth of Jacob's well. "I am he." In Jesus' confession of his messianic calling, so much more is being suggested than what this woman could possibly imagine. It reminds us of the prologue of John's Gospel where we are introduced to the wonder of the incarnation itself, the spiritual Word becoming flesh, taking on the elements of creation as his own. Jesus had been with God in the beginning as the Spirit brooded over the face of the deep and called forth order out of chaos. "He was in the world, and the world came into being through him" (John 1:10a). This is the very hand that fashioned humanity from the dust of the earth, and the hand that directed Moses toward the rock at Horeb where water would save the Israelites in the desert. "In his hands are the depths of the earth," the Psalmist assures us. And what we know is that this hand, offered to the most unlikely of God's servants, will soon be the one from which the blood of death, and then the promise of life, will spring on the cross.
Though she had little else to cling to, the Samaritan woman placed great faith and hope in the stories of her religion. She knew that despite her reputation in her community she could still rely on the integrity of her distant past to give her strength. The well from which she drank was in many ways the source of her very identity. But as Jesus makes quite clear, all of this would have to be set aside in the presence of the Messiah.
Jesus' words still ring true today, in a world where more times than not we rush to our own wells of nationalism or religious and ethnic pride for what we hope will be the water of life. "[T]he 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" (John 4:24). From the outstretched hand of Jesus, and from extending our own hands to others in our global midst, we drink from living waters and offer to God our most holy praise. But the point that we need to remember, and now more than ever, is that this faithful response to God issues not from Gerazim or Jerusalem, not from Israel or Palestine, not from Baghdad or Washington, certainly not from Canberra or Macquarie Street but from the very image of God which we all bear, regardless of our national or religious origin.
It is important that we don't overlook the symbolism that reaches all the way back to the dialogue that Moses had with God in the burning bush. The story of God's calling that began in the mystery of fire now ends in the cool and calming waters of life. At Lent, this means for us that the stories of our own lives, messed up as they are with the kinds of shortcomings and failures that could make even the lowliest of Samaritans blush, are cleansed and renewed in the living water of baptism. Our reconciliation with God must be mirrored in our work, in our homes and communities. "Preach the gospel always," Saint Francis once said, "and if necessary use words." Our hope for peace in our lives and in the world today lies at those wells and watering holes, complete with their unsavoury Samaritans, that we tend more to avoid than to seek out. It will only be here, as Jesus demonstrates so well, and as He Qi reminds us so beautifully, that the hand of friendship can be offered and accepted.