Last week John showed us a picture of Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews, taking the risk of going at night to have a conversation with the renegade Galilean preacher Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus invited him to leave behind his comfort zone entirely and be born anew into the abundant life of the kingdom of God. As John’s church endured hostility and exclusion from the synagogue, he wanted to remind them that there were Jewish leaders who recognized that Jesus was sent from God, and that Jesus engaged them and invited them to be a part of his movement. This story takes place in Jerusalem, in the heart and center of Judaism.
The next story, which we are looking at today, has similarities even though it is a totally opposite kind of context. Last week’s story was about Jesus inviting an ultimate insider, Somebody with a capital S, to receive the abundant life of the kingdom of God. This week’s story is about Jesus inviting an ultimate outsider, Nobody with a capital N, to receive the abundant life of the kingdom of God. John clearly saw this pair of stories as important for his community of faith, and I think you’ll see that they continue to be important for us today.
John tells us that Jesus and the disciples left Jerusalem to return to Galilee and that they “had to” pass through the region of the Samaritans. That is not true, and in fact most Jews chose to take the long route around in order to avoid going through Samaritan regions. The most direct route did involve going through Samaria, but for John “had to” is more of a theological statement than a geographical statement.
What lies at the heart of this enmity between Jews and Samaritans? Well, the roots of it went back 900 years or more, and some of it was historical and some of it was the gradual forming of a divide between two groups which didn’t like each other to begin with and always assumed the worst about the other. 900 years before Jesus, the ten northern tribes seceded from the union and formed the nation of Israel. Judah, with the capital of Jerusalem and its Temple, stood alone. Israel didn’t want its citizens to go to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple, so they set up their own worship centers within their borders.
In the history we looked at this fall, both the northern and southern kingdoms were defeated, but by different enemies. Around 700 years before Jesus, the northern kingdom was defeated by Assyria. Some residents of Israel were taken away into captivity, and people from other areas were imported to live in Israel. So there was a mixture of people left, and some intermarriage began to take place. The southern kingdom was defeated by Babylonia 150 years later, and Jerusalem and its temple and its walls were destroyed and many of its citizens taken into exile in Babylon.
50 years later, the Babylonian exile ended and many came back to Jerusalem to try to re-establish homes, community, Temple, and walls. Samaritans were among those who opposed them in this effort, but they were successful. A couple of hundred years later the Samaritans built a rival worship center on Mt. Gerizim in their territory. It was in use for about 260 years and was destroyed around 130 years before the birth of Jesus. Samaritans viewed themselves as Jews. Their Scripture was the first five books of the Bible only, the Pentateuch. There were some differences in beliefs as well. Jews did not accept them as kin in any way. They had nothing to do with Samaritans. They didn’t like each other, but I believe the Jews looked down on the Samaritans. If Twitter had existed at the time, it would have been #SamaritanLivesMatter that made the rounds.
Now, to jump forward to the time after Jesus lived on the earth, Samaritans were among the earliest to respond to the Gospel. When Saul was persecuting the church in Jerusalem and Stephen had been stoned to death for his faith, many of the apostles scattered from Jerusalem. Phillip ended up in Samaria and shared the Gospel and found an enthusiastic response which resulted in the Holy Spirit being poured out upon these Samaritan believers. He sent for help, and Peter and John came. John. And the 8th chapter of Acts says they preached the Gospel in many villages of the Samaritans. John was an important part of this mission, so you can see why it would be important to John for his community of faith to understand the roots of this ministry and its validation by Jesus. His Gospel took written form, remember, 40 or 50 years after the early church mission to the Samaritans, so all who read his Gospel would be familiar with it. In fact, it was old news and the shock of Jesus’ actions in the face of ancient enmities had to be explained to Christians who had not grown up in Israel.
So the story has Jesus and his disciples traveling through Samaritan territory and they come to a town called Sychar around noon. There is a well there, so they stop for lunch and the disciples go off to buy food, leaving Jesus sitting at the well. This is not just any well, it is Jacob’s well, named for the Old Testament patriarch who settled here and lived in ancient times. Ironically, Jacob’s well is in current day Nablus, a Palestinian town in the West Bank, so it is again in territory that Jews avoid.
As Jesus sits beside the well, one of the local women shows up to draw water. Whereas the encounter with Nicodemus took place in the darkness of night, this one will take place in the bright light of noon. Jesus asks the Samaritan woman to pull up a drink for him, and she kind of turns the tables on him. Frequently the other person asks a very straightforward question and Jesus gives a very odd, metaphorical or theological response. The woman says, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan, for a drink?” Given the place of women in society in those days, the first thing that is shocking is that Jesus would speak to her to begin with; but the other shocking thing is the straightforward and challenging response she gives. Your people won’t have anything to do with my people, won’t touch us, won’t share a meal with us. Are you really going to drink out of my bucket?
Jesus gets into the spirit of it and says, “Look, if you knew who you were talking to you would be asking me for living water.” I picture her laughing at this: “Ha! You don’t even have a bucket! And this well is deep! How you gonna get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob who used this well?”
Jesus says, “Everyone who drinks of the water in this well will be thirsty again. But whoever drinks of the water I give them will never be thirsty again. The water will become in them a spring of water which gushes up to eternal life.” The Bible does not have a sarcasm font, but if it did I think it would be used on the woman’s response: “Well, then, give me some of that water so I won’t have to keep coming back here to drag water home time after time.”
Jesus tries another approach, asking her to go get her husband and bring him. She tells him she doesn’t have a husband. Jesus says, “Well, that’s the truth. You’ve had five husbands, and the one you are with now is not your husband.” Some have seen this as judgment upon her morality, but that is doubtful. Women were regarded as property and had no rights. They were not allowed to divorce their husbands. If their husbands died they automatically became the wife of the husband’s brother. So she probably did not have any say in all of this, though it certainly points to an unhappy life of loss or failure or rejection. If Twitter had existed, she might have had reason to post #metoo.
She says, “I see you are a prophet.” Then she tries to change the subject with another theological topic. She pointed to Mt. Gerizim and said, “Our ancestors worshiped on that mountain but your people say you can only worship in Jerusalem.” Jesus said, “The day is coming when neither place will be the center of worship. Worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, the location will not matter.” The woman said, “I know that Messiah is coming and will teach us everything.” Jesus said, “I am he.” I am, the name given to Moses by God at the burning bush. This is the first of the “I am’s” of the book of John, and it is given to a Samaritan woman.
She runs and tells the people of her village and invites them into the abundant life: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They came, they invited him to stay and he did so for two days, and many came to believe. The people of the town said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
This is the only time the word “Savior” appears in the Gospel of John, and it comes off the tongues of the despised, outcast Samaritans. As John has just said in the previous chapter, “God so loved the world that he gave His only Son, that whoever lives and believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” “This is truly the Savior of the world.” If Twitter had existed, Jesus might have posted #allin.
Jesus was willing to cross the cultural and religious boundaries to have a conversation with not only a Samaritan, but a Samaritan woman. Like Nicodemus, the woman started by misunderstanding what Jesus was talking about because she was listening literally. Unlike Nicodemus, she continued to listen, continued to probe, until she came to a place of understanding and to a level of belief which inspired her to be an early evangelist. She took a risk in doing so, not only because of her past but because the testimony of women was not allowed in court and they were not seen as reliable witnesses. Like Philip when he went to get Nathanael, she did not try to convince her neighbors of specific things about Jesus. She just said, “Come and see.” The clarity with which this Samaritan town came to see Jesus far exceeded that of Nicodemus or even the disciples of Jesus who seem totally befuddled by what goes on in this story. “He came to his own home and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name (even Samaritans!), he gave power to become children of God.”
Jesus is interested in everyone, from the highest insider like Nicodemus to the lowest outsider like the Samaritan woman, who is not even given a name. And people like both of these plus everyone in between have responded to the invitation to the abundant life and they come together to make up the church. John’s church, our church, they are a hodgepodge, and that is as it should be. The Temple in Jerusalem is gone. The temple on Mt. Gerizim is gone. Our allegiance is not to a place, it is to the God we worship in spirit and in truth – the one who loved the whole world and all of its types of people so much that he gave his only Son to be the Savior of the world. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
February 4, 2018
Central Presbyterian Church, Anderson, SC