As Christians, we claim it as our sacred text.
We read it. We study it.
We tell ourselves and each other that somewhere in all of this is God’s word to us. But, the truth of the matter is it is often hard to understand and to make sense of the Bible. Because of who we are and where we live and the lapse of time between then and now and the tremendous difference in cultural norms, we often miss the tension and the nuance and, therefore, the provocative and often powerful message woven into the narratives we so reverently read. So many of the stories about Jesus or stories told by Jesus pushed the boundaries and challenged the of religious orthodoxy and cultural expectation of his day.
And, so it is with this morning’s narrative from John’s Gospel which is our scripture reading for today. But, before I read it and risk having your eyes glaze over and you get lost in the back and forth between the unfolding story and the Christology which the author of John’s Gospel weaves into it, allow me to set it up for you just a bit. The story is an interaction between Jesus and a Samaritan woman.
- Samaria is a region of Israel between the Sea of Galilee to the north, which was the location of much of Jesus’ ministry, and Judea and Jerusalem to the south. To travel from Galilee to Jerusalem you had to either go through or around Samaria.
- Even though Samaria was a part of Israel, as a result of the Babylonian exile around 600 BCE, political and religious differences arose between the Samaritans and the rest of Israelites. At the time of Jesus, as it had been for hundreds of year before, Jews looked down on Samaritans considering them unclean and alien and politically suspect.
That is the big picture.
And, here is the rest of the story.
- He is a Jew. She is a Samaritan.
- He is a man and considered a rabbi. She is a woman.
- There was no reason for them to speak to each other and every reason for them not to.
- In a culture where only men can initiate marriage and divorce, she has been thrown away by five husbands, and now is being used by a man who won’t commit to her.
- Single women and orphans occupied the lowest rung on the social totem pole. Often left to fend for themselves with little or no family or community support. They are the ones whom Jesus is speaking about when he uses the term “the least of these.”
- In a culture where women draw water from the well in order of social status, this woman arrives at Noon to draw her morning water
Are you beginning to get the picture?
Now, here is the story.
Jesus left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son, Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired from his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about Noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “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.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I 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 woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship [God] neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship [God] in spirit and truth, for [God] seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship [God] must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of [the One] who sent me and to complete [God’s] work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They 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.”
There are numerous ways to go with this passage, aren’t there.
What it means to experience Jesus as living water or as the bread of life.
What Jesus means by eternal life.
What it means to worship God in spirit and in truth.
What it means to say God is not confined to the Temple in Jerusalem or a particular mountain in Samaria or even to any particular church or synagogue or mosque or temple, including this one. But, here is what struck me as I read and thought about this passage again this past week.
It was a Samaritan.
It was a woman.
A woman who, in all likelihood, had been both used and abused.
A woman not just down on her luck, but a woman who, if she had ever had any luck at all in her life, that luck had long ago run out.
It was a woman who others barely even saw or acknowledged.
It was that woman with whom Jesus had this conversation.
And, not just a “Hello. How are you?” conversation, but a respectful conversation with a woman who had never received any respect. An honest conversation. An engaging theological conversation like one would have with other rabbis. In John’s Gospel, the longest theological conversation Jesus has with anyone. Talk about breaking down stereotypes and boundaries.
Then this happens.
It was that woman…
As broken and as flawed and as wounded and as dismissed by others as she was, who brings others to Jesus. Who helped others experience God in a way they had never done before.
It was not Pat Robertson.
It was not Paul Alcorn.
It was not Franklin Graham.
It was not William Barber.
It was the one person everyone would least expect.
So, here is what I am saying.
For a hundred different reasons, we sometimes allow our internal perceptions and the expectations of others and the chipped and fragile parts of our own lives get in the way of our being the conduit through which others experience God thinking and saying to ourselves “How can God use someone like me or a situation like this to be that person; that moment through which others…
See their lives and all life in a totally new way.
2000 years ago the story was about an unnamed woman.
Today, the story that waits to be told is about you and me.