Sunday, February 24, 2008
John 4: 3-42 (Samaritan Woman)
For those of you keeping track, this is the third Sunday of Lent. On the first Sunday, we talked about the story of Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness. And Christians throughout the centuries have generally considered it a good thing that Jesus didn’t go along with Satan’s suggestions.
But you have to admit that if Jesus had performed that “jumping from the temple and letting the angels catch him” trick, he probably could have avoided uncomfortable situations like the one we are hearing about this morning.
If Jesus had fallen from the top of the temple and been rescued by angels, the religious elites would have seen it. They would have known that Jesus was the Messiah and the message would have spread quickly from the top down.
But for some reason, Jesus chooses to reveal himself from the bottom up. And for a first-century Jewish rabbi, the bottom doesn’t get much lower than an adulterous Samaritan woman.
Jesus, of course, frequently breaks the rules. Frequently moves beyond the boundaries established for respectable Jewish folk of his day. He obviously did not agree with the current rabbinic saying that it is “better to eat the flesh of swine than to eat Samaritan bread.”
And considering that Jesus holds an extensive theological conversation with this woman—the longest recorded conversation Jesus has in the Bible, we can assume he also disagreed with the rabbis who argued that it is “better to bury the Torah than to entrust it to a woman.”
And we can also assume Jesus was not part of the “bruised and bleeding Pharisees” group. These were religious leaders who would close their eyes when they saw a woman coming down the street. You figure out why they were “bruised and bleeding.”
When we talk about this story we like to point out the animosity between Jews and Samaritans. We tend to focus on how gracious Jesus was to overcome his group’s prejudice and reach out to this woman. The truth is, the Samaritan’s didn’t like the Jews either. She had equal barriers and prejudices to overcome here.
But in the end, this Samaritan woman emerges as one of the great heroes of the faith. Feminists love her. Evangelicals love her. Evangelical feminists really love her. Many people consider her the first Christian evangelist—spreading the good news of Jesus to her entire village.
It is true—we just heard the story—that the people of her town come to proclaim Jesus as the savior of the world. But you might have noticed in the story that the woman herself never makes such claims. In fact, as we eavesdrop on this conversation at the well, it is difficult to tell what this woman believes about the impertinent man who is disrupting her daily routine.
At first, she tries to dismiss him. “You’re a Jew and I’m a Samaritan. We shouldn’t even be talking.”
But he doesn’t go away. He says something about giving her water, which is simply ridiculous because, as she aptly points out, he has nothing with which to draw water.
She is a practical, down-to-earth woman. She’s doing a practical, difficult task that must be done to keep herself and her family alive. She’s at the well for water and she doesn’t need some strange man talking nonsense to her.
Like when you’re cooking dinner and the Jehovah’s Witnesses come to the door. You’re not in the mood to have a theological discussion—particularly not with someone who has got it all wrong. You’re really not even in the mood for spiritual enlightenment. You just want to check the noodles and see if they’re done.
So the woman makes yet another attempt to dismiss Jesus. “What, are you greater than our father Jacob?” Jacob who, by the way, met his true love—and second wife—Rachel at a well. Jacob, whose father married a woman that a family servant had found at a well.
I mean, it’s not exactly a singles bar, but in the stories of the faith there seems to be one reason that men talk to women at wells. Jesus may be a rabbi, but this woman indicates that she also knows the Torah.
But Jesus will not be dismissed. He continues to talk about living water—about water from a flowing spring rather than a dug well. The kind of fresh, clean, easy water that anyone living in a desert would be happy to have access to.
So, thinks this Samaritan woman, maybe he can offer living water. Maybe he knows about a source nearby that we haven’t found yet. So she asks him for some of this water.
It’s at this point that Jesus pulls what really seems like a dirty trick. He tells her to get her husband. He knows she’s had five husbands. He knows that the man she “has” now is not her husband. But he says, “Go get your husband.”
As we all know, this is not a polite move in the conversation. Maybe the water cooler gossip suggests that Bill is cheating on his wife. You don’t really know Bill, but you know who he is. You find yourself alone with him at the water cooler one afternoon, and after a few niceties you say, “So, Bill. What does your wife think about you having an affair?”
There are just some things you don’t bring up with someone unless you are really good friends. And even then it’s tricky. Pretty much anything having to do with sex probably falls into this category.
So even by twenty-first century standards—let alone first century—Jesus is really out of line. But the woman doesn’t stomp off. Maybe, she thinks, he just doesn’t know. Maybe he just wants to meet my husband. So she simply says, “I have no husband.”
But then, Jesus lays out the nitty gritty details of her life. Maybe. Maybe there is an extensive part of this exchange that John does not record. But if we simply go with the text as it is, Jesus does not know anything about her that everyone in town doesn’t already know.
She’s had five husbands. She currently “has” a man who’s not her husband. The Samaritans were a small religious minority—kind of like Mennonites. They lived together in a tight-knit community. Think of any of those Mennonite towns in western Kansas. If you grew up in a small community, think of that.
Now tell me that this woman was truly shocked that someone knew about her sordid past. News like that gets around. Just because you don’t know this stranger at the water cooler doesn’t mean that he doesn’t know you.
So I have to wonder—now this is just conjecture mind you—but I have to wonder if there is a touch of sarcasm in her voice when she says, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet.”
And then she decides that turn around is fair play. He pulled a dirty trick on her; now it’s her turn. “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain.”
Notice the past tense? The Samaritans don’t worship on Mt. Gerazim anymore, because the Jews destroyed their temple about 120 years before this conversation. It was an ugly and uncomfortable history between the Samaritans and the Jews. And rather than politely avoiding the conflicts, this woman is highlighting them.
Rather than being offended or getting defensive, though, Jesus tells her that the place of worship actually doesn’t matter. That God desires us to worship in spirit and truth. We like to quote this, and it sounds good now. But it must have sounded strange to this woman. Because she doesn’t buy it. She says, “Well, when the Messiah comes, he will explain everything.”
Like when children have a disagreement and one of them finally says, “Let’s just ask Mom.” Like when you are tired of arguing with someone about something, so you just say, “Well, only God knows.”
This Samaritan woman is not saying that Jesus is the Messiah. She’s saying that the Samaritans and Jews will just have to wait for the Messiah to sort out this worship conflict.
And Jesus says, “I am.” As in, I am the Messiah. As in, I am who I am—echoes of the burning bush encounter.
And it is at this climactic moment that the disciples return. Hollywood couldn’t have scripted it better.
I imagine that the woman was relieved. How was she supposed to respond to what she had just heard? And as the disciples are bugging Jesus about eating something, she takes the opportunity to run off.
She tells the people in town about Jesus and is thus heralded by many as the first evangelist. But her witness is pretty pathetic. “There’s this guy by the well who knows about my . . . uh . . . history. No way he’s the Messiah.”
One has to wonder if her intent is to recruit followers for Jesus or to organize a posse to run this crazy guy and his disciples out of town.
A model of faith she is not. But she is curious. She is a little more open-minded than she was at the beginning of the story. She is willing to share and discuss her experience with other people in her community.
And the townspeople are drawn into her curiosity. They come out to the well to see Jesus for themselves. They actually like him enough to invite him to stay for two days so they can get to know him better.
We don’t know what happened over the course of those two days. Probably many many conversations—some of which might have been as uncomfortable as that initial one at the well. Probably someone finally did give Jesus a drink. And Jesus offered them living water.
And slowly, as they got to know Jesus and his disciples, the people of Sychar were able to accept that living water. And the message in that town changes from “This guy can’t be the Messiah” to “this man really is the savior of the world.”
This transformation of faith did not come from the top down, but from the bottom up. These Samaritans did not have individualistic faith based on some spectacular miracle they had seen—no temple to fall from in Sychar.
Rather, their faith came through their willingness to listen to each other and their willingness to spend time listening to Jesus. Their faith developed in the midst of prejudices; in the face of a messy history; at the urging of one of the least respected in their group.
It’s not the awesome faith inspired by watching angels swoop to the rescue. It’s not the immediate, certain, miraculous faith we usually attribute to the woman at the well. But it seems to me that the slow, perplexing, hard-won faith of a community is a miracle in it’s own right.