Preached @ Christ Church, Capitol Hill, 3/27/11 John 4:5-42
n today’s Gospel from John, we are gifted, in its entirety, the well-known encounter of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, at Jacob’s well. So often when we hear these stories that are so well-known by many of us, we can easily think: “well, what could possibly be fresh and new and interesting about this story of Jesus and this woman with many ex-husbands?” This is a challenge with most of our Scriptural readings that are familiar: the very nature of their familiarity makes them hard for us to hear anew. And all too often, that familiarity to the story allows us to slip into a literal understanding as opposed to a desire, a thirst, for something broader and more accurate.
To really hear this story we should first make sure that we understand this account of Jesus and the Samaritan woman in context. Jesus has just left the southern area around Jerusalem and is headed to the northern area, Galilee. To get to Galilee he had a choice of travelling directly north for three days through Samaria, or to travel east over the Jordan River and then north, and then back west over the Jordan again, which would have approximately doubled his 80 or so mile trek. The more extended trip taking the road east, north and than west was preferred by many because travelling through Samaria was considered travelling through enemy lands. The Samaritans and the Jews of Judea and Galilee had been at odds with each other for over 700 years, dating back to the capture of the northern tribe by the Assyrians and the intermarrying between the Assyrian conquerors and the northern Jews. Their offspring became known as the Samaritans. Later on the southern Hebrew kingdom was likewise conquered, but there was a fairly large group who refused to inter-marry with the Assyrians. (One of the enmities between these two groups was based in racial purity beliefs.) There is a long and rather sordid history of ugliness between the Samaritans and those who did not inter-marry with their conquerors through those 700 years preceding our story. Many took the longer trip around Samaria rather than encounter individuals they considered enemies, who they would have encountered if they had taken the shorter road directly north.
Think about Jesus’ ministry: he always seems to thirst to push, and change these boundaries we establish for ourselves: to reach beyond the expected and known and explore something new. Going directly through the heart of Samaritan territory is exactly where Jesus would be, if we think about the choices he had before him. Jesus wants to break the mold, break barriers down: he certainly does this with his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.
Throughout history, this story, up to the last 20 years or so, has been interpreted as one where Jesus is talking to a sinful woman. What if, modeling Jesus, we look at this story in a different way: in a manner that a number of more modern scholars have. As opposed to presuming this Samaritan woman was a sinner because of her multiple husbands, we look at what Jesus says and does: he, in no way, condemns her, or judges her in a negative manner in regard to her marital history. There is no indication of morality being questioned in the interchange between these two: individuals interpreting the text with a focus on morality transpose all those judgments onto the text. Perhaps, for example, this woman was stuck in some Leviritical marriage that enforced these circumstances upon her. Be that as it may be, Jesus is really not at all concerned with this part of her life, he instead is focused on something else for which she thirsts: understanding and clarity of how and where God “is” in this world (our temple in Gazrin or yours in Jerusalem, our mountain or your mountain? Where do we worship? This was another area of argument between the Samaritans and the Jews from Judea and Galilee going back hundreds of years.) By dwelling on the Samaritan woman’s supposed sinfulness, we miss what Jesus is really pointing us toward: the wideness of God’s presence, the all encompassing nature of God’s love for us.
What we see here is Jesus expressing his humanity and his desire to break barriers: racial and gender. What we see in Jesus proclaiming the time is now here, is Jesus proclaiming that God’s presence is real and all-encompassing: God is spirit Jesus says and is with us, right now. We are seeing the Gospel becoming universal in this story: God loving this world so very much that the love is amongst us in the person of Jesus….. and in spirit becoming action. Jesus is bringing the Gospel to an outsider and an enemy of those who presumed God’s love was more narrowly focused, and is showing that love as something not theoretical, but is showing that love to be active and real and present.
Perhaps, as more current theologians suggest, this Samaritan woman is John’s model for us of what a developing faith looks like and of what church growth looks like. This Gospel account by John gives us a very clear path of how the Gospel spreads, how this love of Christ we all share, can and does spread. It begins with an introduction to the faith, like Jesus meeting and interacting with the Samaritan woman. As part of that introduction, there is an intimate nearness, a touching of one’s soul that is very difficult to articulate, but we know when it happens to us and we know it when we see it in others. And the next step on this path of evangelism is sharing the discovery, as the Samaritan woman does with her whole town: with no embarrassment or any timidity….and the cycle continues with the townspeople…..and beyond, all the way down through time to us.
What a story for us to dwell in during Lent. As we take this communal journey to Holy Week, are we walking through enemy or foreign territory or taking the familiar long-way round? With those we meet on the way, perhaps supposed mortal enemies, or perhaps simply people we do not understand, are we boundary breaking and evangelizing? Are we pretending to not see that which is right in front of us that, if addressed, would absolutely help the creation of the kingdom Jesus announces…..and palpably show the existence of that universally present Spirit Jesus announces today?....Jesus is reaching out and giving opportunity for an outsider to become part of the fold. Are we doing the same?
Maya Angelou said: “Life is pure adventure and the sooner we realize that fact, the quicker we will be able to treat life as art: to bring all our energies to each encounter, to remain flexible enough to notice, and admit, when what we expected to happen, did not happen. We need to remember that we are created creative and can invent new scenarios frequently, as frequently as they are needed.” That living water the Gospel writer provides us with today, in comparison to the water from Jacob’s well, provides a different kind of life for us, one more in line with the energetic, creative and adventurous life Maya Angelou describes, with all it false starts and stops and starts again. That is the life we should be seeking on our walk this Lenten Season, and is one modeled for us today by this story we hear anew, of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman. Seek out the unknown…..Dismantle fear and prejudice….Let go of the illusion of security that familiarity can engender and embrace the adventure of following Jesus…..Seek out this week a creative evangelism were the love we show is active, real, present. The thirst we feel will be quenched in ways indescribable as we quench the thirst of those we meet on the way.
Copyright 2011, The Rev. John F. Dwyer. All Rights Reserved.