So Jews and Samaritans had a centuries-old rivalry: Cousins (almost, one would say, brothers and sisters) who really could not get along. Why Jesus chose to go through rather than around Samaria the story doesn’t say. It was the most direct route, but the story just tells us they had to go that way. They stopped at a place called Sychar, where Jacob their mutual ancestor [the ancestor of the Jews and of the Samaritans] had built a well. The disciples went into town to get supplies, and Jesus rested by the well. The stage is set for a memorable encounter.
A Samaritan woman comes out from the city to draw water. She is alone in the middle of the day, which suggests that she is not welcome in the city—a bad character. Jesus asks her for water, an amazing request given that he is a Jewish male. I have wondered if he might have been able to order her to give him water, so that the surprise came in his courtesy. I don’t know.
In any case the request leads to conversation, in which she reveals her outcast state and Jesus reveals his true identity as the Messiah. Jesus shows himself as one who is greater than Jacob, their mutual ancestor, and as one who can satisfy the deepest human needs, not just the immediate need for food and drink. As the conversation moves into matters of the Spirit, Jesus points beyond human worship [this mountain, Mount Gerizim, or Mount Zion—in which exchange Jesus affirms himself as a Jew, with the true worship of God in Jerusalem, verse 22] to worshipping God in spirit and in truth.
In this last exchange Jesus makes it clear that the answer to her question of where they should worship God is a secondary issue—verses 21 and 23—and that the real issue is how they worship God. The real issue is their relationship with the true God, who comes in the Messiah. The woman affirms her belief in the Messiah, and Jesus reveals himself to her in his closing words, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
There are so many things going on this passage that we cannot deal with, so we confine ourselves to our Lenten theme. The movement between human thirst and divine thirst (verses 7-15) gives the theme for this Sunday of Lent: “We thirst.” The woman thirsted for food and drink, physical needs. She thirsted for relationships, a stable family life, for emotional needs. She thirsted most of all for someone who understood her to the core and accepted her as she was, for spiritual needs.
We also thirst. We thirst for physical security, for relational fulfillment, and for communion with God.
The passage begins with a comment on baptism: “Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John—although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples.” These baptisms were the cause of his trip from Judea north. Somehow the whole episode is connected to baptisms.
The connection is chronological, rather than logical. Jesus was not ready for the full-blown confrontation that he knew was coming, so he left the area. But baptism is still the precipitating factor: baptisms of repentance, which would lead to the baptism of the Spirit. Further, Jesus’ disciples baptized with water, and water links the baptisms with the woman at the well. Water from the well satisfied physical thirst. Jesus the living water satisfies our thirst for God. We are baptized with water, symbolizing our union with Jesus in his death and resurrection.
So baptism stands as a continuing symbol of Jesus the living water who meets all of our needs—physical, emotional, and spiritual. But there is a question: How to we receive this living water? The Samaritan woman clearly received Jesus. How do we do this? How do we receive this inner well that springs up into eternal life (verse 14)? A passage that may give us some help is found in Psalm 1.
First thought: Psalm 1 was one of the first passages of Scripture I learned as a young boy.
1 Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, 2 but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. 3 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.
Verse two answers our question by saying that the righteous person is one who mediates on God’s law continually. In New Testament terms, we could quote Jesus telling the disciples to “abide in me as I abide in you.” Verse three adds that such abiding makes us “like a tree planted by streams of water, blossoming and bearing fruit, and prospering in all he or she does.”
So we become this person by meditating on God’s Law and God’s Son so that we are planted [the word means “transplanted”—taken from a place without water and re-planted] beside the river of water that is Christ. The Samaritan woman moved from desolation to a life of joy and fulfillment when she met Jesus. She was planted by the river, drawing on the living water in all of her life.
But verse 3 contains a continuing problem. We all know someone who has walked with God and suffered greatly. “Whatever that person does will prosper”—these are hollow words when we look at the heartache that many in our own church family have experienced. Taken the wrong way, they suggest that our misfortune is our own fault, which is I believe a misreading of what Scripture says.
I first preached on this passage about 35 years ago. I was a young pastor in Pennsylvania, and I remember sitting in my study wrestling with this third verse. I believe that sometimes misfortunes are our own fault. We make bad choices, and suffer the consequences. I believe that sometimes they are not our fault. We are in the wrong place at the wrong time and something happens to devastate our lives. I do not believe that the righteous person simply has a good and easy life. Reality is just not that way.
As I worked on the sermon, I was unable to resolve the problem this verse gave me, especially in light of the lives of the people in my church—people who loved the Lord, but were struggling with the hardships of life. I left my desk and sat down in an armchair close by to think and to pray. I don’t know what happened then, but the next thing I remember is finding myself beside a hillside—it was not a vision in the sense of a dream; I was simply there. Looking up at the hill I saw three crosses with three men on them. I came to myself again in my room, lying on the floor. I don’t remember lying down. I just remember waking up with the sight of three crosses on a hillside in my mind.
I have never received any other answer to the dilemma of Psalm 1:3—only the cross. It reminds me of what the Samaritan woman experienced. She had problems she might have wanted solved, and instead she met a man who understood her inside and out, and who invited her to worship God in spirit and in truth. Recognizing him as the Messiah, the anointed one sent by God, was all that she needed. Her problems may have remained, but she was a new person.
Similarly, when I stood at the cross with the problems of my congregation and the words of Psalm 1, I needed only to be there. It was, if you will, a reminder of my baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ. We meet Jesus, and Jesus meets our thirst for life and meaning. Our problems remain, but we are different and can deal with our problems.
Second thought: Embracing life on the margins
Like the Samaritan woman we come to church looking for what we need. Maybe we come in confidently, sure of our place. Maybe we hope no one notices us. Someone might look for a time that the doors are open so they can sit and pray without worrying about who might say something to them. We thirst for a renewal of our baptism. We thirst for God’s Spirit to be poured out in our lives, for the living water of Christ.
Something that impresses me in the story of the woman at the well is the way in which God was present with two people who were so marginalized by the larger society around them. On the one side was the woman, coming out in the heat of the day to avoid causing more scandal. On the other side was a Jewish man, who (if she had known it) was avoiding trouble with the authorities in Jerusalem—the son of a carpenter heading home to Galilee. And God was there.
I teach World Religions. Consider the founders of the great religions.
· The Buddha was a prince turned religious leader.
· The Mahavira (found of the Jain religion) was also from a royal family.
· Muhammad came from the family of a clan leader in Mecca (although he was an orphan from the age of two).
Only Judaism and Christianity have founders with slave or servant origins. Moses was a slave raised as the son of Pharaoh, and Jesus was the son (so people thought) of a carpenter in the northern backwater of Galilee. [Jesus was also of the line of David, but from a branch of the family far outside the city of David, Bethlehem.]
I am not arguing for the distinctiveness and truth of Christianity, but observing something simpler and more important. Christian faith comes from the marginalized and for the marginalized of the world. The woman asked if the true centre of worship was Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim—the centres of power as she knew them. Jesus pointed her directly to God, outside the structures of power.
We are accustomed to looking to the centres of power and to influential people for help. God normally comes to us through marginalized people. Alfred Neufeld tells the story of a Frist Nations people in the Chaco of South America (What We Believe Together, 104f). The Guidai-Gosode people are part of a war-loving group known as the Ayoreos. Through missionary contact, they became Christians. When they began reading the New Testament in their own language they discovered the Sermon on the Mount and concluded that they must make peace with their cousins, the Totobie-Gosode, with whom they had had many conflicts. They located them with the help of bush pilots, and then walked into their territory as an unarmed delegation. They decided before they left that some of them would die, because they had killed many of the Totobie-Gosode. Neufeld describes the contact thus: “The first minutes of the encounter were very violent. The Totobie-Gosode killed five of the visitors and badly injured four others from the Guidai-Gosode peace delegation. But when they noticed that their visitors behaved in a completely nonviolent way, the killing stopped, they made peace, and together they returned to the village … to live and learn with their former enemies.”
I did a bit of checking in secular sources and found the incident described, but without any awareness of the gospel of peace. The missionaries simply “sedentarized” the nomadic Gosode peoples, who in turn fought with each other when one group tried to make contact. Both the missionaries and the Gosode were seen as of little worth in the eyes of the writer. But they brought peace where there had been conflict and life where there had been death. For us also, as we embrace those on the margins, indeed, those whom we ourselves have marginalized, God brings us life springing up within us.
We thirst, and we turn to God, and God meets us and transforms us. God comes to us through people we might look down on and meets us and changes us. God makes us people who pursue peace. God makes us people who invite other people into a radical re-orientation of our lives that does not seek to win, but seeks rather to be reconciled with God and with each other.
Steinbach Mennonite Church
19 March 2017
4 Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— 2 although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. 3 So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. 4 Now he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph.6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” 11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” 17 “I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband.18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” 19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” 26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”