Sermon preached at Enmore, 3rd Sunday in Lent, 19th March 2017
Readings: Exodus 17: 1–7; Romans 5. 1–11; John 4: 5–42
The author of the Fourth Gospel loves to describe Jesus’ encounters with particular individuals. Last Sunday we read about Nicodemus, the Pharisee, who comes to speak with Jesus under the cover of darkness. Today, in sharp contrast we have John’s description of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman which takes place under the glare of the noonday sun. Nicodemus was a ruler among his community, a man with status and authority. The woman was at the other end of the social scale, carrying a history of broken relationships and regarded with scorn by her community. She comes to draw water at midday to avoid the other women who draw water in the early morning or in the cool of the late afternoon.
The encounter takes place because Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Galilee from Judea. The shortest route to the north was through Samaria and many Jews avoided that road and went the longer way because they did not want to have any contact with Samaritans. The hostility between Jew and Samaritan was of ancient origin. Sychar or Shechem, had been made the capital of the Northern Kingdom around 870 B.C. soon after the division of Israel into two separate kingdoms following the death of King Solomon. It was captured by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. who settled large numbers of non-Jews in the area. Over the years there was a lot of inter marriage, Jew with Gentile so the Jews in the south forever afterwards regarded the Samaritans as impure and refused to have anything to do with them. The Samaritans in response built their own temple and rejected much of the Hebrew Scriptures accepting only the Torah (the first five books) as authoritative. From these roots came the bitterness that existed in Jesus’ day. The irony is that ancient Samaria is now the ‘West Bank’, occupied by Israeli soldiers and locked in continuing conflict with its inhabitants.
Jesus arrives at the city of Sychar with his disciples and wearied by the journey sits down by the well outside the city and sends his disciples off to get some food. Then unexpectedly the woman appears. The barriers that already existed between Jew and Samaritan are now complicated by the additional barrier of gender. The rabbis taught that a man should not talk to a woman in the street or in a public place. Some even refused to acknowledge their own wives in public. There would have remained a very awkward silence between Jesus and the woman had not Jesus asked her for a drink. She is startled by the request and responds, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” She is very aware that by asking her for a drink, Jesus is breaking all the rules that would normally be operating in this situation. Jesus then takes the conversation in an entirely new direction by talking about living water. Mystified, she asks him where can you get this living water? Jesus tells her that those who drink of the living water that he provides will never be thirsty again. The woman then asks Jesus to give her some of this water so that she will not have to keep coming every day to draw it. She has not yet understood that Jesus is talking about spiritual water. The use of water as a spiritual metaphor was common in the Hebrew Scriptures and it is a recurring theme in John’s Gospel as well. In response to the woman’s request for the living water, Jesus again changes the subject and asks her to go and get her husband.
Why does Jesus ask this question? I believe he asked it not to humiliate her but to let her know that despite her past history, which he knew all about, he accepted her as a person of worth. At this point she realises that she is dealing with a person of great insight and assumes Jesus must be a prophet. She thinks, if he is a prophet then perhaps he can answer one of the great questions that divided Jews and Samaritans- where should we worship? The Jews, of course worshipped in the temple at Jerusalem and regarded it as the home of God’s presence. The Samaritans had their own rival place of worship at Mt. Gerizim. Some have suggested that the woman’s question was a diversionary tactic in order to move the conversation away from her personal life to a safe religious topic. But it may well have been a serious question because the woman genuinely wanted to know where God could be found and where forgiveness could be granted. Jesus certainly treats it as a relevant question explaining that the day is coming when God would no longer be worshipped in temples but could be worshipped anywhere.
Eugene Peterson’s modern paraphrase of the text takes some liberties with the Greek but I think captures the spirit of this exchange well: Jesus says “the time is coming, it has, in fact, come-when what you are called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people God is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before God in their worship….Those who worship God must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”
Somewhat overwhelmed by what Jesus is speaking about, the woman expresses her trust that when the Messiah comes he will explain all this in a way she can understand. Jesus then says plainly to her: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” This is the first time that this expression appears in the gospel and it calls to mind the name of God revealed to Moses, “I am who I am.” At this very significant moment when Jesus has revealed that he is indeed the promised Messiah the disciples come back and they are astonished to find Jesus talking to a woman and a Samaritan woman at that. Travelling with Jesus there are always new things to learn. The woman decides it’s time to return home but she is so excited by what she has heard from Jesus that she leaves her water jar behind. Living water has prevailed over the water from the well.
She returns to the city and proclaims to everyone she sees: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” At the conclusion of this episode John adds the comment that many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony. In fact they were so impressed by what she said that they invited Jesus, the Jew to remain with them for another two days and many more became his followers. Good news is worth sharing and when God does something wonderful for us it’s important to pass it on.
So what did John want us to learn from this story, which is the longest conversational narrative that we have in all of the Gospels? First, we see Jesus breaking down the ancient barrier of division between Jew and Gentile, then we see him dismantling the barrier of gender. Jesus enters into dialogue with a woman of dubious morals and relates to her as a person of value and intelligence eventually revealing to her his true identity, which he does very rarely in the gospels. And he does this after revealing to the woman that he knows all about her past. Every Sunday when we come for worship together we say the Prayer of Preparation:
Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hidden: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Like the woman in John’s wonderful narrative, today we can come before God who knows all our secrets, knows all our past and yet discover that he welcomes us and is pleased to call us his own. That is only possible because of the one who came to give us living water that will satisfy our thirst, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.