February 22, 2008 Leave a comment
3 Lent Yr A, 24/02/2008
Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“Jesus and the Samaritan Woman”
PRAYER: O God, the well-spring of life, pour into our hearts the living water of your grace, that refreshed by you, we may live this day in steadfast reliance on the strength you give; through our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.* Wow! What a story in today’s gospel! It is one of the longest conversations with an individual in all of the gospels. It’s a wonderful, surprising, remarkable story because Jesus says and does some exceptional things, which go far above and beyond predictable, Jewish customs, traditions, beliefs and practices. Jesus in this story reveals the uniqueness of his identity as Messiah and Saviour of the world. I invite you to join me now as we take a closer look at some of the rich insights of this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman.
First of all, John tells us that Jesus, unlike so many devout Jews of his day, did not avoid travelling in Samaria. You see at this time in history, Jews and Samaritans were enemies. The Jews looked down on Samaritans as half-breeds, not purely Jewish. They also looked down on them because the Samaritans only regarded the first five books of the Bible as authoritative scripture and they thought that the true place of worship was on Mount Gerizim, where they once had built a temple, but it had been destroyed in 128 B.C.
It is noon, burning hot, Jesus, in his humanness, is tired out and thirsty. He stops at Jacob’s well, at the Samaritan city of Sychar—most likely the same place that centuries before was called Shechem, north of Jerusalem, which had been part of the old northern Israelite kingdom. In the heat of the day, a Samaritan woman, we don’t even know her name, came to draw water. Jesus, then does something totally out of bounds for any other Jewish leader of his day—he speaks to this woman, this Samaritan woman in a public place, saying: “Give me a drink.” Any male, Jewish, religious leader wanting respect would never speak to a woman, including their wife, let alone a Samaritan woman in a public place. This was a shocking, radical, unexpected thing to do. The Samaritan woman, realizing this, answers Jesus, expressing her surprise: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” And John adds for readers unfamiliar with the customs of that day this detail: “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”
Jesus as the Messiah and Saviour of the world demonstrates here that he refuses to accept the traditions and customs of the Jews that placed a barrier between Jew and Samaritan and male and female. He came to remove such walls and divisions of the past as the true Messiah and Saviour of the whole world.
Jesus then continues the conversation, now offering the Samaritan woman “living water,” which, at first, she thinks Jesus is still speaking about the water in Jacob’s well and wonders how he can get the water out of such a deep well without a bucket. Jesus however, speaking on a spiritual level promises that those who drink of the living water will never be thirsty again: “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Centuries before, Jeremiah referred to God himself as “the fountain of living water,” (Jer 2:13; 17:13). And in the book of Proverbs 13:14, we learn of this promise: “The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, so that one may avoid the snares of death.” Water, of course, is also the symbol in this Gospel for the sacrament of baptism. Here, however, according to Professor Walter Brueggemann: It is clear that the gospel narrative has taken the concrete-material reality of water and transposed it into a metaphor. Water is now gospel; water is the good news. Water is sign and symbol that in Jesus we are given a new quality of life, as the text says, “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” This is extraordinary good news that in the life of this defeated woman, durable quenching is possible. It was outrageous good news that from the hard rock of a failed life durable quenching happens, good news for ancient Israel in the wilderness, good news for the woman thirsting for a better life, good news for us in a culture of paralyzing anxiety.1 Jesus as living water gives us eternal life, abundant life, which starts right now, and flows on without end.
After Jesus offers the Samaritan woman this living water, she asks Jesus for it, and Jesus responds by sending her on the task of fetching her husband and bringing him back. She tells Jesus that she has no husband. He is very pastoral in his next comment to the woman, affirming her for telling him the truth, yet, at the same time, confronting her with the truth of her past marital history and her present status. Notice here that Jesus is not condemning her for having five previous husbands and not being married to the present man she is living with. Rather, he merely states the truth of her past history and present situation. This is very instructive for us too. We should not draw the conclusion based on an argument out of silence that the woman was sexually immoral given her past history. Indeed, as some feminist scholars have observed, we have no detailed information on the sexual history of the woman or her previous husbands, therefore we should not jump to the wrong conclusion that the woman was sexually immoral. Jesus does not make such a comment or judgement, therefore neither should we. Rather, Jesus states the truth in a way that invites the woman to respond.
Notice then that the woman does not walk away because she feels condemned. Nor does she feel that she needs to respond in a defensive way. Rather, she remains in conversation with Jesus, likely surprised at what he had just told her, and realising that this was no ordinary person, admitting that he was a prophet, and then raising a theological issue concerning the appropriate place to worship God—is it Mount Gerizim or Jerusalem? Those in our society or community who feel like outcasts; who feel that they are the subjects of malicious gossip; who are ostracized and condemned by others; these ones need Jesus and his love as much as the rest of us. The way Jesus handles this situation with the Samaritan woman is a perfect example of how we can offer pastoral care to the outcasts of our day. We, like Jesus, can speak the truth without condemning others, and then invite those who hear the truth to respond to it, like the woman of Samaria.
Jesus then takes the Samaritan woman’s statement seriously and explains what true worship really means. I like the way professor and pastor, Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “Believe me woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem. You worship guessing in the dark; we Jews worship in the clear light of day. God’s way of salvation is made available through the Jews. But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re 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 the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”
In other words: Cities, states/provinces, nations, and denominations are not holy. God is holy. God’s people are holy. No more artificial divisions—Jews/Samaritans, Protestant/Catholic, Presbyterian/Lutheran—no more divisions to separate human beings one from another—good news—gospel.2
In response, to Jesus’ truth concerning true worship, and the truth of his own being, the woman now continues the conversation by saying the whole truth shall be proclaimed when the Messiah comes. Jesus then gives her the greatest surprise of her life: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
The woman, there and then is never the same again. Joyfully surprised and shocked at this revelation from a conversation about the truth to meeting The Truth Himself; she leaves her water jar behind—perhaps a symbol of her old way of life before meeting up with Jesus, and goes back to the city and preaches the Good News. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” That truth-telling, which came from Jesus The Truth; that Gospel preaching went right into the hearts, minds and lives of many Samaritans who heard the woman preacher. God’s Spirit was at work in their spirits to draw them into a living encounter with Jesus The Truth. They too, with that Samaritan woman came to “know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.”
To this day, that nameless Samaritan woman, the first unexpected evangelist, is revered in many cultures. In southern Mexico, La Samaritana is remembered on the fourth Friday in Lent, when specially flavoured water is given to commemorate her gift of water to Jesus. The Orthodox know her as Saint Photini, or Svetlana in Russian. Her name means “equal to the apostles,” and she is honoured as apostle and martyr on the Feast of the Samaritan Woman.3
You never know how Jesus will surprise and reveal his truth to you. In the Lenten wilderness of temptations aplenty and countless sins, which nailed Jesus to the cross; there is good news; life transforming news. Jesus the living water; Jesus The Way, The Truth, and The Life, comes to us through word, water, bread and wine to satisfy our deepest hunger and thirst; to give us free, abundant life, full of Spirit. We, like that Samaritan woman are never the same again as we worship and serve God in spirit and in truth. Like her, we are invited to respond by spreading the Good News of Jesus to everyone. Amen.
* Prayer cited from: A New Zealand Prayer Book (Hastings, New Zealand: HarperCollins Publishers Inc. & HarperSan Fransisco, 1989 & 1997), p. 92.
1 Walter Brueggemann & Anna Carter Florence, Editor, Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), p. 141.
2 David E. Leininger, Lectionary Tales For The Pulpit: Series VI Cycle A (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc., 2007), p. 64.
3 David E. Leininger, ibid, p. 64.