Sermon (Click Link to Listen)
Bible Readings: Psalm 95; Romans 5. 1-11; John 4. 5-42
Focus Scripture: John 4. 5-42
Part 1. Introduction
For some years now, I have been a poor student of Biblical Hebrew. But the rabbi who teaches me has not given up hope. Despite my desire to learn, outliving my performance, there are moments of learning in our conversations.
I remember ,on one occasion we discussed the divine inspiration of the biblical text .The rabbi said with great conviction that,despite what we think we know, not one jot or tittle in the biblical texts is superfluous. Each Hebrew letter has meaning. Even the spaces between words were of consequence.
But paramount in study is to approach the multifaceted text in an open and humble spirit. This thought came to the forefront of my mind as I approached our gospel.
The incident described is a wonderful account of God through Jesus, manifesting His will and love.
We see that on encountering Jesus, who is ….
the very image of the living God…the exact imprint of God’s nature
we are fundamentally and existentially shaken, to the very core of our being.
We see in this incident with Christ, at the well, that the Divine encounter ‘is no respecter of persons‘ and can occur at the oddest of times, in the most ordinary of places, potentially, in the most hostile of locations and that our religious ‘taboos’ are no protection against God’s call.
Our gospel passage records the radicalising and energising encounter between somewhat feisty, maligned and intelligent Samaritan woman with a very tired Jesus….exhausted from his sudden, but prudent exit from Jerusalem.
Today’s reading starts at verse 5 , but the preceding verses set the context:
”Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’— although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria .”
Why did he have ‘to go through Samaria’ ? Generally Jews avoided Samaria. But the eastern route across the Jordan made for a 6 day journey to Galilee. Going through Samaria,with all its risks, was a 3 day journey.
‘But he had to go through Samaria .”
Why this compulsion?
Jesus many times said that He only ever did what He saw the Father doing. Here the Father intimated an intention and for Jesus, doing the will of the Father was life itself… He accepted the guidance…
Jesus steps out in faith….’he had to go through Samaria .”
Going through Samaria was like going through Northern Ireland during the ‘troubles.’ Both conflicts had festered for 400 years.
The situation, in both places, might be relatively calm for weeks ,but there was no knowing when some incident would trigger of mayhem, violence and death. Once you travelled into Samaria or Ulster there was always a risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Samaritans, descended from 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel, +saw themselves as having the ‘true religion’ of the ancient Israelites from before the Babylonian exile. They saw themselves as Preservers/Keepers/ of the original form of Judaism which they believed contrasted with a corrupted Judaism brought back to Jerusalem, from the Babylonian exile, by Ezra and Nehemiah.
Samaritans held very strictly to the Torah of Moses. Only Gen/ex/deut/lev/deut. were inspired writings. No Prophets, No Histories, No Psalm,Proverbs or Writings.
Incidently, Jews did accept many aspects of Samaritan intrepretations of Torah. They accepted Samaritan meat and wine as kosher. Samaritan hygienic laws and habitation laws were also kosher. Samaritan land was also ritually clean so Jews could travel over it . Samaritan water was also kosher.
r.Simeon ben Gamaliel wrote: ‘Every command the Samaritan keeps…they are more scrupulous in observing (Torah) than the Jew.’
but other rabbis declared: ‘He who eats a morsel of the Samaritans(food) is like one who eats pig meat.’
Intermarriage without conversion was out of the question. Samaritan males who converted to Judaism had to be circumcised a second time. Samaritan women were considered always ritually unclean as Jews held that Samaritan women were menstruants from the cradle.
Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well.
Jesus, wearied for an 80-100 mile journey, is in the spiritual heart of Israelites of Samaria….Shechem.
Abraham had built an altar there.
Jacob purchased land there.
The bones of Joseph were buried there.
Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel there…
It was also where Shechem (the son of Hamor)
“took Dinah, Jacob’s daughter ,and lay with her and humbled her.”
Jesus,aware of this spiritual legacy, sits by the ancient well, some 137ft deep, hewn out of solid rock. The (all/John?)disciples go to buy food.
”It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.’ …The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’’
Jesus with His question shattered a barrier…a major religious taboo. He not only spoke to a woman in public; but a Samaritan woman at that. He then compounded the outrage by asking her for a drink of water.
Him sharing a vessel with her for drinking water further compounded His ‘transgression’ … the vessel is ritually unclean.
This woman knew that this man was reaching out over the ancient barricades and though shocked, was independent minded enough to risk engaging with this Jew.
Jesus answered her(with a reassuring smile),
‘If you knew the gift (daria=free gift)of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’
To the Jews living water is flowing water. Water in wells was still and not always fresh.
Like Nicodemus in the previous chapter, and the disciples, when they come back with the Takeaway, the lady of the well takes him literally…..and(keenly) asks:
Where do you get that living water?
Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob,who gave us the well…?’
‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again… The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’
‘Sir,(she said) give me this water…
Before elaborating, Jesus mindful +respectful of the woman’s reputation, but keen to continue this conversation in a proper kosher way says:
‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’
The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’
We now begin to get an insight into this woman’s sad life with 5 failed marriages.
It pains me to hear sermons and read commentaries condemning this woman as an immoral person.
Subconsciously these commentators speak as if she is at fault and responsible for the failure of her marriages.
This is an unwarranted assumption.
A study of historical + social context is essential before risking any judgement on this woman’s actions.
Marriages were arranged. Boys married at 14. Girls could be married from 8-10 yrs of age. These marriages were generally older men, because they could support a family.
In both Jewish and Samaritan society, it was the man who initiated divorce. Many reasons for divorce were unbelievably trite and serving male self-interest…..women were very vulnerable.
Interestingly, a woman had one basic right : she could leave in what she was wearing. Hence the custom of women wearing gold/silver coinage+ jewellery. These kept the wolf from the door in times of hardship/divorce. (The widow searching for her lost silver coin)
Assuming a young girl /woman survived childbirth they generally outlived their husbands and were still young enough to remarry. For a widow had no social standing, no social security nor personal protection outside a family group. Remarriage or some other arrangement was essential to save her from prostitution and/or destitution.
Mary, mother of Jesus, outlived Joseph and Jesus, her eldest son, at death, assigned the responsibility for his widowed mother to John. She went to live with him… without being married to him !
Go, call your husband, and come back.’
The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’
‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’
Notice….No judgementalism from Jesus.
The words of Jesus are affirming: What you have said is true!’
She is perceptive and searching:‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet… ‘I know that Messiah is coming…When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’
She is reaching back to Jesus. She uses the Jewish term ‘Messiah’. Jesus then honours this courageous and tenacious woman,sharing with her His identity: ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you’
In her heart she instinctively recognised truth….. and in the excitement of realisation and acceptance, rushes off telling her people about Jesus, bringing them to Him….so they could see and hear Him for themselves.(Incidentally this is also our task.)
Note ….she had sufficient reputation to be listened to… and followed. Jesus stayed with these ‘enemy’ folk for 2 days.
But he had to go through Samaria .
For a foreign, single woman who had had five husbands, and was now living with a man who was not her husband. She was the one God through Jesus chose to bring a town in Samaria to Him so that they could say, “We have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world”
For me two women, redeemed by love, stand with first prizes in John’s Gospel.
Magdalen who became the first person to meet+ hold the resurrected Jesus.
And this Samaritan woman who became the first evangelist to Samaria.
Just like us, both have histories.
So let us take courage from their testimonies… knowing that our being ‘flawed’ is no barrier against the grace and love of God. Amen.