In Journalist Phillip Yancey’s book “The Jesus I Never Knew” he talks of being part of a group which looked at the various film presentations of the Jesus story alongside the gospels. One comment that Yancy makes that has always stuck with me is this. ‘AS we watched the movies about Jesus’…”we noticed a striking pattern: the more unsavoury the characters, the more at ease they seemed around Jesus. People like these found Jesus appealing: a Samaritan social outcast,(which we are looking at today) a military officer of the tyrant Herod, a quisling tax collector, a recent hostess of seven demons.’… “In Contrast, Jesus got a chilly response from more respectable types. Pious Pharisees thought him uncouth and worldly, a rich young ruler walked away shaking his head, and even the open minded Nicodemus sought a meeting under the cover of darkness.
The thing that really hit home was Yancy’s reflection on the church today from that… “How strange this pattern seemed, since the Christian Church now attracts respectable types who closely resemble the people most suspicious of Jesus on earth. What has happened to reverse the pattern of Jesus day? Why don’t sinners like being around us?’ Ouch…I thought…that hurts… right.
Yancy illustrated that point by talking of a prostitute and drug addict who when some asked her why she hadn’t gone to the church for help responded “Church why should I go there? They’d just make me feel even worse than I already do!”… ouch…ouch, that really hurts doesn’t it.
My experience is that while there is some truth in that comment and illustration, it is more a caricature of Church, not the reality… people generally find us here and this church a welcoming and healing place. However, we can put barriers up from inside and outside the church, real or imagined… that can keep us and others from Jesus… and as I looked at Jesus encounter with the nameless Samaritan women I can’t help but be aware that Jesus is not put off by the barriers, either the big social barriers or the personal ones we put up, he is prepared and able to cross those barriers to encounter people with love and bring life.
We are working our way through people’s encounters with Jesus in John’s gospel and today. So far we’ve looked at encounters ‘Under the fig tree’, and ‘at night’, today we are going to the well. They are all encounters with Jesus in the everyday life of the everyday people of Jesus day. They show Jesus encountering people from across the spectrum of society in his day. They all show us Jesus offering life and love and revealing the truth of who his is to all these people, and John retells them that we may believe and have life.
If Nicodemus was the ultimate insider at the heart of the religious and social life of Jesus day, the Samaritan women could be said to be the ultimate outsider. Samaria was the old northern kingdom of Israel, when the Assyrians came and conquered it in 722bc they took most of the population into exile and imported other peoples from all over the empire. Those who remained in Samaria intermarried and also there was a intermingling of the various religions that came in. In 2 Kings 17 it tells the story of the Assyrians sending some exiled priests to Samaria to help the people living there to worship the God of that land. But the Jews always considered them an unclean people. They would avoid contact with them. The narrative in John 4 starts by saying that Jesus was almost fleeing Jerusalem for Galilee and so ‘needs must they went through Samaria, the shortest distance to Galilee, whereas pious Pharisees would have travelled the long route. They would not have shared an implement for food or water which is why the Samaritan women is surprised when Jesus asks her for a drink of water.
Secondly she was a woman. Pious Jewish men would not normally talk with women who were not family members in public. It was a segregated patriarchal society. Like many places round the world today it was the women’s roll to go and get water for the family.
Lastly she had come to Jacob’s well which wasn’t the closest to her village, at noon, the normal time for getting water was in the cooler hours of the day. AS her story unfolds we find that she had had five husbands and the man she was living with at the moment was not her husband. She was ostracized for that. Maybe she came at this time and to this well to avoid the painful jibs and down nose looks and cold shoulder silences of the other women. Historically it’s been hinted that this was about sexual immorality, but as Paul Metzger says in an environment where a women’s welfare was dependant on her marriage, and divorce was easy all we know is that she had had a tough life. He sums it up in the classic country song “she’d been looking for love in all the wrong places” and there would have definitely been a barrier when it came to trusting men’s promises.
Jesus is prepared to crosses all those social barriers. Firstly we meet a very human Jesus who is tired and worn out from his time in Jerusalem, and he is left by the well while his disciples go to find food, and he is thirsty in a desert land without the means of drawing water. He is prepared to ask for help. I can’t help but reminded of the parable of the sheep and the goats, where we see that one of the ways people encounter Jesus in the world is in the least, the hungry, the poor, the thirsty, the imprisoned.
The woman is amazed that Jesus would even ask her this. We may have lost some of the satire in her reply… “oh now you a Jewish man will ask me for help when you are in need.” She throws up the barrier of conflict between Jew and Samaritan almost like a defence mechanism. And Jesus reply changes the conversation, he tells her that if she knew who it was talking with her she would ask him for water and he would give her living water.
The Women can’t think beyond the physical and for a desert people living water meant running water, a secure source of life giving water, Psalm 1 picks that up by talking of the people who base their lives in hearing and doing the word of God as being like trees planted by living water, a flowing stream. Jesus is basically saying the same thing to the Samaritan women as he does to Nicodemus. That he is the source of spiritual life, of life for the spirit. He does not say he is the living water because later in John 9 he says the Holy Spirit is the living water that wells up in our lives and fills us and over flows to bring that life to the world around us. But it is Jesus who gives that living water. It’s not that we drink it once and that’s it we will never thirst, but rather that it is the only truly reliable and constant source of new life of abundant life, we do not need another, but we do need to continually allow ourselves to drink from it and let it refresh us.
Maybe some hope has been birthed in the women as she hears Jesus offer. She says she would like that water. Weather she understood it as talking about new life, spiritual water or weather she simply wanted a better more reliable water source we don’t know. But Just like with Nicodemus and Nathaniel Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter. “Where is your husband?” It’s not condemning it’s not the mocking of others, rather as John talked about in John 3 it is bringing light and truth to bear so healing and transformation can happen. Living water, flowing water was preferred in Jewish religious practise for purification and that is what Jesus offers here. The women will later tell people that Jesus had told here everything she had ever done. Her identity and all she was had been caught up in these failed relationships and Jesus is saying that there is life beyond that. Just like we may build our identity round things that don’t give us life… what we have done in the past… our education or our work our mistakes or even our strengths… Jesus points to a life source beyond that. Being accepted and loved by God, finding God dwelling in us by his spirit, bringing new life a chance of the slate wiped clean, health and wholeness, sustenance in the desert lands of our soul.
Her perception of Jesus changes, she acknowledges that he is a prophet and almost to deflect Jesus attention away from herself, but also because it was one of the burning issues of the day. She asks who was right about where one should worship, Jerusalem or the mountain where the Samaritans do. Again Jesus isn’t willing to let that be a barrier for life giving water… he is not going to let those cultural and religious barriers stop this women from receiving living water. His reply is that while the Jews know who they worship and Samaritans do not that because God is spirit that true worshippers will worship in spirit and in truth. It’s not the place but it is in knowing God. Again the women throws up a barrier that of time…That this will be a future reality when the messiah comes. Her hope as with all of Israel is that God would send a saviour, a king and Jesus breaks through that barrier with self-disclosure that he is the messiah, the son of God and that the time is now. He is inviting the women and us into the new reality of knowing God in Christ.
The disciples suddenly turn up at that moment and it gets a bit uncomfortable. But we see the women go and tell what she knew of Jesus, she changes from being outcast and ostracised to being the source of life giving water to her community and they come and Jesus spends a couple of days in that village. God’s love, the life Christ has to offer, new creation cannot be contained it will always well up and over flow even the barriers we put up, with an invitation to receive that new life in Christ and to Come and know and worship the God who loves us.
The question that comes to mind is where do we stand in this story?
I couldn’t help but find myself standing with the disciples, in a sort of uncomfortable foot shuffling, reluctant way. There is that “hey what is Jesus doing talking with that women?” there is that “what are you doing talking with Jesus?” thing happening. I became aware that I put up these barriers around Jesus and his love and who he lets in and Jesus just won’t let that stand. Jesus love and grace is for everyone, it will even overflow the barriers of my comfort zones and prejudices and imagination and you yours. Even though Jesus disciples would have remembered his encounter with the women at the well, in Acts it took persecution of the church in Jerusalem for Jesus disciples to go back to Samaria, where they found that the gospel was readily accepted. If the spirit is that life giving water it will move us along in its flow even beyond the barriers we want to rise to contain it.
Secondly I can’t help but wonder as the people round Jesus that when we feel a spiritual thirst or hunger, that we think it has to do with going to the well to find the living water, we need to dig more and more into God, use spiritual disciples to listen and drink of what the spirit of God has for us. There is truth in that. But maybe also we need to sit at the well… as well. To be in unfamiliar territory and do the will of God, share what we have found, show the grace we have been given, be the living water and we like Jesus will find sustenance in doing that.
Maybe today you find yourselves like the Samaritan women standing on the outside in a desert place, even in the plush suburbs of sub-tropical Auckland, and what you have in your life does not satisfy your thirst. What you have built your identity is dry or leaks. Can I say Jesus is wanting to meet with you and give you that life giving water today. He’s even willing to work through the barriers we put up.
Finally, in way of an answer to Philip Yancy’s critique of the church… a vision of what could be, not my own but that of Ezekiel in the old Testament. Ezekiel is taken to the temple in Jerusalem it is the centre of a restored and new Israel and out of the temple, which symbolised God Presence and which Jesus had told the Pharisees he would destroy and rebuild in three days a spring bubble up. A river starts to flow shallow at first but getting deeper and deeper as it flows from out of the city, into the desert land beyond it, allowing the desert to bloom and grow and have life. May we as a church allow Jesus to take the living water of his spirit and let it flow out of us , pushing down the barriers that stand in it way and bring life to this place and this city, this nation and this world that God loves and has called us to witness to.