March 27, 2011
There Jesus was. In Samaria. Talking to a woman. Drinking from her cup. From the disciples point of view it couldn’t get much worse than that.
First of all, the Samaritans and Jews did not get along at all. It was the worst kind of feud, a family one. There had been a civil war in Israel back about 7 centuries before Jesus’ time and neither side had never gotten over it. Both claimed they were the true heirs of Abraham and Moses, and both had set up places of worship. That’s why the woman was talking about who was supposed to worship where.
Most Jews, when traveling between Galilee, where Jesus and the gang lived, refused to even set foot in Galilee. It would be like traveling from Cleveland to Cincinnati without going through Columbus or Franklin County. They despised the Samaritans so much they didn’t even want the dust of Samaria on the souls of their sandals.
The Samaritans had similar feelings about the Jews. Remember that story when the disciples were traveling with Jesus another time through Samaria. They were hungry and went to a local village to get food. But nobody would sell them any food because they were Jews headed toward Jerusalem. So the disciples asked Jesus if he wanted them to call down fire and brimstone on the villagers. Jesus said, “We could do that, or how about we just go to another village.”
So the disciples knew it was already a scandal that they were in Samaria in the first place. But here Jesus was in the middle of broad daylight, where anybody walking by could see him, talking to some Samaritan woman, and drinking out of her cup. It was enough to give any God fearing Jew a heart attack. And they weren’t having an idle chat. This was serious theological conversation going on. With a Samaritan woman!?
And then there were the Samaritans. I can imagine what they were thinking now when that woman came back into the village to tell them about this most amazing conversation she had just had with Jesus.
“He knew everything about me.” “Well, who doesn’t. And is anybody surprised she spent all that time out there at the well with some strange man, a Jew no less?”
She didn’t care anymore about what her neighbors thought, though, than Jesus did about what the disciples were thinking. Something profound, something life changing had just taken place for this woman that broke down all the walls between Jews and Samaritans, men and women, the respectable and not so respectable. He told her about living water that he offers, water that gushes into eternal life. That’s a powerful metaphor for any of us, but think what it must mean for a person who lives in a desert.
She didn’t understand everything he was saying. The living water, worshiping being about the Spirit, rather than the place. But she didn’t have to understand everything, she understood enough.
He knew everything about her, including the five husbands and current boyfriend. But it didn’t turn him away. He just kept talking to her about living water and worshiping in Spirit and in truth.
What a difference that was. The woman went to the well in the middle of the hot desert day to fetch water. Think about that for a minute. The other women went in the morning. It was a big social time for them. They would be busy the rest of the day. But in the relative cool of the morning they could catch up with each other, see how each other was doing, gossip and commiserate. But she went when she knew they wouldn’t be there. Maybe the whispers got to her. Or the naked ostracism. She had, after all, the reputation no mother wants her daughter to have. The five husbands and current boyfriend sure meant something to them. Maybe it was easier for everyone if she just waited until later in the day to go to the well.
Jesus didn’t ignore her. He didn’t turn against her. He didn’t shame her. He offered her living water and the chance to worship in Spirit and in truth.
Mary’s sermon last week was about Nicodemus, whose story is right before this one. Jesus and Nicodemus had serious theological conversation, as well. But a much more respectable one. I don’t think it’s an accident these stories come one after the other. Notice how we pick up on the dualism that is throughout John’s gospel. Nicodemus comes by night, Jesus encounters the woman in broad daylight. Man and woman. Jew and Samaritan. Religious leader and religious outcast.
But they both find their way to Jesus. The woman immediately catches on. It takes Nicodemus longer. At first he is cautious, approaching Jesus in the cover of night. But by the end, he is defending Jesus before the Council, and is there to take the body of Jesus to the tomb. You couldn’t get much more public than that.
Two such different people, with such different circumstances in life, but both come to Jesus in their own way and time. Both found the living water.
We all come to Jesus in such different ways. My story is not your story, but we all have a story. Some of us are more like Nicodemus, others like the woman. But I do think that like that woman, we can say he knows everything about us, the five husbands and all, or our equivalent, and it’s okay.
We don’t have to know everything about Jesus, to be able to pass some kind of Jesus exam before we can tell our stories. The villagers came out to see Jesus for themselves, not because the woman had him all figured out, but because they perceived he had made such an impact on her life she even though she had just met him and he was talking pretty weird stuff.
It bothers me that we know Nicodemus’s name, but not the woman’s. But maybe that’s the point. Few of us come to Jesus with the spiritual and religious credentials, financial resources and social standing of a person like Nicodemus. Most of us are like the woman.. We’re just trying to haul enough water to get us through the day. And then there is that five husbands thing.
But we’ve tasted the water. Jesus has sat with us at the well and drank from our cups. We know there is life in Jesus even if we don’t have it all figured out. We don’t have to tell someone else’s story, ours is good enough.
Because it’s not what we know, but who we know.