Good morning, Friends!
I don’t know if any of you have noticed that for the last month or so, we’ve been looking at stories from the gospel of John. We started out with Jesus turning water into wine at a country wedding. Then we looked at the story of Jesus telling one of the top religious leaders of the country that he needed to be born again.
Last week we looked at the great I AM sayings in the gospel of John, where Jesus said:
- I am the bread of life
- I am the light of the world
- I am the way, the truth and the life
- I am the true vine
- I am the resurrection and the life
- I am the good shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep
Each of these sayings deepens our understanding of Jesus.
Today we’re going to look at a different story. It happened when Jesus was on a long journey, and he stopped at noon one day to rest and cool off a bit. While he was sitting and fanning himself, he met someone, and it changed her life forever.
Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John – although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.
Now Jesus had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans)
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
“I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you – I am he.”
Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”
Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” They came out of the town and made their way toward him.
– John 4:1-30
To understand this story, we’ve got to understand a few things.
First, about the Samaritans. We’re used to hearing the story about the good Samaritan – everybody remember him? We kind of forget that most Jews thought that all Samaritans were bad.
Both Jews and Samaritans were convinced that only they were the true, original, and faithful descendants of the people God spoke to and gave the Commandments to. Both Jews and Samaritans believed that the other guys were heretics who had willfully left the teaching of God. Once upon a time they were all the people of Israel. But by now, the Jews and Samaritans had been enemies for centuries.
One of the big points of disagreement was where was the right place to worship God. Jews believed the only right place was the Temple in Jerusalem, which was the city of King David, who had reigned a thousand years before.
The Samaritans believed that the right place to worship God was at their temple, on Mount Gerizim in their territory. Their worship place, they said, was much older. They thought David was an upstart, who wasn’t a king at all.
Jews and Samaritans had gone to war repeatedly with each other over religion. It’s a type of battle which should be familiar to us. We’ve seen violence between Jews and Christians, between different branches of Muslims, between Muslims and Hindus, between Christians and other Christians. When people are convinced that they’re right, they do terrible things to each other in the name of God.
The location of today’s story is a real place – we know where Jacob’s well was. Jacob, the father of Joseph, the ancestor of both the Jews and the Samaritans, had made the well a long time before. It was within sight of the place where the Samaritans had their place of worship.
During one of the endless civil wars, the Jews had destroyed the Samaritans’ worship place, and the ruins of it were nearby. So, in today’s story, Jesus and the woman were meeting at the site of an ancient holy place, which was sacred to both religious groups. It was also the site of a battleground, where their ancestors had fought to the death, generations before. Do you understand how painful this meeting had to have been?
Jesus – a solitary Jew – accidentally met a Samaritan, a woman. It was a hot summer day – dry as a bone. Normally, they wouldn’t have even spoken to each other. Jews and Samaritans despised each other.
But there was nobody else there that day. And Jesus never despised anyone. It was just two individuals, meeting by the ruins of an ancient feud that had destroyed both their peoples.
Jesus spoke first. He said, “Could you give me a drink?”. Jesus’ friends had all gone to a nearby town to buy something to eat.
The woman said, “You’re a Jew. What makes you think I’d get you some water? Jews don’t even talk with Samaritans!”
Jesus sat down by the edge of the well and said, “If you knew God’s gift of love, and who it was asking you for a drink, you’d have asked me first. And I would have given you living water, from a well that never run dry.”
The woman didn’t understand. She said, “You’ve got no bucket. You don’t even have a rope to let it down into the well. What do you mean, ‘living water’?”
Jesus pointed down the well and said, “Whoever drinks the water here from Jacob’s well will be thirsty again. Whoever drinks the water I give will never be thirsty.”
I’m not sure if the woman was just being literal-minded. She probably had to haul five gallons of water home on her head, twice a day, every day of her life. You can’t blame her if she took Jesus literally. Hauling water every day was a crushing burden. It bent her back and consumed her life.
Or maybe Jesus and the woman were testing each other. Jesus knew that he meant something else. Maybe the woman was pushing back, to see what this Jewish stranger, her enemy, was saying.
Then Jesus said, “Go, call your husband, and bring him back.”
This would be normal in that time and place. It was highly improper for an unrelated man and woman to speak like that in public. Men only talked with men, and women only talked with other women.
But the woman said, “I don’t have a husband.”
Jesus said, “I know you don’t. You’ve had five husbands – and the man you’ve got now isn’t your husband. You’re exactly right when you say you don’t have a husband.”
This is one of the other keys to the story. And it may be why the woman was out there by herself, all alone at noon. Ordinarily, women went to get water early in the morning, and again at evening. They went together, for mutual protection and also for conversation.
The standard interpretation is that this woman had some kind of a bad reputation. She may have been an outcast among her own people. Maybe no one wanted to be seen with her. People can be so cruel. So there she was, in the heat of the day, talking with this Jewish stranger.
This is the standard interpretation, the way preachers usually tell the story. She was a bad woman, and Jesus saw right through her. But there’s another way to tell the story, and I’d like to share it with you today.
Many years ago, at a different Quaker meeting where I was working in another part of the country, a woman came to meeting one Sunday. She was dressed nice, and her hair and her makeup were all just so.
I talked with her after worship, and she told me she was a waitress. She worked two jobs to support her three children. She had to take time off to come to worship. But somehow she knew that she needed to come.
She came back again the next week. A week or two later she brought her kids, and we welcomed them into our youth group. She was a little bit ashamed, because the three kids all had different fathers. I told her that didn’t matter. They were all welcome to come.
One Sunday, she came wearing a high-necked blouse with long sleeves. She seemed very quiet and subdued. I looked at her, and I saw she had some bruises that her blouse didn’t quite cover.
I asked her if everything was all right, and we sat down in a pew next to each other. Everyone else was busy talking, and she finally told me that her current boyfriend had beaten her up a day or two before.
It’s an old, old story. All her life, since she was young, she’d gone from one relationship to the next. Always hoping that this time the new husband or the new boyfriend would treat her better. But each time, the new guy beat her up.
I talked with her, and prayed with her. It took a long time to gain her trust. She and her abusive boyfriend worked at the same restaurant, so we waited till one day when he was working. A whole group of us from the meeting showed up at her apartment, and we moved all her things and her children’s things out. We found her a new apartment that she could afford, and we got her settled.
She was really grateful, and things went along well for a while. But six months later, she’d taken up with a new boyfriend, a married man, who had moved in with her. They even came to worship a few times together. I didn’t tell them that the way they were living was wrong. They both told me, and they said they wanted to make things right somehow.
But before long, the same old pattern showed itself again. He was drinking heavily, and he started getting violent with her. Eventually he moved out, and with the collapse of their relationship and all the financial strain, she had a complete nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized.
Her son was in high school and went to stay with friends, but her two girls were in elementary school and they had no family. So the girls came and lived with our family for a few weeks.
They had her on very heavy tranquilizers the first week. I took the kids to visit her, and assured her that they were all right. But it wasn’t till a week or two later that she could start to think straight again.
Sometimes it has to be the right moment before people can hear something. I had talked with her and prayed with her before. But this time she heard me. I can still remember the look on her face when I told her that God didn’t hate her.
She said, “You mean, I don’t have to live with men who hurt me?” It was like a whole new idea for her. She had gone so long, for so many years, living this way, that she couldn’t believe anything different.
We talked about how much God loves us, about mercy and grace. It was like a door was opening into a whole different universe for her.
She got a lot of help from therapy, and support from the meeting, and it took a few months for her to get back on her feet, but that was the moment her life changed.
Ever since then, I’ve looked at this story in John’s gospel differently. Maybe the Samaritan woman wasn’t really that bad. Maybe she wasn’t unfaithful. Maybe she was hurt, and Jesus recognized her situation. Maybe she’d had a series of men who treated her badly, and she thought she was just supposed to live this way. A lot of women think that.
I like to think of today’s Bible reading, not as a story of judgment, but a story of grace.
A story of love and support. A story of mercy, and welcome, rather than rejection.
There’s a lot of other good stuff in today’s reading, like where Jesus said, “It doesn’t matter where you worship – here on this mountain, or at the Temple in Jerusalem. True worshipers worship God in spirit and in truth. Those are the kind of people God is looking for, wherever they are.”
The woman went home, and told her neighbors. She said to them, “I’ve met the Savior!” I don’t know what else she said to convince them, but they all came back with her to meet Jesus. It was a beautiful time.
When Jesus’ friends came back from the farmer’s market, they were astonished to see all these people hanging around – Samaritans, the mortal enemies of the Jewish people. Jesus’ friends said, “Surely, no one brought him something to eat?” They couldn’t believe it!
It just goes to show how amazing things can happen, when Jesus is here.
There weren’t any flashy miracles – nobody turned water into wine that day. Nobody calmed a storm.
But healing did take place. People were reconciled. God was present.
If you read on a little farther in the chapter, Jesus said, “This is my work. This is what God wants. I know you think it’s months and months till harvest time. But I tell you, just look around you. The fields are ready to harvest. There are people all around you, every day!”
There’s a lot to think about here. I think this story really happened. I think Jesus really said these words. I think it’s good news, if we only hear it.
God has a message of love that is so powerful. God’s arms are open wide to everyone.
I don’t think God wants us to be fighting each other. I think God wants us to love each other, to welcome each other, to reach out to each other in all kinds of ways.
You don’t have to go to somewhere else to do ministry. You can start right here. You can start with your neighbor. You can start with people you don’t know very well.
Let’s think about this story during the rest of our quiet time together.
Copyright © 2017 by Joshua Brown