By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
February 24, 2008
Wow! John’s gospel story is rich, it’s loaded with meaning….deep, spiritual meaning. I can’t begin to touch everything that’s happening in this story today, but I’ll share what seems important for us now, here, today.
First of all, it is a surprising story….a remarkable story….because the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman shouldn’t have happened. The barriers to the conversation are great. Jesus is a Jew and the woman is a Samaritan. Between Samaritan and Jew there is a wall of separation no less than what in our time separates the Israeli from the Palestinian.
The Jews and Samaritans are related peoples. Both are Hebrews. The Samaritans are from the old northern kingdom of Israel, while the Jews are from the old southern kingdom of Judah. To make a long story short, the Samaritans inter-married with non-Jewish peoples, and lost much of their ethnic identity, while the Jews maintained theirs. Each group ended up with their own temple, the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim, the Jews on Mount Zion, starting a continuing controversy over the proper place to worship. And so it is a strange choice Jesus makes to travel through Samaritan territory. And that he strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan is even stranger.
There’s something additional that makes this conversation beside the well a surprise. In that place and time men and women are not to talk to one another in public. It is not considered proper. This is especially so when the man is, like Jesus, a rabbi, a teacher, someone looked up to as an example of propriety. And so the disciples, when they return, are astonished that Jesus is speaking with this woman.
Still more must be said about this surprising encounter. The nameless one is a Samaritan, and a woman. She is also someone rejected by her own people. She comes to the well to draw water at noon, and she comes alone. Noon is the hottest time of the day. Morning and evening are times to do the hard work of drawing water from the well, and hauling it home. This is work that women do in company with one another. It is a chance for a chat, for some social contact. But this woman goes to the well at a time when she will be alone. She sees herself as a misfit. She probably avoids others in order not to be hurt yet again by their words, their attitudes, their hard looks.
So, imagine her surprise when she comes in the heat of the day with her water bucket balanced on her head and sees a strange man sitting beside the well. He could be anyone, but when he lifts his head and asks her for a drink, she sees the olive skin, the dark eyes, the strong nose. He is no half-breed. The man is a Jew, but what in the world is he doing there? Has he lost his way? Has he lost his faith, to be talking to her like that? The Jews have endless rules about what they may and may not eat and drink. She knows that much at least, and she knows this man will be breaking the law if she lets him sip from her bucket.
And so Jesus meets a woman who couldn’t be more of an outsider, and he receives her as an insider, an intimate who has no cause for shame. He brings up her past, and her present, not to shame her, but to take away their power in showing how little they affect how Jesus and the God he proclaims receive her.
When the woman at the well perceives Jesus to be a prophet, she asks what every Samaritan wants to know – where is God’s Holy Presence? Where are we to worship God? Is Mount Zion the Holy Mountain or is Mount Gerizim? Should we look to Jerusalem or to Samaria for guidance and direction?
In response, Jesus simply says, “It isn’t a matter of place.” Both places are sacred. Both places are holy.
In the mind of Jesus, there is no wall between Jew and Samaritan; both groups of people are loved by God. Both Jew and Samaritan are in need of food and water, both Jew and Samaritan are in need of forgiveness and compassion, both Jew and Samaritan are in need of love and grace.
Those who worship God transcend all boundaries, all borders, all barriers. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Jesus received the Samaritan woman with such love and such grace that she was profoundly transformed. She had once accepted the village’s verdict that she was so unfit for their company that she could draw water only at noon. After meeting Jesus, she’s bold enough to demand living water from him. By the end of the conversation, she’s left her water jar behind and is rushing into the very center of the village, demanding to be heard by those who were once her tormentors. And she IS heard; many believe in Jesus because of the woman’s bold testimony.
Jesus sets aside all score-keeping, and by treating all as if all were forgiven, he makes forgiveness possible — even for self-righteous sinners like us.
What Jesus did for that woman, he is able to do for each of us as well. Just as he broke down all the barriers that existed in order to reach out to her, so he seeks to break through the barriers that we put up in order to reach us. The living water that Jesus offered her is still available to all who are seeking to quench their thirst for righteousness and wholeness. To all those whose lives may be parched, whose relationships may seem dry, whose spiritual quest seems to have taken them into the desert, to all of these and all others who thirst for healing and hope, Jesus still says, “Come. Come and sip the living water which I offer, and you will no longer be thirsty. Come. Come and drink.” Amen.
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