24 March 2014

Sermon – “A Samaritan Woman” (John 4:5-14)

Our Gospel reading this morning takes us to a well near the town of Sychar in Samaria. Sychar is modern-day Nablus in the Palestinian territories, about forty miles north of Jerusalem by road. To this day it remains the principal home of the few hundred remaining Samaritans in the world. And Jacob’s well is still there, one of the best-attested archeological sites in Israel.

Today it may be found in the crypt (for you cradle Episcopalians that’s an undercroft) of a Greek Orthodox monastery. The water table that feeds the well runs more than sixty feet below the valley floor, with the result that it offers much better water than the harder water from the springs on the neighboring slopes of Mt Gerizim. With the accumulation of town debris and older sites going back nearly four thousand years, the current site is an additional sixty feet or so higher. The woman of Samaria wasn’t straying from the truth when she said, “The well is deep.” She would have had to let her bucket down anything from a hundred to a hundred fifty feet to reach water. Think of it: that’s the height of a ten- to fifteen-story building. However, the connection with Jacob, and its quality of water would have made it worth the effort.

New Testament Sychar is also Old Testament Shechem. In terms of historical importance for Israel, Shechem was probably second only to Jerusalem. It was at Shechem that the Lord first gave Abraham the promise, as he journeyed from Haran, “To your offspring I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7). It was at Shechem that the people of Israel renewed their covenant to the Lord under Joshua, proclaiming, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey” (Joshua 24:24). It was at Shechem that Solomon’s son Rehoboam was crowned as king and made the fateful declaration that split the nation in two: “My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions” (1 Kings 12:1-19). “A more interesting neighborhood it is difficult to imagine,” wrote Bishop J.C. Ryle a century and a half ago. “Whichever way the eye of a weary traveler looked, he would see something to remind him of Israel’s history.”[1]

Ryle’s contemporary, biblical scholar and preacher Alfred Edersheim, wrote of the area,

There is not a district in the Land of Promise which presents a scene more fair or rich than the plain of Samaria. As we stand on the summit of the ridge, the eye travels over the wide sweep, extending more than seven miles northward, till it rests on the twin heights of Gerizim and Ebal, which enclose the valley of Shechem. Following the straight olive-shaded road from the south, we stand by that Well of Jacob to which so many sacred memories attach.[2]

I fear that Edersheim’s description may be somewhat romanticized. Certainly in Jesus’ time Shechem, or what was left of it, could hardly have been an attractive sight. More than a century previously, a Jewish army under the leadership of John Hyrcanus had destroyed the city and its temple atop Mt Gerizim, never to be rebuilt. And so I imagine Sychar as a few destitute villagers living among derelict heaps of ruins.

Besides that, from May to October in that part of the world there is virtually no rain or even any cloud cover, with temperatures climbing much of the time well into the 90s. If Jesus’ journey from Judea to Galilee took place during those months, it is not difficult to understand how he would have arrived at the well parched and exhausted.

Jesus and his weakness

Thus our gospel story begins with a picture of Jesus’ humanity. It is in fact the first glimpse of Jesus’ humanity that we have in the Gospel of John. Remember that John introduces Jesus as the eternal Word, who was with God, who was God, through whom all things came into being. In John’s gospel there are no stories of Mary’s pregnancy or of the humble birth in Bethlehem. Before the first chapter has ended, we hear Jesus being proclaimed as the Son of God, the King of Israel, and Jesus himself declaring, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51). And in the following chapter Jesus turns water into wine and John remarks, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11).

As we open chapter 4, it is a very different picture of Jesus that we get. Sweat penetrating through his robes and beading on his forehead, panting for breath, Jesus virtually collapses by the well, while his disciples carry on into the village to look for food. Many people today have problems believing in the deity of Jesus. They like to think of him as a great teacher, perhaps the greatest the world has ever known. They picture him as a good and virtuous man. But God? No. That’s taking it too far.

As orthodox Christians we take the opposite stand. We love to quote C.S. Lewis, who wrote,

You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.[3]

However, our defense of Jesus’ deity can come at the risk of not really believing in his humanity. I am grateful for the teaching of Bishop John Howe at our Quiet Day a couple of weeks ago, who reminded us that Jesus’ miracles were the result not of his being the divine Son of God, but of his being anointed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism. Yes, Jesus is the Son of God. That is an article that I affirm with all my heart. But he was also a human being like you and me. He developed as a tiny fetus within his mother’s womb and was born with all the pain and mess that that entails. He developed physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually. He got hungry and thirsty. He was tired, indeed exhausted to the point where a storm at sea couldn’t wake him. He became angry. There were things he didn’t know. He felt pain of body and anguish of soul—and even the absence of God.

Indeed it is in his humanity as much as in his deity that Jesus is able to minister to us. He is the high priest who is able to stand alongside us in our weakness, because he has been tested in every way just as we are. And it was in his humanity that Jesus was able to minister to a woman who at that moment came with her bucket to draw water.

Jesus and the woman

What ensues is a remarkable conversation, made all the more remarkable because it never should have taken place on two counts. First she was a Samaritan. The centuries-old hostility between Jews and Samaritans would have been evident in the parched rubble of Shechem not much more than a stone’s throw away. That long-standing enmity is evident in a passage from the book of Sirach in the Apocrypha:

Two nations my soul detests
and the third is not even a people:
Those who live in Seir, and the Philistines,
and the foolish people that live in Shechem.[4]

The second reason was that she was a woman. Yet in spite of what could easily have been two insurmountable barriers, Jesus not only speaks with her but treats her as every bit his equal. It seems to me that the verbal sparring in which they engage is a sign of respect on Jesus’ part: she is one who can well stand up to a challenge. We see the same dynamic in the exchange between Jesus and a Canaanite woman who came to him on behalf of her demon-possessed daughter. When Jesus at first demurred, she came back with the retort, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” To which Jesus replied, “Woman, great is your faith” (Matthew 15:22-28).

The fact is that Jesus chose to consort with some of the most unlikely people. That was the substance of the criticism that people repeatedly leveled against him—that he was “a friend of tax collectors and sinners”. And that is exactly what he was. That was his intention. When they came back with their food, the disciples were shocked to see Jesus seriously engaging with this woman—to the point where they were at a loss for words. Perhaps they had already heard something about her sordid life while they were in the village. Yet had they only taken a moment to look at themselves, they might have realized what an unlikely group they themselves were. Jesus was not out to form a club. He came to draw men and women into the reign of God and to make that reign a reality in our world. The barriers that we erect of race and gender, of education and socioeconomic status, of politics and nationality, mean nothing to him. The apostle Paul summed it up when he wrote, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Jesus and the well

It seems to me that by the end of the conversation the Samaritan woman had begun to understand all of that. Already she had begun to drink from those unending streams of living water. Already she felt a freshness welling up within her that had never been part of her life before. In the words of Horatius Bonar’s hymn,

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
‘Behold, I freely give
the living water; thirsty one,
stoop down and drink, and live’:
I came to Jesus, and I drank
of that life-giving stream;
my thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
and now I live in him.

The proof was in the fact that all she could think of doing was to rush away and tell the other people in the village what she had experienced—to the point where she left her precious bucket behind at the side of the well. “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Messiah?”

You see—that’s the thing about the living water. If you’ve really had a taste of it, it’s something you can’t keep to yourself. As much as we might like to, as much as we might be tempted to, we cannot wall it in. The streams of living water will always well up and burst their bounds—and the one who gives them is not only the one who came to the woman at the well, asking, “Give me a drink.” He is also the one who cried out for you and for me and for all humankind, “I thirst…” (John 19:28).

[1]     Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: John, Vol. 1, 196
[2]     The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883)
[3]     Mere Christianity, 52,53
[4]     Sirach 50:25,26

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