Reflection 3rd March: Lent 3 – John 4:3-30

Our conversation today follows on from last week’s conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Like that conversation this one is also long, somewhat bewildering and abounds with irony. I do not believe Jesus is trying to be elusive but the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of the Triune God and who Jesus is, is not always easy to grasp and hold on to.


However, the similarities really end there.


Nicodemus meets Jesus at night, in the dark, in a private place. He comes to Jesus because he has heard about him. The Samaritan woman meets him in the middle of the day, in the light in a very public place. She encounters him as a stranger. She knows nothing about him at all.


Nicodemus is a man, a Pharisee, a position of power and authority. The Samaritan woman is a woman who seems to be something of an outsider in her community.


How Nicodemus responds to Jesus is ambiguous. The Samaritan woman on the other hand responds immediately. She returns to the city and tell others to come and see Jesus.


Given the way John places these stories we are meant to notice these differences. So I invite you to keep them in mind as we delve into the passage.


It begins, “he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria.”


At that time most Jews who travelled between Jerusalem and Galilee would actually avoid Samaria and take a route along the Jordan River. You can see that on the map in blue. Jesus however, did not take this route. He took the red route there right through it.


Geographically he did not need to pass through here but theologically he did. This is the fulfilment of “for God so loved the world.”


As we probably know, the Samaritans and the Jews are enemies. It was a conflict that had begun approximately 1000 years earlier. After King Solomon dies the Kingdom of Israel divided into kingdom of Judah to the South with its capital Jerusalem and the kingdom of Israel to the North with its capital Samaria. Both Kingdoms eventually fell to other Empires and the people were taken into exile.


However, the Jews from the Southern Kingdom, were able to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple but the exiles from the Northern Kingdom were not. The North was repopulated but the Samaritans claim they are the remnants who remained.


This is a very brief summary of this complicated history but by the time Jesus was speaking to this woman the bitterness was ancient and entrenched. What Jesus does when he enters into this conversation with this woman is also radical and risky.


This week the ABC wrote a story on a community in Israel called Neve Shalom in Hebrew or Wahat al-Salaam in in Arabic. It is translated as an oasis of peace. This community, started by a Dominican priest 54 years ago, is still the only place that is shared intentionally between Jews and Palestinians. My sister Gemma actually spent some time living and volunteering in this community when she was there and my mum and I visited her there as well. There is no doubt it is not perfect, it is hard work and I imagine even more so now given the current situation between Israel and Palestine. What this community is doing and modelling is also radical and risky.


However, I believe this is the kind of thing Jesus is trying to get his followers to imagine when he decides to pass though Samaria. Then and now. Jesus is calling them and us to put aside the stereotypes we carry and see people as people first and foremost.


And Jesus begins this interaction by asking her for her drink. Sometimes when we choose go beyond our boundaries we can assume that we have everything to give but nothing to learn or receive. It appears Jesus does not. He begins by naming his own thirst.  Before he launches into what he can give he asks for something that she can give.


The bible study met on Wednesday and we were reflecting on this passage in light of David’s death. And there were many comments on how this was something David did remarkably well. It was something I saw every time we visited the prison together.


It was also something I experienced. David and I most certainly did not see all things the same way. We were on opposite sides of the so called “culture wars” of this time. And yet we stayed in conversation. We respected and cared for each other despite difference in opinions. Something that is getting harder in our polarised world and I am grateful for it.


Over the centuries much has been made of the scandal of this woman and her five husbands. It has been inferred that she is collecting water in the scorching heat of the day, instead of in the cool of the morning, because she wishes to avoid other women due to her shame about her promiscuity.


We need to remember though at that time and place women didn’t have the legal power to end their own marriages, this authority rested with men alone and so this woman would have very little control over how many husbands she had.


While, it does not say, so we cannot be sure, the most likely reason for this seems to be that she has been widowed and passed along among her dead husband’s brothers, as per the instructions in Deuteronomy 25, “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.”


None the less the man she has now is not her husband.


Perhaps she still has no sons and has now been cast aside. In this case it seems possible that the reason that she wants be alone is because of struggles around infertility.


But then Jesus comes along and sees her.  He sees the whole of her.  The past.  The present.  The future.  Who she has been.  What she yearns for.  How she hurts.  All that she might become.  And he names it all.


As we were talking about last week the path to healing means looking at, confronting, the pain we have experienced as well as the pain we have caused.


Here Jesus names it all. The sin that has been done against her as well as her own sin. Here again we have grace and accountability.


This conversation about the husbands follows her request, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”


Perhaps Jesus is just ignoring her, changing the subject. Though that seems unlikely to me given his promise of a “spring of living water gushing up into eternal life.”


Rather perhaps this is what she had been thirsting for. Yearning for. Someone to see her. Fully see her. Someone to speak truth into her life. Not with condemnation, but none the less with clarity.


After he says perhaps some rather challenging things to her, she does not get defensive. Rather she simply says, “what you have said is true.”


Jesus and the woman then enter into a theological debate about where the people should worship. This was one of the major tensions between the Samaritans and the Jews. For the Samaritans Mount Gerizim was their sacred site for worship and this is the mountain the woman is most likely referring to in this passage. For the Jews it is the temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritans opposed rebuilding the temple after exile and the Jewish troops destroyed the shrine at Mount Gerizim.


The battle is not just about where is the best place to sing praises is, but about the very dwelling place of God.


And yet Jesus declares that neither are the place of true worship. He says, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”


To which she responds, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes he will proclaim all things to us.”


And then Jesus says, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”


The 12 then return to Jesus. They are surprised he is speaking with this woman but do not rebuke him. The woman leaves and returns to the city where she invites others to “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”


There is so much in all that, that I am still wrestling with. How do we live in the reality that the hour has come and is still coming? What does it mean to worship in spirit and truth?


But the woman’s invitation is simply, “Come and see.” These are also the words Jesus used when he called his first disciples. And the words Philip used when he invited Nathanael to come and meet Jesus. This woman like Philip glimpsed who Jesus was because he saw who she was. Her history — once the source of such pain and secrecy — becomes the evidence she uses to proclaim Jesus’s identity. She still has questions, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” but even her questions become a part of her witness.  Her curiosity arouses the curiosity of others.


And Jesus honors, blesses, and validates her proclamation.  He stays in the city for two days, so that everyone who hears her testimony can meet with him directly.


At the bible study we spoke about the cheap bottled water on offer by our consumer culture. This water of course is hard to resist because it provides immediate gratification and asks very little of us. However, its pleasures are short lived, very quickly we find ourselves thirsty again and anxiously seeking the next fix.  Ultimately this water does not satisfy our spirit’s deeper longings for purpose, connection, truth, peace and hope. For this we need living water gushing up to eternal life.


And so let us now sing. I heard the voice of Jesus. I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Behold, I freely give the living water, thirsty one; stoop down, and drink, and live.”

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