John tells us, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’”
I’d like to begin, if you’ll allow it, with a little history. The town of Sychar is in the region of Samaria that we just heard about. Sychar is the site of a well that John tells us is associated with Jacob. Accordingly, this site even in John’s and Jesus’ day was regarded as holy and significant. Sychar is near Shechem, which along with the city of Samaria, was one of the capitals of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. That kingdom, some of you might recall, was destroyed, and many of its inhabitants, dispersed, taken hostage, or killed. After the destruction of the northern kingdom, people in the southern kingdom, the capital of which was in Jerusalem, believed that they were the truly faith remnant of Abraham. Today, this well in Sychar lies within the town of Nablus in the West Bank, on the grounds of an Eastern Orthodox monastery.
The cities of Samaria, once strongholds of the Israelites were resettled by Assyrians, then by Greek and Macedonians. By the turn of the first century, these towns, like so many in the mediterranean, were sites of the great Hellenic and Roman melting pot. The Jews in the Southern Kingdom, however, fought tooth and nail against colonization by the great empires of their day. In the century prior to Jesus’ birth, many Jews died in battle against the Roman occupiers. Samaria and Samaritan people were a striking reminder to the Jews of Jerusalem of both the failure and faithlessness of the Northern Kingdom, and the ongoing foreign occupation of Palestine – first the Assyrians, now the Romans.
The Samaritans, however, believed that they were surviving descendants of the tribes of Israel. As the woman at the well indicates, they continued to worship on their holy mountain, Mt. Gerezim, which was an ancient and sacred site tied to Joshua. They did not worship in Jerusalem, the site of the Temple. And this meant that the Samaritans and the Judeans, the Jews of Jerusalem, were divorced from one another on both ethnic and religious grounds.
Jesus’s conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well illustrates this two fold division. Jesus asks her for a drink, a simple request, and she, rather bluntly, calls him on this ethnic division. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” John adds, somewhat innocuously, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” Later we hear that the disciples are shocked to find Jesus speaking with a Samaritan woman. And, moreover, when they offer him food, and he tells them that he has food they don’t know about, they insist to one another that he can’t have been fed by someone at the well, because, let’s be honest, these are Samaritans we’re talking about!
So, Judean/Samaritan tribalism is part of the overt subtext of this story.
But we also hear about marriage and divorce. The woman has been married five times, and is now living with another man. In this era, divorce laws would have been more lenient for men than women, and in fact would have been severe oftentimes for women. Men could divorce and remarry with relative ease, where women were not permitted to divorce without the help of a male advocate, and then on specific grounds. While it’s possible that she had been divorced 5 times, it’s more likely that she’d been victim to some combination of divorce and death. Her current situation is most likely because there was no dowry involved in her current relationship, but that rather she and the man she was currently living with had set up a home together. Jesus tells her he does’t consider this marriage, and she doesn’t argue.
Rather, the Samaritan engages Jesus’s remarkable gift. Jesus reveals that he has intimate knowledge of her misfortune and current situation. Now this could have been off-putting or shameful to the Samaritan woman. We might read this part of the story and conclude that Jesus was condemning or judging her. I know that there are times that I would prefer that Jesus didn’t know everything I’ve ever done, and I sure wouldn’t want him speaking those things aloud, to me or anyone else.
In her response, however, we see that the Samaritan is a seeker of truth and not put off by Jesus’ knowledge of her. She calls Jesus a prophet and asks him for religious advice. Where must I go to worship authentically, she inquires.
Jesus honors her request and her humility by telling her that authentic worship is not a matter of this or that mountain, or this or that city. Rather, worship is a spiritual and truthful matter. Jesus says, “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Jesus engages her as a lover of wisdom and truth. Moreover, he relativizes location, and even ethnicity, telling her that God favors a true and genuine heart, a heart of spirit and truth, over numb and rigid practice, especially when that practices alienates people on superficial grounds that they have little control over.
Impressively, the woman links Jesus’ idea of worship in Spirit and Truth to the coming of the Jewish Messiah, the one who will “proclaim all things to us.” She’s particularly entranced by what is evidently Jesus’ prophetic gifts. He speaks truth in an authoritative way. Could he be the Messiah? she asks.
And here, Jesus does something truly amazing. He reveals himself to her. “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” The Messiah, who possesses and proclaims all truth is here, speaking to a Samaritan woman. In this way, Jesus honors her humanity, her spirit, her desire to worship.
Indeed, in these few words, Jesus overcomes ethic and religious barriers, barriers of sexual and social practices, and moreover the barriers of pride and personality, those things that so often get in the way of honest and empathetic communication. Jesus gives this nameless woman, this Samaritan stranger, the most perfect gift. He gives her living water. He gives her himself.
And the woman is amazed and grateful. Undaunted by the stubborn disciples, she runs to tell her townspeople, her neighbors about this fantastic gift. “He showed me everything I had ever done.” She invites others to join her in the worship of spirit and truth. Come meet this man who knows my unfortunate life, and yet gave me living water. Come experience this for yourself. Come know this Messiah. Come with me and be known yourself.
Rowan Williams once remarked that it is as if the woman says to her neighbors, “He is, today, here and now, the person who looks at each one of us and says: I call you by your name. You are mine.”
Well, her people come with her as she invites them to, and they are caught up in it too. They come out to hear this man who knew everything that the woman had ever done, everything she might have ever had reason to feel shame or regret about.
And presumably they found themselves similarly exposed. And yet they too also found themselves loved and intimately known. Perhaps Jesus spoke their stories too, in all their shame and embarrassment, their failure and vulnerability. But in the truth of their lives as Jesus knows it, perhaps they also found themselves wonderfully accepted, loved, and invited into Jesus’s new community of Spirit and Truth.
Maybe they found themselves ushered into a new life of coherence and unity with Jesus and those becoming like him, those who drink from this strange well of eternal water.
The people of Sychar called Jesus not the Savior of the Jews, or the Savior of Jerusalem, but the Savior of the World. They recognized, long before many of Jesus’s disciples, that what Jesus offers is not just for a small, elite ethnic group, for people who are patriotic about this or that law, for people who have been married once, or for women who can claim to practice Victorian virtue in their moral lives. What Jesus offers is for the whole World. Jesus extends to all a gift, a message for all who would hear him in Spirit and Truth, an eternal drink for all who thirst.
So this morning, can I invite you to join me in looking introspectively at how we react to this man who gently offers us life, love, and familiarity? How do we respond to his offer? Do we refuse his living waters? Do we deny his knowledge of us? Do we wish to remain nameless and unknown, distant from this strange man?
Or do we drink from living waters? Do we delight in the fact that Jesus knows everything we’ve ever done, and knows us, and has always known us, by name? Do we draw closer to him as he draws closer to us?
Moreover, do were proclaim, as the Samaritan woman did, this strange and marvelous man to our neighbors? I know that to Anglican ears what I’m asking sounds dangerously like evangelism, as if I might be suggesting we go door to door in our neighbors sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. But for the Samaritan woman, her encounter with the Lord was good news worth sharing. How do we share this good news with others in our lives?
Lent is a wonderful time to reflect on these questions, to investigate the ways in which the Lord knows us… not in order to feel ashamed before him, but to take delight in the fact that having known you, he then offers living waters to you too.
So, drink deeply friends, and then pass the cup.
The Third Sunday in Lent
St. David’s Roland Ave