Todays readings for: 3rd Sunday in Lent - In Year A; 2017 Exodus 17: 1-7 Psalm 95 Romans 5: 1-11 John 4:5-42
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton
Well, as promised last week we have now got to the story in the light, the story of the Samaritan women at the well. For me, this is just about the most exciting bit of narrative in the whole of the gospels. Do you realize that this exchange between Jesus and the unnamed woman is the longest conversation Jesus has with anybody, recorded in the gospels? And it turns so many things on their heads. Once again, this story is about the Kingdom of God. But in all that long narrative I read to you, those words were never mentioned once, so why would I say that? Well, in answer let me just take you back to last week for a moment. There were two things that stood out in the story of Nicodemus and the little teaching discourse that followed, the first was the darkness that Nicodemus inhabited which was linked to the words of the prologue of John and the second was that promise of eternal life, also linked to the prologue, and remember that this is the equivalent of the Kingdom in the synoptic gospels? This narrative holds together both those themes and more.
Let me just place this into context, after the story of Nicodemus there is a hiatus in which Jesus does some more teaching and is described as baptizing more people than John. This forms the premise for the next action, which is that Jesus, after hearing that the Pharisees have heard of his activities, heads back from Jerusalem to Galilee. Now the verse before we started reading is very interesting, it says, “But he had to go through Samaria”. Now to return from Jerusalem to Galilee via Samaria made absolutely no geographical sense- there is no reason why he would go through Samaria- it was enemy territory and an inconvenient route to take, through the mountains rather than up the valley. No, the reason for Jesus’ strange diversion is to be found in the statement, that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son that whosever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”. This is what this whole story is about. So Jesus takes the inconvenient route and stops, in the heat of the sun, at a well. This story is not just taking place in the light- it is in the blazing noonday. His disciples go and leave him to go into the township of Sychar and Jesus meets a woman. Now, to get a good sense of this encounter we need to understand a number of things. The first is that Samaritans and Jews were sworn enemies. There is a long historical background to this, which I can’t go into right now, but another place where this is obvious is in the story of the Good Samaritan. Then we have the problem of gender. In this time in Palestine no man spoke to a woman to whom he was not related without the mediation of her kinsman. The woman should not have approached the well when there was a man there and Jesus should have pretended he didn’t see her, much less engaging her in conversation. Women belonged to the private sphere- they were part of the darkness, not to be exposed in the light. And herein is the woman’s next problem, if she is drawing water in the middle of the day she is an outcast- she should have been with the other women drawing water at dawn and dusk. Now in the past there has been much made of this woman’s immorality but it is important to understand that this poor woman is sinned against rather than sinning. She has been married many times, which suggests two possibilities, either the kind of Levirate marriage that we have discussed elsewhere when a woman is married by a number of brothers in turn as each one dies- she would be very unlucky to have lost five brothers in a row, or she is the victim of multiple divorces- the usual scenario for this was that the woman was barren. Women did not have rights to do the divorcing but it was an easy matter for the man, so she has been discarded multiple times and is now in a less permanent relationship- you must remember that there was no social security, a male provider is the only alternative to poverty. And here there are no words of forgiveness or about not sinning- that simply is not on the agenda. Jesus is concerned about giving her the water of life. He wants her to have life and have it abundantly in the Kingdom of God. The business of discussing her circumstances is to bring them into the light.
And unlike Nicodemus who functioned from a point of certitude, the woman asks a series of questions to which Jesus gives her the most extraordinary series of answers. Her first question is one about the proprieties, she asks, “How is it that you a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” and in this question two of the big barriers are brought into the light, that of race and that of gender. Jesus ignores both these considerations and cuts straight to something much more important- you are seeking security in the social mores of this life- let me liberate you from those ideas and give you living water. The woman ignores his implicit claim to be God, and just like Nicodemus, last week, takes him literally. “Sir, you have no bucket and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” And not only does she challenge this, she asks him if he thinks he is greater than Jacob, so making a claim on a shared heritage. Maybe the reason she has been divorced many times is her preparedness to stand up and speak for herself. Jesus doesn’t mind at all, and offers her water that will be a spring gushing up to eternal life. She greets this with enthusiasm, but she is still thinking of the practicalities. Jesus wants to her to focus on the spiritual rather than on the earthly, so he takes the conversation in a different direction. He asks to bring her husband and she replies that she has none, and Jesus surprises her by knowing all about it.
Now I have heard it said that she was trying to distract Jesus from her moral turpitude by asking about which mountain was the place for worship, but I think she was genuinely interested, and having a sense that this is a holy man, wants his opinion. It certainly gives Jesus the opportunity to say something about the nature of God, and the breadth of the Kingdom, that can include everyone, and anyone who is prepared to worship in Spirit and in truth. The woman seems to have half grasped what Jesus is saying and so she asks Jesus about the Messiah, who will proclaim all things to them, which gives Jesus the perfect opportunity to make it clear to her who he is. “I am!” he says, which not only confirms that he is the Messiah- or the anointed one, but that he is Yahweh himself, the great God. Wow! This is mind blowing and the woman must have been reeling.
At this moment they are interrupted by the disciples and a comic scene ensues where the disciples are confused and frightened to ask Jesus what he means or what he has been up to. I think this is here to be in contrast to the woman, Samaritan, outcast to whom all has been revealed- the disciples, male Jews do not understand. While Jesus and the disciples have a conversation the woman has gone off to her Samaritan town to tell them the good news with the words that John uses earlier in his gospel, “Come and see”. The woman is not trying to teach the men, the leaders or even the other women, she just invites them to come and see. She has become an apostle- a sent one, that is what the word means, and she does her job so well that the people of the town ask Jesus to stay with them, many of them believe and so begins the spread of the Kingdom of God, out side of the Jewish nation. Did you notice that it isn’t her job to convict them of the truth, Jesus does that himself, but it is her job to go to her town, and speak the words of invitation. Jesus, when speaking to the disciples tells them that the fields are ripe for harvest, the harvest of lives for eternal life.
And the same is still true today. There are many, many people in our society who have never heard of how much God loves them. There are lots of people who if they know anything at all about God, think of God as a moral force who wants to police whether they are doing right or wrong- they haven’t heard the words of John 3:16, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This is a God who cares about individuals just as Jesus cared about this woman drawing water in the heat of the day. She didn’t meet the criteria for salvation that the Jewish leaders had formulated, she dared to speak to a man and indeed to cross question him and yet the savior of the world loved her enough to engage with her until she came to know who he was. She didn’t have all the answers- do you notice she is operating out of her own uncertainty? But she had encountered the living God and the experience left her in a place where she wanted to invite others in to relationship with Jesus. It occurs to me that she, very easily, could have been bitter about the people of the town who had made her an outcast and hugged the knowledge of her encounter with God to herself, but instead she went and shared the bounty of living water with everyone.
Not all of them responded, however. It says that many more believed when they spoke to Jesus themselves, but not that everyone in the town came into relationship with God because of the encounter with Jesus.
And so these are the things that are important for us- we need to be in the light, we need to meet Jesus there and when we have drunk of the living water, we are sent out to call others to “Come and See”. We don’t have to be privileged white men, with the backing of the society behind us. We are, whoever we are, equally important in God’s economy.
In these two chapters we have the parallel stories of two people, one named, socially acceptable man, one unnamed, rejected woman and their conversations with Jesus. They are both loved by God, they are both called to be in relationship and they both have the opportunity to take the story of their encounter with Jesus to their world. One responds straight away and the other, who has more to lose, takes his time but there is room in the Kingdom of God for both of them.
“The water that I will give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”