November 6, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from John 4:1-15.
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself was not baptizing, just his disciples), he left Judea and returned to Galilee. He had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there. Jesus, tired from his journey, sat down there at the well. It was about noon. A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” His disciples had gone into the town to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him, “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (For Jews used nothing in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” [The woman] said to him, “Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep; where then can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this cistern and drank from it himself with his children and his flocks?” Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
This is a story about breaking down barriers that enables reconciliation and healing acceptance. It is through Jesus that barriers can be dissolved.
Religions have long been preoccupied with purity laws and the Jews had developed elaborate injunctions and proscriptions to make themselves distinct from and, thus, superior to all others. The enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans was centuries old to a point when the Assyrians had conquered and occupied Samaria, leading to intermingling and intermarriage among the Samaritan Jews and foreigners. According to Barclay, “[T]hey committed what to the Jew was an unforgivable crime. They lost their racial purity. In a strict Jewish household even to this day if a son or daughter marries a Gentile, his or her funeral service is carried out. Such a person is dead in the eyes of orthodox Judaism.” So, no proper Jew would consider speaking to a Samaritan. Jesus did just that, initiating a conversation, breaking down an ethnic, national barrier.
Rabbis of Jesus’ time were forbidden to speak to a woman in public, even their own wives, daughters, and sisters! Barclay writes, “There were even Pharisees who were called ‘the bruised and bleeding Pharisees’ because they shut their eyes when they saw a woman on the street and do walked into walls and houses! For a Rabbi to be seen speaking to a woman in public was the end of his reputation.” Jesus breached the barrier of custom and orthodoxy.
Jacob’s well was about half a mile from the town where this woman lived. There was a well in the village. So, why did this woman in the midday heat trudge out to Jacob’s well? Barclay speculates, “May it be that she was so much of a moral outcast that the women even drove her away from the village well and she had to come here to draw water?” Jesus would have been judged as unclean for drinking from the same cup or container as this woman. Jesus was not only ready to drink from the same cup, he was offering to enter into conversation with her, to have a relationship with her, a sinful woman.
This woman must have been completely bewildered by what was happening. And then Jesus starts saying things that make so sense. She must have thought he was a little crazy. She tried to make literal sense of what he was saying, then questioned his statement about being a gift of God. Finally, I think she resorts to humoring, even mocking, Jesus. She still didn’t understand what Jesus was trying to accomplish by breaking down the barriers between them.
Living water, a spring of water welling up to eternal life. The Samaritan woman took it to mean flowing water, which generally was considered to be better than the still, stagnant water of a well. Jesus is the living water, the gift of God’s love. God’s love transcends all barriers whether ethnic, national, gender, custom, religious orthodoxy. Those are all superficial divisions instituted by man to avoid the command to accept one another, to be reconciled, and to love one another. So steeped in one way of perceiving and knowing her world, the Samaritan woman was absolutely unable to understand the gift of God that was offered to her. As Spong describes in The Fourth Gospel, “[H]er mind is bound inside its literal prison.”
As is mine so often. How many times and in how many ways do I have to hear or read that I am to tear down the barriers that keep me from accepting and loving others, that I am to reconcile myself to others? I don’t know, but quite a few more times at least before I release myself from the prison in which I have lived for so long. Then perhaps I, too, can be a spring of water welling up to eternal life. That’s the promise Jesus has made to me.