There is a thread that runs through our readings today – thirst for connection with God and the quenching gift of grace. These readings invite us to find the character we relate to most and join the story to experience it from the inside – so I commend them for your ongoing meditation as we journey toward Easter.
I want to hone in on the Gospel Lesson from John about the woman of Samaria with Jesus at Jacob’s well. As with all the narratives in the Gospel of John, this story has many layers and is rich with meaning on several levels. For instance some commentators view this story not as a story of an individual Samarian woman meeting and individual Jew at Jacob’s well. Rather these commentators view the woman and Jesus as representative of the whole Samaritan nation and Jewish nation respectively. There is literary support for this in the Greek it was originally written in, where the woman and Jesus address each other in the plural that translates as “you people” rather than in Greek terms that would indicated a conversation between two individuals. This would have been a significant layer of meaning for the first hearers of John’s Gospel – who were of Jewish descent- because the Jews and the Samaritans were long-time rivals.
The Samaritans were actually an off shoot of the Jewish people. When Assyria conquered Israel around the year 300 BC, some of the Jews who were deported intermarried with the Assyrians and people of other neighboring nations, and abandoned Jewish purity and worship laws. They were resettled in the region of Samaria, thus becoming known as Samaritans. The biggest bone of contention between Jews and Samaritans was the question of where it was proper to worship. This conflict comes out in this Gospel passage in the woman’s statement to Jesus about worship: “Our Fathers worshiped on this mountain; but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Seeing the passage in this way, with the woman representing all of Samaria, one commentator wrote:
“…whom might the five former husbands then be? Could Jesus be alluding not to her personal life, but to Samaria’s past in which five nations have colonized and intermarried with the Samaritans? And could ‘the one you have now who is not your husband’ in fact be Rome, a colonial power with whom the Samaritans lived (more intimately than with Judeans) but did not intermarry as much with as with the previous five? (Jim Douglass in Living the Word, p.18)
This historical layer of this story is one we would likely miss without the help of scholars and commentators. But that layer of meaning certainly does not preclude reading the story at the important level of the individual interchange between this woman and Jesus.
What strikes me so strongly in reading their interchange is how profoundly this woman is affected by the experience of being deeply seen and known by Jesus. It should be noted here that many traditional biblical commentaries on this passage view Jesus’ words to the woman about her 5 husbands, as a way to unmask the sin of this woman’s life and many preachers have used this to call the woman’s character into question. But if we really look at the passage and listen closely we will see that this is a misinterpretation. On this point Episcopal Bishop, Mary Glasspool, notes that there is really nothing in the text to suggest that this woman has sinned with regard to her marriage history. She writes:
“Most obvious, in the text Jesus does not judge her – any moral judgements are imported into the text by the interpreters. There are many possible reasons for her marital history other than moral laxity. She may, for example, be involved in the custom of levirate marriage- the custom that demands that the next available male in a family take the place of a brother who has died, by marrying his widow. And the last male in the family line could have refused to marry her. Significantly, the reasons for the woman’s marital history have intrigued many commentators- but do not seem to concern Jesus in the least. This part of the conversation between the woman and Jesus about her life’s situation is a moment of confrontation with truth. Jesus reveals himself as someone who sees deeply into the very essence, the heart, of people. And the woman recognizing this truth, declared Jesus to be a prophet.”
Again the scholars come through, and with this deeper understanding of the cultural context of this passage we can move from assuming the worst about this woman’s character, to marveling at Jesus’ ability to encounter people and know them deeply.
But Jesus does not stop there. He goes deeper still. He speaks to her about the future when the animosity between their two peoples – Jews and Samaritans – will be overcome and they will worship God together in spirit and truth. Hearing this, the faith that lives deep within this woman comes to the surface and bubbles out of her like living water – “I know the Messiah is coming. When he comes he will proclaim all things to us.” To which Jesus responds “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” And so, this woman, notably becomes the first person in John’s Gospel to whom Jesus reveals his full identity as the Christ.
This back and forth between Jesus and this woman at the well is such a dance. It begins with a request for water and ends in Jesus speaking out loud for the first time to another person his identity as the Messiah. And I am captivated by the idea that as with Nicodemus before her, this woman has played a part in Jesus process of claiming his full identity within the human family. And this affirms the humanity of Jesus for me. It says to me that just like the rest of us, Jesus, our human brother, knows himself most fully in his relationships with other people.
For her part, the woman is transformed. The disciples reappear and the conversation between her and Jesus ends, and she leaves her jar – symbolic of the fact that she is no longer thirsty because living water has bubbled up within her in her interaction with Jesus– and she heads back to her city where she immediately begins telling people about what happened to her at the well. She makes no grand speech; rather she simply tells others about the experience of being known deeply by Jesus – “: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He could not be the Messiah, could he?” And if we read carefully we will realize that this is the subtle punch line of the story – for while the disciples of Jesus, who have been walking the road with him for a while now are concerning themselves with giving their rabbi enough to eat, the Samaritan woman has run off to do the work of bringing others to Jesus so that they may experience being deeply known and spiritually quenched by him. And this work she is doing is the very work he points to as he says to the disciples, “Do you not say, `Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. Metaphoric words for look around and see who you could be bringing into the circle of discipleship.
The passage closes as a crowd follows the woman back to the well, and soon Jews and Samaritans are mingling over the waters of the well of their common ancestor, where they drink deeply together of the living water flowing from Jesus.
For me, the take away of this passage is that being deeply known by God in Jesus is a transforming experience that we are not meant to keep to ourselves. This Gospel illustrates that to be an evangelist all one has to do is offer an invitation to others that is based in the truth of how your own life has been transformed by knowing Jesus. It does not take fancy words, but rather authentic words. A simple “come and see” can be powerfully attractive when there is fire in the eyes of the one that utters that invitation. And the funny thing about this faith of ours – which is at the heart about knowing God, and being known by God – this faith of ours only grows stronger when we give it away to others. “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” We have come to see my friends, and if he has touched us in transformative ways our work now is to bring others.
In memory of Her and in Christ’s name. Amen+