25 January 2015
John 4 - Samaritan Woman at the WellMap of Palastine in New Testament Times
We have all heard about Samaria and the Samaritans but before unpacking this particular passage let me set the geography and history of the group in context.
Geography - you have Judea with Jerusalem and Nazareth in the south, Dead Sea up the east side of the country. Then to the north of Judea you have first Samaria and then Galilee and then to the East of Galilee you have the Decapolis which are the cities with Greek influence where Jesus did a lot of his early ministry. The Judea that Jesus new existed for only a short time, from when Herod was given Samaria and Galilee following the defeat of Cleopatra and 30 years before Christ was born and it last until the crushing of the Jewish rebellion about 30 years after Christ died. Despite Samaria being between the two Jewish parts of Judea and Galilee such was the dislike of the Samaritans that the Jewish people would normally go round rather than through.
When do we hear about the Samaritans - several times, besides this woman, there is the Samaritan town in Luke 9 that refuses to allow Jesus to walk through it because He is going to Jerusalem. James and John want to destroy the town but Jesus rebukes them. There is the Samaritan Leper who is the only one of the ten healed who returns to thank Jesus. And of course there is the parable of the Good Samaritan who helps the wounded man the Jewish priest and Levite pass by.
What stands out in all the Gospel accounts of the Samaritans is that they are clearly despised aliens - there are obviously tensions between the Jews and the Jews.
Why the dislike - all started around 720 B.C. when the Assyrian Empire (covering modern Iraq and Syria) conquered northern Israel including Samaria. They exiled the Israelites there (those are the famous 10 lost tribes of Israel), and brought in gentile settlers to live among the Jewish peasants who remained. Over time they intermarried and this meant that the Jewish people no longer considered them Jews. In 586 B.C. southern Israel, Judea and Jerusalem, was conquered by the Babylonians (who had taken over Assyria). King Nebuchadnezzar, exiled the upper classes of Jerusalem to Babylon (the famous "Babylonian Exile"). But these southern two tribes of Israel managed to return 50-60 years later, when the Persian King Cyrus conquered Babylon. But in Babylon these Jewish captives guarded their religious identity and did not intermarry. When they returned to Jerusalem they started to rebuild it and the Temple. The Samaritans living to their north, offered to help, but the Jews refused their offer, as they were not pure, which unsurprisingly, angered the Samaritans.
The conflict deepened when the Samaritans built a rival temple on Mount Gerizim (the mountain the Samaritan Woman mentions). In 129 B.C. the Jewish king and general John Hyrcanus attacked and destroyed the temple on Mt Gerizim, which only added to the hate. So by Jesus' day the Holy Land was divided by this centuries-long mutual prejudice. The area in the south surrounding Jerusalem and its temple was heavily Jewish. The area in the north around the Sea of Galilee was a mixture of Jews and pagan gentiles. But in-between lay Samaria and the Samaritans with their, to Jewish eyes, tainted ancestry and quasi-Jewish religion. Although living as geographic neighbours, the Jews and Samaritans had nothing to do with one another.
We don't know her name or age. But this lady's conversation with the Lord is his longest one-on-one chat recorded in Scripture. We don't even know the time of day as there are different ways of recording the day so this could be either 6 hours into daylight so high noon or could have been 6 hours after noon and thus early evening. But Jesus, tired from traveling, chose a sensible rest stop-Jacob's well outside the town of Sychar-while waiting for his disciples to go into town for food. When our unnamed woman appeared with clay jar in hand, Jesus made a simple request: "Will you give me a drink?".But (1) Jews aren't supposed to speak to Samaritans. (2) Men aren't permitted to address women without their husbands present and (3) rabbis had no business speaking to shady ladies such as this one. Jesus is willing to toss out the rules, but our woman at the well isn't. "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman," she reminds him. "How can you ask me for a drink?" .
She focuses on the law; Jesus focuses on grace. And it makes an offer she can't refuse. He begins "If you knew the gift of God . " If. A tantalizing invitation. And gift. A truly irresistible offering. Instead of insisting she pour him a drink, the Lord offers her "living water" Water from the ground was common, but living water? Now Jesus has her attention. This polite but gutsy woman points out the obvious: "You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?" Her natural curiosity prompted her to ask questions just as people do today. Jesus points out the truth about plain water: "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again" but then makes his bold promise: "Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst". In one sentence he shifts from everyday life to everlasting life.
Was the Samarian lady ready for that leap of faith? Not quite. She wanted what he was offering, but only so she could avoid returning to the well for water. She didn't quite get it. Eager to satisfy our physical desires, we overlook our spiritual needs. So Jesus tells her, "Go, call your husband and come back". Not an odd request, since women couldn't converse alone with a man in a public place. But Jesus' request was more about uncovering truth than about following society's rules. When she confesses, "I have no husband" Jesus affirms her answer, then gently exposes her sin: "The fact is, you have had 5 husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband". Five marriages didn't make her a sinner. Due to warfare, famine, disease, and injury, it is possible she had been unfortunate, and a widow had to became a beggar, a prostitute, or another man's wife. Each time, this Samaritan woman had chosen the best option. But sharing her bed with a sixth man who wasn't her husband? That was a sin. Did she confess? No. She changed the subject.
She talked about worship, Jerusalem, the differences between Jews and Samaritans. Again, we get her evasion. Finally, the woman at the well does her best to shut Jesus down. "When [the Messiah] comes, he will explain everything to us". How stunned she must have been at Jesus' revelation: "I who speak to you am he". The next moment, the arrival of his followers confirmed his identity and gave the woman time to process the truth: The Anointed One had come! Overjoyed, she left her water jar and went back into town to urge her neighbors, "Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?"
So by including this, John is giving a half way house, someone who was also expecting a messiah and was aware of the Jewish law. But also setting out his stall at the beginning showing that the gospel is also for those outside the Jewish tribes, showing how Christ revealed that the lady was a sinner and then that she needed saving not by being born in the tribe of Israel and being pure in that sense but by being pure in heart and accepting that Christ is the messiah.
Not used due to length of service:
On September 10, 1946 a woman was on a train from Calcutta to Darjeeling. She heard the voice of Jesus say to her. "I thirst." Christ's words from the cross (Jn 19:28). That woman was Mother Theresa. Jesus thirsts for the love and souls of all of us. That was what He told Mother Teresa on the train. The whole point of her order, The Missionaries of Charity, is to satisfy the thirst of Jesus by giving Him love and teaching other souls to love Him - to quench the infinite thirst of Jesus on the cross for love and souls. On the wall of every chapel in the Missionaries of Charity's houses, next to the large crucifix, that scripture verse is written. "I thirst." Mother Teresa said that if we don't understand that about Jesus - that He thirsts for each of us - then we still don't know Jesus. Jesus wants you and me infinitely more than we want Him! That's why Jesus is always at Jacob's Well. He's waiting for us. He's trying to communicate - even across the greatest human barriers of sin, hate, ignorance, fear, disbelief - just as he first did when he met that lady by the well in Sychar.