Epiphany 5 (NL4)
February 4, 2018
John 4:1-42 (Samaritan Woman at the Well)
John begins this story by telling us that Jesus “had to go through Samaria.” A look at the map will reveal… he didn’t. Or rather, he did, but it was a vocational need, not a physical one. Why does this matter? Well let’s review about the Samaritans. Jews and Samaritans share the same roots, but after Solomon died, the kingdom of Israel split into North and South. Jerusalem was in the southern kingdom. You may recall from a couple weeks ago, that Jews believed that God could only be found… where? In the Temple in Jerusalem. So that was the only place to properly worship. So without access to Jerusalem, the Northern Kingdom (including Samaria) went rogue – they came to believe God could be properly worshiped on Mount Gerizim. Furthermore, these Samaritans married outside of the Jewish cult, meaning they were not racially pure like the Jews, and that they had developed some foreign religious practices. Over the years, the divisions grew deeper, because they were racially and religiously different, and leaders of both groups forbade contact with the other. There was a proverbial wall between these two groups, the Jews and the Samaritans, which no one was to cross. All of which makes John’s seemingly casual comment, “Jesus had to go to Samaria,” suddenly much more ominous! The reader thinks, “Oh no, this can’t go well…”
What follows is an encounter that gets more and more surprising. Jesus not only approaches a Samaritan, but a Samaritan woman, and one that appears to have, shall we say, a checkered past. And she actually engages in dialogue with him – the longest dialogue in the New Testament, in fact – and asks him the most pressing theological questions of the day. There’s much to be learned and observed in this encounter, so… let’s get to it! [READ]
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last week, St. Martin held the first in a series of Community Conversations. Our first conversation was on the drug epidemic, and featured a wonderful panel of people who work in the recovery movement in various capacities. We had a great turnout – this is truly an area where people are thirsting for information and for hope – and I think everyone there left with some valuable nugget to think about. The nugget that I left with was one that was shared several times and ways by multiple speakers: that the opposite of addiction is connection. The opposite of addiction is connection. In other words, addiction is not so much about the pleasurable effects of substances, but rather about the inability of the user to connect in healthy ways with other human beings. It isn’t a substance disorder; it’s a social disorder. All of the recovery efforts our panel talked about focus on helping people make those meaningful, human connections, on seeing people who struggle with substance use disorders as real people with something valuable to offer, on building trust, and on not shaming or disregarding people for the struggles they face.
I’ve been thinking about this as I have studied this week’s Gospel story about the Samaritan woman at the well. Here we have a woman who lacks connection. She’s had five husbands, which means five men have either died or divorced her, and probably the latter means she is barren. This all means she is viewed by her culture as worthless, unable to have kids, or at least as damaged goods, and no one will have her. The guy she’s living with now is probably her dead husband’s brother, according to levirate law. She is probably more talked about than talked to. No one goes to the well at midday, at the hottest part of the day, unless they are trying to avoid seeing anyone, and so that is when she goes. And then she states herself how inappropriate it is for Jesus to be talking to her – not only a woman, but also a Samaritan. It is clear that this woman has every reason to be suffering. Indeed, she thirsts: thirsts for connection, for belonging, for acceptance… all thirsts we know something about.
So how does Jesus respond to her thirst? Well, first of all, he goes to her. John tells us that Jesus “had to go to Samaria” – was it to go to this particular woman, at this particular place and time? Maybe. More importantly, I think, the point is Jesus had to go to Samaria to see that the wall erected by centuries of bad blood between Jews and Samaritans had to come down. It had to be chipped away at, penetrated, deconstructed. Later in John, Jesus prays to God “that they [we] would all be one,” and so to break down that wall was indeed necessary for his mission. To Jesus, the fact that Samaritans were a different color, had different religious practices, and had different customs – none of that mattered so much as it mattered to make a meaningful connection with these “others,” in his effort that we would all be one.
And so Jesus goes to Samaria. He crosses that boundary. He goes to this marginalized woman. And the first thing he does is to make himself vulnerable to her, by asking for a drink of water. Suddenly, they are together in their thirst. He thirsts for water, she for connection. They stand together.
Going back to our community conversation last week, one of the most powerful things about it was how authentic and vulnerable the conversation was. A couple of the panelists got choked up as they shared their stories of walking with loved ones who are struggling. At one point, one of the panelists had everyone in the room stand who had lost a loved one to addiction. A third of the room stood, as people looked around and simply noticed: I’m not alone. Then she had everyone who has a loved one who has struggled with addiction stand up, and nearly everyone in the room stood. It was a powerful moment, in which we all recognized the importance of seeing one another as being on the same plane. Connection is powerful.
How else does Jesus connect with this woman and respond to her thirst? He goes to her, and then he engages her in conversation. How remarkable that this, the longest dialogue in the New Testament, is between Jesus and an unnamed, vulnerable, Samaritan woman. After Jesus approaches her, she is emboldened to ask him some questions, even about the hottest theological issue of the day: where one should worship. And he takes her seriously. He in no way dismisses her, or hurries away. He gives her his time and attention. He listens to her. He sees her. He connects with her. He quenches her thirst.
And she, in turn, becomes the first evangelist – running into town to tell everyone she meets, all these other Samaritans, “Come and see the man who has told me everything I have ever done.” Come and see the man who truly saw me, and truly knows me, who truly connected with me. Come and see the man who quenched my deepest thirst, by giving me living water. She invites others to Jesus simply by sharing her own story, and people are intrigued. They say, “We were interested by your story, but now we believe because we have seen for ourselves.” They, too, connect with Jesus, and have their deepest thirst quenched.
This is a story about how Jesus crosses borders and tears down walls. It is a story about how Jesus goes out of his way to meet the religious and racial other, meaningfully connect with them, come to know them, and quench their deepest thirst with the good news of his presence dwelling among us. It is a story about how the lowliest and most despised among us, when given the chance to be heard and valued, could become the most effective trumpet for declaring the good news of Jesus Christ.
And all because Jesus dared to cross the forbidden borders – across gender, religion, and ethnicity – opening doors instead of building walls, genuinely connecting with those in need, and quenching the deepest thirst of those whom he met. We are left to consider: if we are to be followers of this loving, connecting, thirst-quenching Jesus, then which walls do we need to break down? Which “others” do we need to seek out, to hear their stories, and share ours, and genuinely connect? Is it those of a different gender or ethnicity, like the Samaritan woman? For example, immigrants or refugees among us, or some of the millions of women with a story to share about sexual harassment or assault who have until now not been believed? Or to go back where we started, could it be those who suffer from a substance abuse disorder? Who else could it be? What walls and borders need to come down?
I’m excited about the community conversation series at St. Martin, because I think it will help us to learn about some of the “others” in our own community who are in need of connection, who are in need of some living water to quench their deepest thirst. I hope you’ll consider coming to future conversations. And I also call us all into prayer, prayer that we would be aware of what walls and borders we have around us as individuals or the church, and how Christ would have us cross them, so that we might be emboldened to genuinely connect, in the name of Christ, with those in need of living waters.
Let us pray… Thirst-quenching God, grant us courage and trust in you, as we encounter walls between us, and those who differ from us. Help us to follow you across the borders made by humans, so that we could live into your hope that we would all be one. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen