Jesus In Samaria (March 8, 2020)
John 4: 4-18
Jesus in Samaria
So we return this week to our run through the story of the Scriptures, and we are now moving on from Galilee. You remember the last time, two weeks ago, Jesus was coming down the Mount of Transfiguration, and I said that Jesus would turn his face toward Jerusalem and would head toward his Passion. In the Gospel of Mark he does make one stop at Capernaum before doing so.
But I’m not in the Gospel of Mark today; I’m the Gospel of John. And we’ve been in the Gospel of Mark the entire time, so why am I in the Gospel of John? Well, the reason is that in the Gospel of Mark Jesus take a different route; a route that was more normal for a Jewish man to take to get from Galilee to Judea. This time though, in the Gospel of John, Jesus walks through Samaria. In fact it says that Jesus “had to go through Samaria.” And I don’t want to lose these stories. Jesus‘s time in Samaria and on the way to Samaria are extremely important stories for us to remember as you move from Galilee to Jerusalem. I want to at least pick up something out of this trip.
So if he went to Samarica, why is it that Mark says Jesus went some with some other route? The simplest answer is he probably went to Jerusalem more than once. I mentioned at the very start of this calendar year that tradition holds Jesus’s ministry lasted for three years, which we get from multiple stories of a trip to Jerusalem, multiple stories of Passover; conflicting stories of these things. And the easiest way to resolve the conflict it’s just simply say he went more than once. If you have three conflicting stories of Passover, than that would mean he went three years in ministry. This is the idea. Probably, one time that he went to Jerusalem he went through Samaria, and another time he went to Jerusalem and he went on a different route.
Now, it is worth noting that the Gospel of John says that Jesus had to go through Samaria, but he did not have to go through Samaria. There was another route. In fact, it was more common to go the other route: a good Jewish man would travel across the Jordan River to the East Bank, walk down the East Bank of the Jordan River, and somewhere around Jericho cross back across the Jordan River and then wind up going to Jerusalem. They would do that specifically to avoid Samaria. And yet Jesus walks through. That would’ve been an extremely strange thing to do. If a Jewish man, for some reason, found themselves in a place where they absolutely had to go through Samaria, they would put their head down and go without looking back. So Jesus not only being here but interacting with the people is unusual. Not unique, but unusual.
The reason for that stems back to the book of Ezra, which is one of the books we skipped. The Book of Ezra is the story of the exiles coming back from Babylon. Now, the area of the northern part of Israel, Samaria and even Galilee, were conquered by the Assyrians about 150-200 years before the southern kingdom of Judah fell. And when they fell in the north, all of the nobles were all taken away and the poor were left in the land. And then the Assyrians moved other people into the land to kind of assimilate them. It was successful.
But what would happen is that the people who were left and the people who came in begin to intermarry. And they still called themselves good Jewish people, but they begin to intermarry. The exiles in Babylon did not intermarry with the people of Babylon. So, when they come back, they call those that remained not Jewish any longer. “You’ve intermarried; you are a half breed, and so therefore a Gentile,” they say. And when they built the Temple, the people they called Samaritans because Samaria was the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel and the largest city in the area, want to go worship God on the Lord’s mountain. And the returned exiles say no. You remember that a Gentile isn’t allowed in the assembly; and they said these people were not Jewish anymore, they were a Gentile now. So the people of the land say “OK, I’m just going to go worship on one of the mountains that the Northern Kings set up long ago. So they do, they start worshiping on their mountain. Actually, if you keep reading, one of the things that Jesus and this woman get into is where people were supposed to worship God: in Jerusalem or here. So this fighting between these two races, groups of people that have become different races and different religions almost, gets really tense over 500 years, and gets really really personal. And Jesus breaks into all of that and speaks to this Samaritan woman.
A little thing about the Gospel of John is that nothing really is in the Gospel of John by accident. There’s no words that are there simply because something had to be there. John is meticulous about every single word he mentions. And John says Jesus had to go through Samaria. We’ve already established that he didn’t physically have to; he could’ve gone around the East Bank and back across the Jordan River into Judea. So why does he have to go through Samaria? I contend that it was because he had to meet this woman, and a couple of the other stories that happen around Samaria such as the healing of the 10 lepers that happens right on the border of Samaria on this trip. I think these people needed to be visited by God so Jesus had to go through Samaria. Jesus made a point of coming to them. And Jesus makes a point of coming to us. Just as sure as he made sure he met with this woman; so he makes sure he meets with us. Just as he came to the well at the strange and stupid time of high noon specifically so that he could meet this woman who came to the well at high noon; so he goes out of his way to meet us where we are. This is the story of how Jesus interacts with the least of us.
Jesus meets this woman at the well and he asks her for a drink. He begins a conversation with her. Now, similar to a story later in the Gospels when the woman comes and washes Jesus‘s feet with her tears, some of you may remember that story; just like that one where that woman was the town outcast and the town sinner, so this woman is an outcast and not someone that Jesus should be speaking to, even if not a Samaritan. Scripture tells us that she had been married five times and now lives with the sixth man. This does not necessarily mean that she is promiscuous. The simplest answer would be she married a man with five brothers and never had children, and so by law when her husband dies she will be passed to the next brother, and then to the next brother, and the next, and so on. Then this would be the sixth brother, who because of fear or because she is not one of childbearing age any longer, is refusing to consummate that relationship. But let’s be honest, if that was a person around here there’d be talk going on behind the scenes, whispers following this person around from accusations of promiscuity to just simply accusations of being cursed. Either way we would cast her out; we would ostracize her in this society. And why would we think that they would be much different? Maybe this story is a lesson on who we cast out and who we include.
Now, for the most part I would assume that people would give a traveler a benefit of the doubt of not knowing that. If you’re just coming into town, you’re not going to know who the town prostitute is as they don’t wear a scarlet letter on their chest, no matter what that one book describes. But Jesus is supposed to be a prophet; and if a prophet doesn’t know that, then that’s a problem. Returning to the story of Jesus that with that woman coming in to wash his feet, the Pharisee whose house he is at thinks “if this man was a prophet, he would know who is washing his feet, and he would be disgusted.” The same would be true here: the idea that Jesus doesn’t know who this woman is would be a mark against him being a prophet. But for us, we can understand the story by looking back on the story. As we read the story, we know he does know who she is, he does know what she’s done, and he talked to her anyway, and he loved her anyway, and he gave her living water anyway. That is a statement by Jesus and by John that the outcasts are still loved by God.
Jesus states that he will give this woman the living water that comes from God, and the rest of that part of the conversation is him describing that he is the Messiah, and that he, the Messiah, the Son of God, cares enough to seek her out. The giving of the living water of Jesus looks here like Jesus seeing her; seeing who she is as a person beneath all of the stuff that has happened in her life. That’s what living water looks like: God caring enough to pay attention to who she really is underneath all the stuff that the society is judging her for. And the result of her receiving living water is her seeing him in that same way; her thoroughly understanding who God is. God offering living water is God seeing us, the real us, and caring about us. And the response to that, the result of that, is us being able to really see who God truly is underneath all of the interactions with all of humanity and the baggage of so many years of us falling away. To see God for who he is to see God like Adam saw God. That is what living water does. And the question is: are we thirsty for that water? Or are we too focused on her and her five husbands and one non-husband to recognize that we are thirsty too.
And something we cannot miss is that the living water is also Jesus willing to converse with her in spite of the ostracization of the world. The world won’t talk to her; she has to go to the well in the middle of the day, at the hottest part of the day when no one else is there because everyone else will keep her away. And yet Jesus, a Jewish messiah, comes and talks with her, a Samaritan. If we are to be the hands and feet of Jesus, then we are to bring people living water in that same way. Go and do likewise. Amen.