Richard Hackworth writes:
This morning’s reading from John 4.5-42 is about the gift of the Holy Spirit, and its power to transform lives, create disciples and to reconcile and transform communities. John’s gospel is so compact and full of metaphor and symbols that I think we need to think carefully about this passage to appreciate its fullmeaning. The passage is about a meeting between Jesus, a Jew, and a Samaritan women. There was an old enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans which Jesus used in his teaching more than once – the parable of the Good Samaritan is an obvious example. But why this enmity?
About 700 years before Christ the Assyrians conquered Israel. That story is toldin 2 Kings. The Assyrians had a policy of relocating the people of theirconquered nations to mix them up to supress resistance and revolt, and theyrelocated five alien groups into Samaria and forced them to coexist with theJews already there. Each of those five groups had their own traditions and godswhich then mixed with the religion of Israel, and the people intermarried.Unfortunately, the rest of the Jewish nation saw this as a shameful betrayal ofthe purity of Israel’s religion and of the Jewish tribe. So, they turned againstthe Samaritans, creating the Jewish – Samaritan schism which was still raw and entrenched and hurtful even in Jesus’ time, 700 years later.
In our reading Jesus and his disciples had been to Jerusalem for Passover and they were travelling north back to Galilee. They had walked about 35 miles from Jerusalem along a hot valley floor to the east of the Samarian Hills and Mt Gerizim. They come to the Samaritan town of Sychar. Samaritan territory was dangerous for Jews. Jesus and his disciples did not have to enter Sychar – they could have continued over the hills and skirted round the Samaritan towns likemost Jewish travellers did. But Jesus wanted to go in. The disciples went off to buy food - an uncomfortable errand in unfriendly territory. Perhaps they stayed as a group for their own protection. Jesus continued alone to reach a well, known as Jacobs well. Jacob’s well is fed by a spring so the water is moving, not static like an artesian well for example. One might call it living water. The well can still be seen today.
It was about noon. It was hot and dusty and Jesus was thirsty. At the well Jesusmet a Samaritan woman and asked her for water. The woman wasn’t going to be spoken to like that by a Jew and she challenged Jesus. “Who are you, a Jew,to ask me, a Samaritan for a drink?” He does not rise to her provocation but answers “if you knew the gift I offer you would ask me for a drink and I would give you living water”. Jesus’ answer must have sounded elliptical, ambiguous, and odd. She assumes Jesus refers to the so called living water in the well, soshe speaks bluntly to this impertinent Jew. “You haven’t even got a bucket – how are you going to draw the living water from this well? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob?” Jesus comes straight back. “Anyone drinking from this well will be thirsty again. The water I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing to eternal life.” Jesus was right. He is greater than the ancestor Jacob because his teaching will replace the law and wisdom of Jacob which both Jews and Samaritans regard as God’s gifts, and through Jesus the Grace of God would become a spring gushing to eternal life within each of us who accepts it. Now, the woman responds more calmly. “Give me this water so that I may never be thirsty or need to draw water again.”
Jesus then steers the conversation in a different direction. He says “call your husband and come back,” to which she says “I don’t have a husband.” Jesus’ reply is subtle. He says “You are right – you’ve had five husbands already and the one you now have is not really your husband either.” This time the woman understands Jesus precisely. Jesus is not talking about husbands. He is talking about Gods. Remember the five groups of aliens the Assyrians forcibly relocated to Samaria 700 years before, each with their own gods? Those gods had been tried and found wanting. The woman’s current god is probably the god of Israel, YHWH. The Samaritans worshiped YHWH only imperfectly because they did not worship in Jerusalem where the Jews said they should. Moreover, in Jewish law women had no right to divorce; only men could divorce. If this woman had been abandoned by five husbands she would have been grievously misused and a social outcast. Jesus recognises that the Samaritans had been misused by five false gods and the orthodox Jews did regard the Samaritans as outcasts.
The woman understands Jesus’ precisely. She says to him “You are right. I see you are a prophet. Our ancestors worship on Mt Gerizim but you say we must worship in Jerusalem.” Jesus replies “what really matters is that we worship God in spirit and truth in our hearts, not at any special place”. She looks at him and says “I know the Messiah is coming”, and finally Jesus tells her that he is the Messiah.
Then without hesitation she leaves her water-jar and hurries back to Sychar.Perhaps by abandoning her water-jar she means to leave behind her old waysallow her life to be directed by the Messiah whom she has just met. In the cityshe tells the people about Jesus and how her eyes have been opened about herself and about him. John says that many Samaritans believed in Jesus simply because of the woman’s testimony, and they asked him to stay for two days.
There is a lot in this short passage. The Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Wellperhaps represents all the Samaritan people, let down by their false gods andstill only imperfectly committed to the one true god of Israel, YHWH. Thespring beneath Jacob’s Well represents the outdated purity laws and Jewishexclusivity which Jesus would replace. The woman finds deep refreshment in the Holy Spirit Jesus offers and accepts Jesus into her life. Through the power of her personal testimony she convinces other Samaritans that Jesus is the Messiah, before they meet Jesus for themselves in their own lives. In a sensethe Samaritans are purified and spiritually re-born – baptised if you like - by the living water of life Jesus offers, while on the other hand the Jews do not recognise him at all. And when the disciples return with food they are amazed to see who Jesus talks to and the impact he has had on the Samaritan woman.
I understand from Tom that in the early church this reading formed part of a series for preparing candidates for baptism at Easter. It is a deep passage about the power and potential of the Holy Spirit to change people and communities.You might recall (I hope!) that the “Living God’s Love” mission which Bishop Alan promotes throughout the St Albans Diocese has three main strands
“Going deeper into God”,
“Transforming Communities” and
“Making New Disciples”
I think it is striking that these themes are so strongly represented and tightly woven through this passage from John; Jesus takes the woman deeper into God, she becomes a disciple and the Samaritan community is transformed.
What does this passage from John’s Gospel ask about us – as people and as a community? You know the questions. Might there be false Gods in our liveswhich fail to live up to their promises and let us down? Is it possible we are so accustomed to them that we don’t even notice them anymore? Do we honour and worship God in our hearts and carry his love into the world, or do we leave him here in church? Do we follow the example of the Samaritan woman at the well and allow the Holy Spirit to work through us, and give space to discipleship within our daily lives? These are questions for each of us to consider in the privacy of our thoughts as we reflect on our faith through Lent as we anticipate Easter.
And what of Jesus drink of water? It appears he never did receive it from the woman, but God opens conversations by asking something from us first, and then returning it to us with his blessing. To ask for help is not a bad way tostart a relationship which might lead to discipleship. In a sense this is what happens at the Eucharist; we share with God the work of human hand and mind– bread and wine – and God returns his love for us to carry into the world in his name. And remember what Jesus says in Matthew - “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” We serve Christ every time we serve each other or someone in need. We can give Jesus that drink of water.
One final thought. The Samaritan town of Sychar almost certainly corresponds to the modern place called Nablus Askar. Today there is a Palestinian refugee camp at Nablus Askar, where there live some 2000 families consisting of 32,000 people. Like the Jews and Samaritans, the Jews and the Palestinians are not on the best of terms. I pray that the living water of the Holy Spirit should inspire the leaders of Israel and Palestine, and wherever groups are at loggerheads, totransform their communities to find peace, just as the Samaritans responded to a Jew called Jesus who disregarded fear and mistrust to take his love to them.