When I saw in the lectionary that the reading for this week was Jesus and the Samaritan woman I was pleased. Not just because this is an interesting and well-known story but because when I was doing my qualification to become a teacher of Religious Education I did an essay on this passage from a feminist perspective. This was the first time I had really realised that the Bible could be read from different angles and it made me think. In fact this was probably one reason that I chose to do the dissertation for my theology degree on women in the Book of Judges. Some women have a really horrible time in the Book of Judges, in fact woman are often treated really badly, undervalued and marginalised in the Bible. Jesus, however, treated women rather differently, in his ministry he engaged with woman and treated them the same as the men he met as we see in today’s story.
Jesus left Judea in the south to go to Galilee in the North and he had to go through Samaria, well yes it would have been the quickest route but many commentators reckon it wasn’t the most normal one. Jews often went out of their way to avoid entering Samaria because they hated the Samaritans. The Samaritans were people who lived in what had been the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Samaria, the kingdom’s capital, was located between Galilee in the north and Judea in the south. The Samaritans were a racially mixed society with Jewish and pagan ancestry. Their temple was on Mount Gerazim instead of in Jerusalem and the Samaritans were despised by ordinary Jews. Rather than contaminate themselves by passing through Samaritan territory, Jews who were traveling from Judea to Galilee would often cross over the river Jordan, and bypass Samaria by going through Transjordan, then cross over the river again as they neared their destination.
But Jesus did go through Samaria and when he was there he stopped at a well for a drink. This story has many unusual aspects, firstly Jesus going through Samaria and here is another, both Jesus and the woman are at the well at the sixth hour, this is generally thought to be mid-day, the hottest time of the day, why was Jesus travelling at the hottest time of day? And why was the woman drawing water then, the normal time to draw water was in the cooler parts of the day?
And the unusual things continue, there at the well Jesus did something that would be quite acceptable and unremarkable to us but would have been shocking at that time and place, he asked a Samaritan woman for a drink. As I have said the Jews and the Samaritans were at daggers drawn and a Jew would never usually choose to speak to a Samaritan. But not only that, Rabbis, Jewish teachers did not usually speak to women in public, not even their own wives. I am always amused by the so called bruised and bleeding Pharisees who shut their eyes to avoid seeing a woman and got bumps and bruises as a result. For Jesus, a rabbi, to speak not only to a Samaritan but to a Samaritan woman was deeply shocking. The woman herself acknowledges as much when she says, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” But Jesus is here at this well for a reason and he ignores the taboos and continues to talk to the woman.
It quickly becomes apparent to us that Jesus and the woman are talking at cross-purposes. When Jesus talks about living water the woman thinks he means actual literal water but Jesus is talking about something altogether deeper and more vital. Jesus asked her if she wants living water and when she does not understand he says ‘Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’ Thinking of her own life the woman is thrilled by this idea, water that once drunk means that the person is never thirsty again, brilliant.
If any of you have ever been camping, maybe as a Scout or Guide or with your family you will know how much time and energy is spent collecting water. For this woman it would be a daily chore carrying every drop of water used in the household in large jars. Sure she wanted some of that water.
Jesus is aware that she is not on his wave length, so he says ‘Go, call your husband and come back’. But the woman says that she has no husband and Jesus replies ‘You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband’. What are we to make of that? Most commentators use this statement to claim that the woman is immoral, that she is prostitute an outcast from society that no-one wanted anything to do with, one commentator calls her the ‘Bad Samaritan’ in contrast to the parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’. Feminist commentators however, have a different viewpoint; they put forward various explanations for her situation. We don’t really know. Some commentators suggest that the story of the woman is put here in direct contrast to the story of Nicodemus who encounters Jesus earlier in John’s Gospel. Nicodemus was a man, a Pharisee he had it all going for him whereas this was a Samaritan woman of doubtful character. The world saw Nicodemus very differently from the Samaritan woman but Jesus didn’t.
So Jesus told her something about her life he couldn’t possibly know, was that an accusation or was he trying to make her see that the water he was talking about wasn’t the literal water from the well. Well there doesn’t sound as if there is any censure in his words and the woman immediately said ‘I can see that you are a prophet.’ Maybe because she was trying to change the subject from her dodgy life or maybe because she realised that Jesus was not talking literally that they were having a theological discussion and so she asked Jesus a theological question ‘ Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, (as I said that would be Mount Gerazim) but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.’ So which is right, where should we worship God? And Jesus tells her something very important he tells her that God is not interested in whether a person is Jew or Samaritan or where they worship, what interests God is that ‘his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.’ Its not the place it’s not the content of worship that matter it’s what we are putting into our worship and what we are seeking to take out that is important to God. If we sit here week after week just letting it all flow over us then we are not worshipping in the spirit and in truth, as we worship we must seek to be changed, we must allow ourselves to be changed. As she speaks to Jesus the Samaritan woman is changed.
Because now something else amazing happens, the woman now deeply involved in the spiritual nature of the conversation mentions the messiah, the Christ, and Jesus, for the first time in John’s gospel, reveals himself as the messiah, Jesus reveals himself to a Samaritan, to a woman, to this woman, this outcast. ‘Then Jesus declared, ‘I who speak to you am he.’ Quite a wow moment.
And into this strange and significant scene come the disciples, this hiatus allows the woman to dash off to her village leaving her water jars behind and Jesus with the disciples. Now interestingly Jesus and the disciples have a similar conversation but about food not water, and the disciples, despite having been with Jesus for some time are no quicker on the uptake than the woman.
But back to the Samaritan woman, when she gets back to her village, this woman, this outcast proves herself to be something else, she proves herself to be a disciple. Because she does what a disciple does, she brings others to Christ. She rushes back and tells everyone what happened to her and with a surprising influence she is believed. ‘Come; see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?’ She said. And her testimony was taken seriously; many people came out of the village to see this prophet on her say so. The change that talking to Jesus had made to this woman was obvious for her fellow villagers to see. So on her say so they went to hear Jesus, They listened to him, liked what he said, urged him to stay. ‘And because of his words many more became believers’. They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.”
A truly amazing story and there are several important things we can say about this story, the fact that Jesus talks to a woman and a Samaritan points out that Jesus ministry was for everyone, not just for Jews and this is a big message in the gospels. But I think that the more important message is the nature of discipleship. The Samaritan woman was a disciple just as surely as Andrew was when he went and got his brother Peter, disciples are those who follow the great commission, who bring others to Jesus. Disciples can be anyone; disciples are not always the people we might expect, the people we think God would choose. When they returned the disciples were horrified to see Jesus talking to this foreign woman.
A disciple is someone who listens to what Jesus says, takes his message seriously, then bring others along. A disciple is someone who meets Jesus and allows themselves to be changed as the Samaritan woman was changed, someone who is born again as Nicodemus was born again.
Disciples can be anyone, they might even be us, ‘oh no you say, I’m not good enough’. The more we look at the people God and Jesus choose to do their will to be their disciples, the more we see that goodness doesn’t come into it. Remember when God looks at humanity he doesn’t see good and bad people, he sees sinners, because in Gods sight we have all sinned and fallen short. But he also sees potential, our potential to work for him, to help bring in his kingdom and that is what matters to God. Moses was a murderer, this woman was a woman and a Samaritan, the disciple Matthew was a hated tax collector, all chosen not because of what they were but because of what they could become. All changed and renewed by their meeting with God and Jesus.
It seems to me that Jesus didn’t happen upon this woman by chance, it seems to me that when he set out that day he knew that he would meet that woman and that she would be the very person to allow herself to be changed by meeting him so that she could bring her whole village to Jesus.
And my prayer for us this morning as we come together to worship the living God in spirit and truth is that we allow ourselves to be changed so that we too can be effective disciples, that we too can bring others to God and help to bring in his kingdom on earth.