Sermon for Third Sunday of Lent – High Mass Sunday 23 March 2014
A sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Exodus 17.1-7; Romans 5.1-11; John 4.5-42
Last Sunday, you may recall, we had the story of Nicodemus coming to see Jesus by night. This Sunday, we have another encounter of an individual with Jesus.
The Samaritan woman is the opposite of Nicodemus. He was a man, a Jew, and a respected member of society, a pillar of the establishment, an insider.
She is a woman, a Samaritan, whose dubious marital status puts her on margin of society, an outsider.
Like the story of Nicodemus, the encounter with the Samaritan woman begins as a conversation between two individuals. Jesus meets her as he is sitting alone beside a roadside well: his disciples have gone into town to buy food and no one else is present.
Yet as the conversation progresses, she too comes to act as the spokesperson for her people. They begin to address each other in the plural form of speech. The woman voices the concerns of her people.
Her name is not given; she is simply “a woman of Samaria” or “the Samaritan woman”. When Jesus asks her for a drink, she raises the issue of the division between Jews and Samaritans: “how it is that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”, then later shifts to the plural, as she asks, on behalf of her people, “Surely you’re not greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this well?”
The references to Jacob highlight her representative role. The Old Testament tells how several of the woman’s ancestors, including Jacob and Rachel, first courted beside a well. The usual pattern is of a man travelling in a foreign land where he meets a young woman beside a well. Water is given and the woman hurries home to tell her family about the visitor. The man is invited to stay and a betrothal is arranged.
Jesus had taken the role of the bridegroom earlier in the Gospel in providing wine for the wedding at Cana, and John the Baptist had identified Jesus as the bridegroom who had come to claim the bride.
Now, Jesus is travelling through Samaria, foreign territory. There he meets one of Jacob’s descendants, a woman who had come to the well at midday as Rachel had. Will she, like Rachel, be receptive to the stranger.
Now the story does not go as might be expected. Unlike the maidens in those biblical scenes, the Samaritan woman has already had five husbands. The text does not say whether she has been divorced or widowed, but five husbands does seem a bit excessive. Not quite Elizabeth Taylor, but getting close. Rabbis at the time permitted a widow to marry again once or perhaps twice. Moreover, the woman was living with a sixth man, either out of desire or necessity, in a relationship that was not a marriage. At best her story is tragic; at worst it is sinful.
These details enhance her role as a representative of the Samaritan people. Her story parallels the history of her people. The Samaritans were not simply descendants of Jacob; their ancestry was mixed. The Assyrians who conquered the region in the 8th century brought colonists from five foreign nations into Samaria, and the issue of intermarriage continued to cloud relations between Jews and Samaritans.
Herod the Great continued the policy of colonization by settling thousands of foreigners in the Samaritan capital, which he renamed in honour of the Emperor Augustus. The woman’s personal history of marriage to five men and cohabitation with a sixth parallels the history of Samaria.
Jesus and the woman are together at a well and they speak of water. The first level of their conversation deals with disputes about national identity. The Samaritan woman recognizes that he is a Jew, a perception accurate as far as it goes; and when he asks her for a drink, he is surprised, since “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”
Jesus is Jewish, but he crosses the line separating Jews from Samaritans by offering the woman the gift of living water that can erode the barrier between the two peoples.
The reasons the Jews, “do not share things with the Samaritans” had to do with purity. Samaritans were thought to be unclean. Samaritan women were worse still: to be treated as if they were constantly menstruating – and therefore in a permanent state of impurity. Jews thought Samaritan worship combined elements of Israel’s tradition with the veneration of foreign gods, so that it was “filth” that they revered on their holy mountain.
Jews and Samaritans both used the expression “living water” for flowing water, stream or spring, in contrast to water entombed in a cistern. The scriptures used by both stated that living water had to be used when purifying people from defilement. So Jesus offers a gift that would remove the taint of the Samaritans and bring them into the worshipping community. In that reconciliation of which Paul boasts in the Epistle, all barriers are broken down, all taints washed away.
We see a second level of meaning in this “living water” in connection with the disclosure that Jesus was a prophet and the Messiah.
Jesus says, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ (4.13-14)
The water in Jacob’s well was bound to a particular place. It needed to be pulled up by hand. It only quenched thirst for a short time. But the water Jesus promises can spring up within a person so that they would never thirst again. The water from Jacob’s well could extend life for a while but living water from Jesus would issue into life everlasting, which in John means a life lived in relationship with God.
Jesus echoes Moses in our first reading, being enabled to miraculously provide water for the people in the desert. According to tradition, the water that sprang up at different times and places actually came from a single miraculous well that accompanied the people as they travelled.
Both Jews and Samaritans also likened the law given through Moses as a gift of God and the source of life in relationship with him, as water. Moses had given the people the law which was understood to be a gift of God and a source of life in relationship with God.
The woman responds to Jesus’s insight into her personal life by calling him a “prophet” and raising an issue of national importance – whether people should worship at the Jewish sanctuary in Jerusalem or the Samaritan holy place at Mount Gerizim.
The woman speaks for Samaritans, while Jesus, who considered the Jerusalem Temple his Father’s house, initially speaks for Jews. By telling the woman, “You people worship what you do not know,” Jesus voices the Jewish view that idolatry reflected ignorance.
The conversation about worship begins to reveal a yet wider dimension of the woman’s role; a universal one. Jesus places the woman and the Samaritan people in the category of those who worship what they do not know. From the Jewish perspective this was most of humanity, and from John’s perspective it was typical of “the world.”
Yet ignorance is not the final word, for Jesus announced that the worship established by “our fathers” would give way to worship inaugurated by “the Father,” and would be “in Spirit and in truth.”
When the woman goes to tell her “husband” about this man who has told her everything about herself she leaves her water jar behind. This is no accident. The jar represents the traditions of her people. These cannot contain the significance of Jesus who transcends them, as he has those of the Jews represented by Nicodemus.
When she reports to the people in the town that she has met a man who has told her everything about herself, they come to see and then invite him to their community. Samaritans who worshipped what they did not know, now acknowledge that he is “truly the Saviour of the world.” Their confession signals the return of a part of the unbelieving world to God.
“Saviour of the world” was a title not used by Jews or Samaritans but by the Romans.
The faith of the townspeople points to Jesus’s significance for all people. In him the differences between Jews and Samaritans are transcended, and as Paul would say, those between Jew and Gentile.
The episode begins like the betrothal stories of Israel’s ancestors, but ends with the kind of reception that cities of the empire would extend to the emperor. By going out to meet Jesus on the road, inviting him into their town, and hailing his as the “Saviour of the world,” the people of Sychar witness to the universal scope of his power and his mission, which are for all times, all places and all peoples. We have reaped the fruit of others’ labour in that mission and we are called in turn to labour that others, whoever they might be, wherever they are from, may share in it.