Jews hated Samaritans. In fact, they despised them.
There were a number of reasons why they held them in such contempt:
- First, they considered them schismatics because they had built a rival temple to the one in Jerusalem.
- Second, they were seen as heretics because they took only the five books of the Torah to be their scriptures.
- Third, they were a mixed breed, people of questionable ancestry who had intermarried with foreigners and had been influenced by heathen customs and practices.
- And fourth, they refused to follow Jewish rituals or keep Kosher.
The very mention of Samaritans could turn the stomach of a Jew. Jews hated Samaritans – despised them – and avoided them in every possible way. Jesus knew this, which is why he makes a Samaritan the hero of his best-known parable; he’s the one, you remember, who stopped and helped the beaten man by the side of the road after both a priest and a Levite had passed him by. It’s also why he points out that when ten lepers were cured, the only one returned to him to give thanks was a Samaritan.
The Jews hated Samaritans so much that they wouldn’t even set foot on Samaritan soil. The land of Samaria was right in the middle of two Jewish territories, Judea in the south and Galilee in the north, but Jews traveling from one territory to the other would take a circuitous route, crossing over the Jordan just to avoid contact with Samaritans. It’s worth noting that Jesus didn’t take this route but chose instead to lead his disciples straight through this forbidden countryside – which was a very Jesus-like thing to do. And here, in this tainted territory, he meets the woman in today’s gospel story.
He begins a conversation with her, which no righteous Jewish man would ever have done, and even asks her for a drink. She responds with a very reasonable question: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (v.9). “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans,” the author John notes in parentheses, just in case we didn’t realize how shocking this behavior was. And why was it so shocking for Jesus to speak to this woman?
First, simply because she was a woman, and rabbis did not speak to women in public.
Second, because she was a despised Samaritan, and he should have been avoiding her, not engaging her in conversation.
And third, because she was a sinner, a woman of questionable reputation.
How do we know this? Even before the revelation of her multiple marriages and the fact that she was currently living with a man to whom she wasn’t married, John’s narrative gives us a clue: “It was about noon,” John tells us, when Jesus met up with this woman (v. 6). Women normally would draw water in the morning when it was cooler, or in the evening just before sundown. A woman who came to collect water in the scorching heat of midday was almost certainly there because she knew no one else would be. She was a social pariah who wanted to avoid the dirty looks and whispered criticisms of her neighbors.
Jesus’ actions would have shocked the readers of the Fourth Gospel. A Jewish man asking to take a drink from the cup of a Samaritan woman – scandalous! And then engaging her in a theological discussion which emphasized the similarities rather than the differences between their two religions – outrageous! Even she is taken aback by his willingness to engage with her. In the course of their conversation Jesus manages to transcend barriers of gender, race, religion and respectability!
But we shouldn’t be surprised seeing this kind of behavior from Jesus. Throughout the gospels he is portrayed as the friend of sinners and outcasts, the one who treats them with dignity and respect and is not afraid to love them or be with them. The gospels are full of stories like this one, where Jesus ignores the boundaries imposed by acceptable religious and social practice, and openly disregards man-made laws and regulations in order to show compassion. He consistently lets sinners and outcasts know that they are wanted and loved by God, even if they are despised by everyone else.
His compassion flows from the awareness of her need. There is a reason she is here alone at midday. He begins to converse with her, recognizing and responding to her need by offering her ‘living water’ that will relieve her thirst and restore her to life. But she fails to understand what he is saying, interpreting the metaphor literally. “Sir, you have no bucket and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” (v.11)
The turning point in this gospel story comes when Jesus says to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back” (v.16). Something shifts here. She has overcome her shyness at having a strange man – (and the enemy of her people at that) – talk to her, and has responded to his attempt to draw her into an almost playful conversation. But this comment touches a painful place in her and reveals a shadow side of her that she would prefer to keep hidden. She answers with a half-truth: “I have no husband.” The fact that she has no husband is true, but it doesn’t explain why she’s at the well at midday.
We play similar games with God, don’t we? Like this woman, we sometimes resort to evasive tactics to avoid the whole truth about ourselves. We are perfectly willing to engage God in comforting, non-threatening ways, but when God touches and exposes those parts of us of which we are ashamed, we cover ourselves and try to hide, or we justify ourselves with what we know are flimsy excuses. Have you ever avoided your prayer corner because you know God is there, waiting to have a difficult conversation with you? I have. “I have no husband,” the woman says. It’s true, but it’s not the whole truth.
Yet that is what Jesus is after – the whole truth. “You are right in saying, I have no husband,’ says Jesus, “for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” (v.17-18)
“Go, get your husband,” Jesus says to this woman. What would we say if Christ put this same question to us? What idea, what desire, what craving are we wed to, that prevents us from thirsting for God above all things? What secrets do we cherish, what faults do we cover up, what people or possessions do we cling to in an effort to avoid those shadowy, painful, embarrassing places within?
But Jesus sees and knows the whole truth about us. He shines a powerful light into those dark and hidden places and demands that we come to terms with the truth about ourselves. What might he say to us?
“Go, call that alienated relative to whom you’ve refused to speak for years.”
“Go, produce your income tax return and show it to me.”
“Go, bring me that lonely person who needed comfort and for whom you were unwilling to sacrifice some of your leisure time.”
“Go, bring back the person you cut with your sharp words.”
Unfailingly, Jesus directs our attention to those parts of our lives that remain desert just because living water has never gotten there. He asks us to go where we have no desire to go, because going there shatters the illusions we hold about ourselves and reveals our need for a Savior.
Admitting the truth about ourselves is the first step towards receiving that living water that can revive us and transform us and bring us into the life that is everlasting.
Perhaps we need to admit that we have sought comfort and security in material things – possessions, wealth, social status and the like – only to find that they didn’t make us one bit happier.
Perhaps we need to acknowledge that we’ve hidden and suppressed our deepest and truest selves because we were afraid that others wouldn’t approve.
Perhaps we need to admit that our besetting temptation has such power over us simply because we secretly enjoy it and don’t want to give it up.
Jesus shines light into these dark and hidden places and demands that we see ourselves for what we are: sinners in need of God’s grace and forgiveness, people whose hearts have dried and withered because of our refusal to accept the living water offered to us.
And here’s the remarkable thing. We might expect that when Jesus revealed her shadow side, this Samaritan woman would have fled from the truth, or pushed back at him to protect her secrets and remain in denial. But she doesn’t. She accepts these words of his that open her up and expose her vulnerabilities and weaknesses, recognizing them as words of love and compassion that she has needed to hear. And by doing so she is brought into a place of inner freedom and is flooded with joy as the living waters spring up to cover the parched and barren soil of her soul. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” she shouts to her neighbors. Come and see a man who was able to help me see the truth about myself, the truth that I am broken and incomplete, that I have made bad choices and suffered the consequences, but also the truth that I am a person with dignity, created in God’s image and worthy of love!
This is the truth that sets us free: that God loves us, welcomes us, delights in us, but also that God sees us and knows us and reveals to us the truth about ourselves, all the while extending his hand in which lay the gifts of forgiveness, healing, reconciliation and hope… living water for our parched and weary souls.
Now receive this good news and go forth, you that have been forgiven and healed, delivered from bondage and set free, and be channels of that living water to others – all others – in God’s name.
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