5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
13 Jesus answered, “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.”
15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
17 “I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”
28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him.
I am so tired of winter weather. I am tired of seeing it, I am tired of talking about it, and I am tired of complaining about it. Yet I am told that next Tuesday, March 25, we are to receive a storm where we measure the snow not in inches, but in feet.
We had another snow day here in Staunton, VA this past Monday, closing down schools, stores, and other places of employment up and down the Shenandoah Valley.
I usually try to get out and shovel my walk and front steps pretty early in the morning after a snowfall, but I knew that this snow would continue into the afternoon, so I waited it out for a while. One of the reasons that I like to shovel early is because if I don’t, my doorbell becomes a popular place for random people to stick their fingers. We might get a half-dozen entrepreneurs looking to make a few extra dollars by shoveling our walk and/or driveway.
Now you know that I am a frugal person and that there is no way that I am going to pay someone to do something that I can do on my own, thank you very much. So when the doorbell rang for the first time on Monday morning, I knew just what to expect.
“Excuse me, sir. Would you like me to shovel your driveway?”
“No, thanks. I’ll get to it here in a bit.”
I’ve gone through this scenario many times, but this time I was thrown off a bit. The gentleman standing at my front door then asked if he could borrow my snow shovel so that he could shovel other people’s driveways.
I’ll admit, I hesitated. A complete stranger was standing at my door, asking to borrow my shovel. I quickly asked his name and he started to give me his full name and address, I think he wanted to make sure I knew where to find him if my shovel didn’t make its way back to my house. I told him my name and sent him on his way with hopes of prosperity upon him.
But I asked myself, why did I hesitate? I had a shovel sitting right there on my porch that I wasn’t using. Did I hesitate because he and I are not of the same race? Did I hesitate because he seemed a social class or two and an income level or two below me? Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t think that is why I hesitated. I think that I hesitated because I don’t usually give out tools to strangers. And I think that I hesitated because I was wondering how he planned to shovel my driveway when he approached my door if he didn’t bring a shovel.
We probably all have these kinds of cross-cultural experiences on a regular basis with people of different ethnicities, cultures, and social statuses. Far too often we see what is on the outside and we see our differences. But today’s text calls us to remember what we have in common with all people: we all need grace; we all need love.
Our text for today is a familiar one, which just makes it that much more difficult to speak on. When I say “Samaritan,” what do you think of? Many of us think of the “Good Samaritan,” the story that Jesus told in response when asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Perhaps you think of the organization, “Samaritan’s Purse,” which is an international Christian relief organization which seeks to bring help and hope to those in need. And if these are the images that come to your mind when you hear the word “Samaritan,” you probably have a pretty positive image of this people group.
The Samaritans lived in the region between Galilee and Judea, just north of Jerusalem and just south of Nazareth. So Samaria took a swath right out through the middle of the Jewish territory.
Imagine the year is 582 BC and you are a Jewish person. The Babylonians have come through your town and carried your people into exile. 70 years pass and your family is allowed to return home, only to find that your land is no longer your land. Someone else is living where your ancestors once called home. Not only are they living on your land, they are also claiming that God gave them this land because they are the true descendants of Abraham.
You see, the Samaritans were descendants of Manasseh and Ephraim, the sons of Joseph, the son of Jacob. They were given a portion of the northern section of the Promised Land. But these tribes did not follow God’s instructions. Notice this commandment from Deuteronomy 7:3-4a: “Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods.” (Please note that this passage has absolutely nothing to do with modern interracial marriages. This isn’t about ethnicity for ethnicity’s sake.)
Members of the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim who remained in their territory after the first exile married non-Jews, perhaps marrying some of the people who remained from previous people groups that had lived in that territory or perhaps marrying into the very people group that had conquered them (the Assyrians) and taken their relatives off into captivity.
Either way, certain members of the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim had married the enemy and formed this new people group, the Samaritans. The enemy was now their family. This makes the Samaritan the enemy of the Jew.
It isn’t surprising that the Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along, which is of course why the story of the Good Samaritan is so powerful. And it really isn’t surprising that Jews traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem often went out of their way to avoid traveling through Samaria. This was the norm in the 1st century. So when Jesus travels through Samaria, it is a little unusual. His disciples probably questioned it a bit, but Jesus is already getting a reputation for doing things slightly different from everyone else. And what is even more surprising is that while his disciples are off running an errand, Jesus speaks to a Samaritan.
Let’s just stop a second and keep in mind that Jesus is starting to gain a following. He is gaining a reputation as a religious leader. And he speaks to a Samaritan, specifically one of the feminine persuasion.
If you are looking to gain a following in the Hebrew tradition in the 1st century, talking to Samaritan women is probably not a good place to start.
Today in the 21st century you would probably take notice of a religious leader meeting one-on-one with a woman. But in Jesus’ day this would have been down-right scandalous. And we aren’t even close to done digging into this scandal.
Growing up on the farm it was often my job to make sure all animals received adequate food and water. And of course, not all of our animals could be watered with a hose and most didn’t have automatic watering troughs. This meant I often carried water in 5 gallon buckets to our pony, the goats, and the pigs. One of the first things you notice as a young man carrying buckets of water is that water is heavy: 8.34 pounds/gallon, to be exact. So a 5 gallon bucket of water can easily weigh over 40 pounds. How much do you think a pony drinks in the summer months?
The story of Jesus and the woman at the well is interesting because these two seem to be all alone when they are having their initial conversation and this may have been the only well in walking distance from the city.
Yet this makes more sense when we consider the time of day. John makes sure to note that it was around noon. The sun is high in the sky, and you can imagine that the temperature is also quite high there in the desert.
Let’s put it all together: water is heavy. It is hot during the noon hour. Therefore, most people would get their water early in the day, or late in the evening to avoid carrying this heavy, yet important commodity.
It seems that the woman intentionally went to the well when she knew she had the least chance of running into others. Evidently there was something in her past, something about her that made her an outcast even among her own people.
And it is Jesus, a man, a Jew, an outsider, an enemy, who sees her and asks for a favor: “Can I have a drink?”
As we move along in the text, we find Jesus mentioning that this woman has had five husbands and the man that she is currently living with is not her husband. And unfortunately we often assume the worst about this woman. We figure that this language of “husband” is actually a euphemism for partners and that this woman is a prostitute. I was surprised as I read through several commentaries on this passage as scholar after scholar remind us that we should not and cannot assume that this woman is a prostitute. Unlike the woman caught in adultery, Jesus never tells her to “go and sin no more.”
Perhaps she has been married and dismissed by five different husbands, forever labeling her as “damaged goods.” Perhaps she is living with a sixth man because in the 1st century she would have few options for providing for herself and was relying on the financial support of yet another man. We can’t say for sure, but we should not jump to any conclusions. It could be that she was a victim.
What we can clearly see in this story is that this woman was an outsider to the Jewish community, hated, despised by her half-ancestors. And this woman was likely an outsider in her own community because for whatever reason, she had been married five times. And Jesus was offering her new life.
Last week we looked at Nicodemus, the Pharisee that came to Jesus in the middle of the night. Nicodemus and the woman at the well couldn’t be more different on the outside. Nicodemus is named, the woman at the well isn’t. Nicodemus was a powerful man in his community, the woman was possibly a social outcast in hers. Nicodemus was a keeper of the Law, a teacher of the Law, and an expositor of the Law. This woman was a sinner.
What unites these two characters is their need for Jesus and his offer of a new beginning, a new life where they can all experience love and acceptance.
On Tuesday, when the next big storm comes through, I hope that the young man who borrowed my shovel last week will find his way back to my front porch. There will be a shovel waiting on him, along with a healthy dose of love and acceptance.