July 12, 2015 Sixth Sunday After Trinity
They Both Need Jesus
St. John 4:1-42
To begin at the most basic level, he was a man and she a woman. He was a Jew and she a Samaritan. He was a dignitary and she a person of low morals and lower reputation.
He was highly educated and she unschooled. He was influential and she powerless. He was trained in orthodox religion and she wallowed in folk religion.
What could these two, Nicodemus and the woman at the well, possibly have in common?
They both need Jesus.
When we launched this series on the Gospel of St. John a few weeks ago I asked you to read through the gospel daily for a month. I pray now that those who have done so have begun to reap the reward.
Our text from chapter 4 offers no explicit connection to the Nicodemus story in chapter 3. But this gospel is a literary composition like any other and the author uses literary devices.
One of those is putting episodes in close proximity to draw the reader into deducing conclusions: They both need Jesus.
Beyond that, we begin to form a picture that shows us what direct speech tells us: The Lord came first to the Jew and then to the Greek. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, for even so early in His public ministry Jesus has come under suspicion from the leaders of Israel.
We are watching the beginning of Israel’s rejection of God the Son. As John has proclaimed already, “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him” (1:11).
The encounter with the woman at the well occurs in broad daylight. We are seeing the earliest days of our Lord’s ministry to “the Greek”: everyone outside Israel.
All this we glean from the placement of these two stories of wildly varying responses to the Christ, which are reduced to this: They both need Jesus.
Early in my Christian life I heard a fellow on the radio explaining something that struck me as profound. He said he heard stories of those the Lord had saved from alcoholism and drug addiction and all manner of plagues we have brought down upon our heads in this sin-stained world. These stories extolled the wonder-working power of God to rescue the least, the last and the lost.
This man said, “I grew up in a rather normal family in a rather normal house on a rather normal street in a rather normal neighborhood and I never abused alcohol or drugs. But, you know what? I need Jesus just as much as they do.”
This man, I have no doubt, is a great admirer of John’s gospel.
In the eighth century before Christ, the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom of Israel and carried off all the citizens of substance into captivity. They then repopulated the area with their own. These intermarried with the lowly Jews who had been left behind and imported their own religious practices.
By the first century, the racially mixed Samaritans had established their own place of worship far from Mount Zion in Jerusalem, on Mount Gerizim. Racially pure Jews despised them for their tainted ancestry and their compromised religion.
Some scholars insist that Jews making the trek from Judea in the south to Galilee in the north crossed the River Jordan and traveled up its eastern bank and then traversed it to the west at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee to avoid setting foot in Samaria.
The first-century Jewish historian Josephus, however, offers evidence that sojourners used the more direct route through Samaria with some regularity. Certainly here, in chapter 4, we find Jesus making His way through the region.
He has departed Jerusalem for the Judean countryside to avoid premature confrontation with the rulers of the Jews. As we saw last Sunday, His ministry of baptism – actually performed by His disciples – overlapped briefly with that of John the Baptist. Some, alas, took them to be in competition, even though neither the Lord nor John ever cast his work in that light.
Perhaps to avoid any unfounded inference of conflict with the Baptist, Jesus now steers a course north, back toward Galilee, passing through Samaria. At a place called Sychar, at the sixth hour – noonday – He stops at Jacob’s well and there He “bumps into,” as it seems, a Samaritan woman.
You must fall back now on your understanding of the Jewish system of ceremonial purity. A Jew could become defiled – and thus banned for a time from the temple and its sacrifices – in a number of ways. One of those was physical contact with a foreigner, and especially a Samaritan.
Not many years after this encounter, the rabbis would codify in the Mishnah, a commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures, something already widely believed: “the daughters of the Samaritans are menstruants from their cradle,” and therefore in a perpetual state of uncleanness.
We are not surprised, then, when the woman is startled at Jesus’ request for a drink of water.
She has dismissed Him from any notion of a relationship, even at the surface level of pleasantries, for she knows Him for a Jew. The Jews will later call Him out as a Samaritan (8:48). Both groups regard Him as an alien . . . but He will win some from both for that kingdom in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female.
The woman is you and she is I. She is we . . . regardless of sex or class or race or color. We are so attached to ourselves that we will not forsake ourselves until God shows us ourselves as He sees us.
We are, you and I, adulterers. If I have ever forsaken the cause of Christ, if I have swerved from His truth and served His enemy for a moment or a day, I have strayed from the one true faith. I have contracted death. I need drink from the living water.
We are startled to see that Jesus has little interest in His people’s scrupulous ritual purity. Contact with a leper made one unclean . . . but when Jesus touches a leper He heals him (Matthew 8:3). The Samaritan woman cannot yet know it but Jesus is sovereign over all things . . . even religious taboos.
And He is much more interested in offering her living water. Yahweh had told His people by His prophet Jeremiah: "For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn themselves cisterns-- broken cisterns that can hold no water” (2:13).
But the prophets also have foretold a day when “living waters shall flow from Jerusalem” (Zechariah 14:8). In John’s gospel, Jesus is both living water and the provider of living water.
Again like Nicodemus -- but with far more justification – the woman takes Jesus’ words in their most literal sense and the author hands us another misunderstanding to steer us first into confusion and then into resolution.
In arid territory such as this, in a frighteningly real sense, water is indeed life. Jacob only obtained it by sinking a deep well and devising a means of raising it to the surface. It was a woman’s work to haul water, but this particular woman is not typical.
Women usually went to the well in groups, and they went early or late to avoid the heat of midday. She is alone, at noonday, probably because the respectable women of the village have ostracized her. She must have water, for in water is life.
But she has no confidence in the ability of this strange Jew to produce anything beyond the water she normally draws. The Samaritans recognized only the Pentateuch, the first five books, as the authentic Scriptures, but Jacob appears in the first of them and they, no less than the Jews, claimed him as a patriarch.
Her tone betrays at least a touch of contempt. Can this upstart Jew supply water superior to that of her great ancestor? What is this twaddle about a drink of water that quenches the thirst forever?
The answer again is in the prophets, but the Samaritans did not read the prophets. Isaiah had said: “Therefore with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (12:3). Yet if even the elite Jews did not recall or did not trust the words of their own prophets, how could this uneducated Samaritan?
Like Nicodemus, this woman is unwilling or unable to rise from the dust of the physical world around her. If I can obtain a blessing that frees me from these endless trips to the well, she reckons, let it be so. Yet with His mention of “a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life,” Jesus opens her understanding just a crack.
He is revealing Himself as the Giver, to be sure, but at the same time He is disclosing the gift.
In the exchange that brings out her wayward way of living we see her attempt to evade the subject by denying that she has a husband. Jesus deftly lets her off the hook by conceding graciously her technical point – she indeed has no husband in the legal sense – while revealing more about Himself.
He has knowledge no man should have . . . could have. A Jew could not know her even by reputation, but here He sits, beside the well, telling her about her five husbands and her current common-law relationship.
“Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet.”
What would you do if you found yourself confronted by a prophet of another religion? Dig down into theological differences? This woman, perhaps wishing to discourage any more discussion of her tattered morality, gets right down to cases.
Mount Zion or Mount Gerizim? Where is the locus of true worship? And she flings herself into the divine trap, for next we hear Jesus tell her, and us, the answer is (c): neither of the above.
Yes, the one true religion comes from the Jews, but it is no longer confined to the Jews. The ground has shifted under them . . . all of them. The hour is coming – for His crucifixion, resurrection and exaltation are future. The hour now is – for He has taken on flesh and appeared in His creation to redeem it.
And the nexus of acceptable worship is no longer at a particular shrine. It is not a matter of what the worshiper is inside but of what is inside of the worshiper: spirit and truth. But tread carefully. Our Lord is not referring, as some think, to sincerity. Some are sincerely deluded.
The key is in v. 24: “God is Spirit.” A God who is Spirit transcends any earthly sanctuary. A worshiper of such a God must offer Him gifts of the Spirit – obedience, faith, hope, love.
The God who spoke the world into existence has now spoken a Word: “In the beginning was the Word . . .” This Word is the perfect manifestation in the flesh of God who is Spirit; He is eternally true.
Unlike John the Baptist, the Word does not baptize with water but with the Holy Spirit. Only those who are baptized from above, who are born of the Spirit, can see the kingdom of God.
Recall from chapter 3 that mortals cannot see this Spirit, who issues forth like the wind, cannot know whence He cometh nor whither He goeth. But neither can they deny His effect.
Once again the woman’s fragmentary knowledge of the Old Testament proves a stumbling block. In the Hebrew Scriptures “the Spirit” renews, quickens, creates. And so the God who is Spirit has sent the Word who is Truth to baptize with the Holy Spirit, to infuse life into the spiritually dead.
The prophets foretold a day when worship would no longer be tied to a shrine, when knowledge of the living God would spill out to cover the earth, when worshipers would be numbered with the stars of the sky and the grains of sand on the seashore.
That day is coming, and now is. It is by the good offices of the second and third Persons of the Trinity in this world that people are anointed and equipped to worship the God who is Spirit above. The Father seeketh such to worship Him.
More light creeps in. The woman has heard of one called “Messiah,” the final prophet, who will teach His people what is now withheld from them. Jesus says, “I who speak to you am He.”
He has exploded her categories, demolished the frame of reference through which she looks upon the world. He refuses to see her as a lowly woman, will not know her as a despised Samaritan. In His eyes she is a . . . human being. She is made in the image of God.
Are you surprised that He says plainly, as He has not done with His own disciples, that He is the Messiah? For the Jews, that title was freighted with so much political and military connotation that He avoided it.
His words here are consistent with His utterances following His healing miracles: He did not discourage dissemination of the good news in gentile territory as He did in Jewish contexts.
The return of His disciples, who had gone off to buy food, occasions another misunderstanding. When they urge their Master to eat, He speaks of having other food. They assume someone else has brought Him food, but He refers to His actions in submission to His Father’s will as the true nourishment.
When He fasted those 40 days in the wilderness, His obedience sustained Him. Is it thus for you?
The Lord couches the work of evangelism in a metaphor about a harvest of grain, leaving the disciples with a mandate to continue the missionary enterprise after He departs. In the first chapter of Acts, we will find His commandment to take the gospel first to the Jew, next to the Samaritan and finally to the remotest parts of the earth.
When the woman reports her encounter with this mysterious prophet to her fellow villagers, many accept her testimony and skedaddle out to meet Him themselves. John relates that after they prevail upon Him to remain with them – for what turns out to be two days – others believe in Him based on what they hear from His mouth.
A peek below the surface of the narrative may reveal an extension of the wedding motif we’ve seen in the water-into-wine episode in Cana and in John the Baptist’s reference to himself as Jesus’ best man.
In Genesis and Exodus, when a man and a woman meet at a well on foreign turf, wedding bells are soon to toll. This woman, whose unseemly sexual history speaks to the ragged religious understanding of the Samaritans, and her townfolk are the firstfruits of the church, the bride of Christ.
Jesus had come to His own, who received Him not; the Samaritans rejoice in an intimate relationship with Him. The beauty and power of the gospel must overwhelm the entire world.
The mission to the gentiles is well launched, and we see that the woman and Nicodemus, Jew and Samaritan, junkie and regular guy, have something in common: They both need Jesus. Amen.