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The Discarded Samaritan Theologian

March 25, 2014

John 4: 5-42

In Jesus day, in Israel, there was no such thing as a “good Samaritan”. ‘Samaritan’ was a term of abuse. When Jesus told the story of the ‘good Samaritan’ it was an act of profound courage. He was speaking to a community’s deepest hatreds and making a hero of their traditional enemy.

Today we find Jesus visiting Samaria. Something traditionally avoided by Jews. And more than that, seeking hospitality from a Samaritan woman. A rabbinic ruling from a period a little later than Jesus time (which no doubt reflects the general culture) forbids marriage with Samaritans because of their impurity [quote] ‘Samaritan women were viewed as perpetual menstruants from the cradle to the grave, conveying uncleanness to everything they touched or overshadowed’. As Rabbi Eliezer used to say “one who eats bread baked by Samaritans is like one who eats pork”

In spite of all of this Jesus asks the woman for a drink of water. He transgresses all the boundaries. The tension in the conversation must have been enormous. The woman is deeply aware of that, puzzled by it. Jesus says to her

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“If you knew…” The only thing that could have possibly persuaded her to do the unthinkable and ask something of a Jewish man is ‘the gift of God’… something bound up with the identity of the man standing before her at the side of the well.

What Jesus knows is that God is a God of gifts.

When we celebrate Harvest each year we are reminded that God gives life, freely, indiscriminately. That was one of Jesus great and deep insights.

When we read the story of Jesus we are reminded that the “gift of God” transgresses all the boundaries that human beings erect and that the gift of God is a gift that keeps on giving (sorry if that sounds like a cliché)… but what else does he mean by saying that the living water he gives ‘will become… a spring of water gushing up to the life to come’. Those who know God as the giver, will become themselves transformed to become givers themselves of divine life. The gift of God will flow through us too!
If the woman had known this about God… she might have initiated the conversation… But she didn’t, so she doesn’t. [pause]

Tell me… what do we actually know about this woman who turns up to carry water in the midday sun? The common story that is told about this woman is that she is a prostitute (or at least an adulterer), who is converted from a life of immorality to one of morality. But it’s just not there in the story. Instead we have a story of tragedy. A woman has been divorced (the male prerogative in Jesus time), abandoned, or perhaps widowed… 5 times – five times discarded on the rubbish tip of life. This story asks us to stop for a moment and imagine how that would be for her. Furthermore she could now be living with someone that she was dependent on, or she could be in what was called a Levirate marriage (Ruth – childless woman married to her deceased husbands brother for the sake of providing children, but not technically considered his wife). We simply do not know.

David Lose argues that there are all sorts of ways of seeing in this story not a scandal but a tragedy. But we tend to like the excitement of scandal. Nowhere does Jesus call the women to repent or announce her forgiveness.

Jesus sees this women for who she is. He sees her in all her discardedness. He sees in her every word and deed… abandonment… broken heartedness.
And the woman does not feel condemned by his response. You can tell by what she does next. She sees no criticism or judgment. She just knows that he is someone who can see clearly, has god-given insight, insight that comes with compassion.

A German friend of mine has a signature which he appends to all his emails that goes “Love is not blind. It is the only thing that truly sees” It’s true isn’t it. Genuine love is focussed on the other person. It is not distorted by my interests or prejudgments.

British philosopher Donald McKinnon, says, and I paraphrase, that to see ourselves as God sees us … truthfully… is a rare and fleeting thing… not because we fail to be scientific enough… but because we struggle to love enough… Love in the presence of the reality of we actually are is terrifying

Jesus saw her for who she was. And she in turn saw the truth about him. And in John’s gospel the word for ‘seeing’ has a deeper connotation – it is associated with believing. So she declares her confession: “Sir, I see that you are a prophet”

Emboldened by her new-found acceptance she continues with a theological question. Where should we worship? “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem”.
Preachers have often dismissed her question… I suspect because they have already dismissed her… as a kind of red-herring. But if you think about this question in its original context it is a deeply important question. It’s the ancient equivalent of the modern question “Where is God?” Where is the intersection of heaven and earth? A few weeks ago I talked about the Hebrew worldview like intersecting spheres – the transcendent God beyond all things is not simply elsewhere but intersects with the creation – Jews thought in the temple and in the hearts of the poor among other places. So you see the temple in Jerusalem was very important as a place of intersection, of worship.
Jesus acknowledges this Jewish heritage and then offers his own radical challenge – his challenge to the temple. “The time is coming, and is here now, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth”. Jesus messianic claim here is to announce the demise of the temple and its replacement with a living worshiping community of the Spirit.

The woman has dignity. She is a theologian to be listened to. She asks a good question. And the answer is dramatic.

Something new is happening. Just as this women is set free from her own past. So the communities of Jerusalem and Samaria will be set free from their pasts. The temple is not sacred space any more, according to Jesus. The great monuments to the past no longer define the future. Buildings do not define the church. The worship of God will move through time and morph and change with the living breathing community of the Spirit. The key point of intersection between God and creation is not a building (or a mountain) but an activity. The activity of the Spirit in the lives of human beings.

The woman’s response is immediate, she leaves her water jar, her job, the symbol of her past life, all the discardedness that had characterised her life till that point… like the disciples who left their fishing, their job, for a higher calling. There is a kind of break in the fabric of the everyday. Not that she will never fetch water again. But today something more important casts a new light over everything. She goes back to her town as a bearer of good news.

Today the messiah has found a theologian, and the theologian has become an evangelist.

Let’s put ourselves in her shoes a moment. Have we been discarded or abandoned… rejected, ignored?

Do we, like her, have big questions just waiting to be asked? Waiting for someone to come along who can see us for who we are and will give us the space we need to ask our question?

She left her water jar. Today Jesus is here and is creating the space for us to leave our water jars and ask our questions.
[liturgical action using paper as Water Jar – put in it something from your past that you simply need to leave behind… or put in it your Big Question h/t David Lose]

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 25, 2014 5:09 am

    Bruce,

    On the ‘You have had five husbands … but the man you are living with now is not your husband’ speech, what do you make of the interpretation that takes it as symbolic rather than as literal (as you seem to follow here)? i.e., that the woman herself is symbolic for Samaria, that the five husbands refers to the five alien tribes who settled near Samaria (2 Kngs 17.13-34) and that the new man on the scene is the Romans? This is John’s Gospel, after all. Your thoughts?

  2. March 25, 2014 6:13 am

    Never heard that theory. First impression is that it’s a bit implausible, but I’ll have to think about it

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