March 19, 2017 Third Sunday in Lent John 4: 5-42
Prayer: Dear Lord, we invite you into our study of this familiar story from John’s gospel. Show us things we might not have seen before, things you want us to see. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Samaritans Among Us
I had to work or attend a function every night last week. So when my day off rolled around on Friday, I plopped on the couch and watched a movie.
It was “The Nice Guys” with Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as unlikely private eyes. It was a buddy movie.
A buddy movie is a well-known style or template. An odd pairing of buddies commits a crime or solves a crime or goes on some kind of adventure.
“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
Buddy movies represent a style of storytelling that Americans are familiar with, satisfied with. Their stars become household names: Paul Newman. Robert Redford. Will Smith. Martin Lawrence. Vince Vaughn. Owen Wilson.
Then there’s the “buddy road movie”: Two guys, a job to do and an open road. “Rain Man.”
“Dumb and Dumber.”
When we go to see a buddy roadmovie, we know what we’re getting.
We’re getting a young and callous Tom Cruise learning life lessons from his older, autistic brother Dustin Hoffman.
We’re getting Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church exploring wineries and relationships.
We’re getting Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels – well, I have no idea what they were doing. I couldn’t watch.
When a filmmaker changes the dynamics a little bit, we notice.
Think “Thelma and Louise.”
Oh. The focus has changed. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon are now the buddies. Brad Pitt is a one-night stand in a shabby motel room. Redneck feminism has given the buddy road movie a twist.
Well, the Bible has story types, too. Biblical authors had patterns of telling stories that their readers recognized.
Miraculous birth stories, for instance. Think of Isaac and Samuel and John the Baptist – all born to mothers who were supposed to be past child-bearing age.
Angel appearances. Think of all the times angels appeared to people and said, “Fear not.”
Then there was another type of story. It was the betrothal story and it occurred at a well.
In the book of Genesis, Abraham didn’t want his son Isaac to marry a Canaanite woman. So he sent his servant back to his homeland to select a wife from among his kinsmen.
In a very long narrative, the servant arrived outside the city where Abraham’s brother lived. He made his camels kneel down at a well.
He prayed that God would let him recognize the correct wife for Isaac when she offered to water his camels. And so Rebekah, a lovely virgin, came to the well. She gave him a drink and then offered to draw water for his camels.
The servant thus knew that she was the proper wife for Isaac, and asked her if he might spend the night in her household. Rebekah ran back to her home and told her parents and brother Laban all about these things.
They welcomed the servant into the house and agreed that Rebekah might return with him to Abraham’s new land and marry Isaac. And they all ate and drank. (Genesis 24)
Later on in the same book of Genesis, Isaac and Rebekah’s son, Jacob, went on a similar journey back to grandfather Abraham’s homeland. He came to a well – maybe the same well -- on the land of his uncle, Laban.
Laban’s daughter Rachel came to water the sheep. Jacob took one look at Rachel, kissed her and wept, knowing this was to be his wife. And he went into Laban’s house to stay, ate and drank, and eventually married Rachel. (Genesis 29)
In the book of Exodus, Moses fled from Egypt and sat down by a well in Midian. Sure enough, the story played out, and Moses married Zipporah, one of the daughters of the well’s owner. (Ex. 2: 11-22)
In the Old Testament – which remember, was the Jews’ Scripture, which was John’s Scripture – the betrothal story at the well was a familiar type. A stranger – either a future bridegroom or his surrogate -- comes to a well in a foreign land. He encounters a girl. The girl rushes home and tells of the stranger’s arrival and actions. The stranger is invited to dinner, and an engagement is arranged.
We know this story type. We would call it “boy meets girl.” We’d call it a “chick flick.”
Listeners and readers in the ancient world knew that when a stranger came to a well, a meal was in the immediate future and a marriage was not far off.
And so we come to a story in the gospel of John that we know as “the woman at the well.” Like the story of Abraham’s servant and Rebekah, it is a very long story. We are going to read enough of it that you can see how it follows the type, but we’ll skip some verses.
As we read, think what ancient readers might have expected when they read about a stranger coming to a well in a foreign land and meeting a woman. John 4: 5 -42.
5 So (Jesus) came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)
10 Jesus answered 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.’
11 The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’
13 Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’
15 The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
16 Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’
17 The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’
Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’
19 The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’
21Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’
25 The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’
26 Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’
27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’
28 Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’
30 They left the city and were on their way to him.
31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ 32 But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’
33 So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’
34 Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.’
39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’
40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word.
42 They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’
Now what is going on here is that John is turning the betrothal story on its head. There is a male stranger who arrives at the well – the well of Jacob, no less! There is a woman. There is talk of food and water.
But it all means something very different than the engagement stories of the Old Testament.
Just as the differences “Thelma and Louise” brought to the buddy road movie were the important part of that movie, so are the differences Jesus brings to the betrothal-at-the-well story important to this account.
Samaria, as we know, was a nation and people hostile to the Jews. Samaritans were descended from ancient Israel, but had married into a different population.
The Samaritans were considered half-breeds, unclean.
So while the public well was one of the few places in ancient society where men and women were permitted to talk to each other, Jesus’s conversation with a Samaritan woman was odd enough even for the woman to comment upon it. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
When I was a religion reporter, I did many stories at the Islamic mosque in Greenville. The mosque has a front room for men and boys, and a back room for women, girls and babies.
That presented a problem for me as a reporter. After all, we were in America, where I had full rights as a woman. And some of the male leaders of the mosque said it would be OK for me to come into the front room.
But I wanted to be respectful of their religion, so I didn’t. I waited for them to come outside to interview them.
It felt odd. Almost all of them were from Pakistan or Indonesia or Iraq or Iran and places like that. They knew and I knew we were in my country where women had full rights. But I knew that deep in their hearts they didn’t think I was worthy to go into their front room.
I imagine this was how the Samaritan woman felt. She was in her country. She was at her well, and she had every right to be there. But she knew this Jew didn’t think she was worthy enough to talk to.
Except this Jew turned out to be someone she never could have imagined.
“….those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.”
John, being the storyteller he is, imbues this story with all sorts of misunderstandings and conversations on two planes: Physical thirst and spiritual thirst. Physical hunger and spiritual hunger.
But the overall meaning follows the story type: Jesus is inviting this woman, and through her all of outcast Samaria, into relationship.
Jesus is inviting this woman, and all of outcast Samaria, into relationship.
Not into a literal, physical marriage as this story type usually involved. But into a saving relationship with one who was once a stranger.
Seen this way, the interlude about the disciples make sense. As the woman goes off to tell her neighbors about Jesus’s words to her, the disciples came back. And their subject was not water, but food.
Remember: The betrothal-at-the-well story type almost always ended with a celebratory meal. But in this story, there is talk of food, just as there was talk of water earlier. John’s dialogue is operating on two planes. The disciples are talking about physical hunger. Jesus is talking about spiritual hunger.
The disciples worry that Jesus hasn’t eaten. He tells them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.”
If you read this story solely as a meeting of Jesus and a Samaritan woman, this interlude with the disciples sounds like an interruption. But when you realize that this teaching on water and food is all of a piece – and that the food conversation is John’s twist on the old engagement meal – then the story can’t be separated.
In fact, the food conversation leads Jesus to tell the disciples directly that the “fields are ripe for harvesting.” In other words, the people of Samaria are ready for the kingdom of God.
And sure enough, the story concludes with many Samaritans believing in him and inviting him to stay on. He did so – for two days.
Jesus stayed – just as Abraham’s servant and Jacob and Moses stayed after their conversations at the well. He stayed as a prospective bridegroom for the people of Samaria.
He stayed as a bridegroom for the people of Samaria.
Until very recently, we Americans said we were a country where no “Samaritans” live anymore. We said we were a melting pot, a wonderful mix of cultures and traditions that made us all richer.
I’m not sure that was ever completely true, but now racism and xenophobia and anti-semitism -- Samaritan-bashing – has become more acceptable in the public square. And that diminishes all of us.
There seems to be something in human nature, something very like sin, that requires, absolutely requires, that we have someone to look down upon.
There seems to be something in human nature that requires Samaritans.
Right now, nationally, it’s Muslims and Syrians and Mexicans and Jews. But it won’t be long before it’s someone else.
Right now, locally, it’s our friends at the Salvation Army. They are trying to re-zone a tiny corner of property inside their fence so they can renovate. But one of the neighbors is insisting that the Salvation Army is operating as a correctional facility, because they accept some parolees and some people for court-ordered rehab.
The Greenville Journal ran a story recently that looked back at the Samaritan-bashing that erupted 30 years ago when Gateway House wanted to locate apartments for the mentally ill in the neighborhoods along Earle and Robinson. In public meetings, people threatened to turn their yard hoses on Gateway residents if they walked down their streets. Someone told Director Phil Emory he “wouldn’t be surprised if someone found (him) in a ditch with a knife in (his) back.”
The neighbors hired a lawyer and took their lawsuit against Gateway all the way to the South Carolina Court of Appeals. Gateway won, and the clubhouse and about 72 scattered apartments have operated quietly ever since.
Six years after all the hoopla, a woman came to Phil Emory and introduced herself as one of the neighbors who’d fought him in court. “I hope you don’t remember me,” she said.
Her own son had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and needed help. Gateway welcomed her son -- who said it was the first place he’d ever fit in.
What was he if not a Samaritan?
At Triune we certainly know something about that. We without homes and jobs are Samaritans. We with addictions and mental illnesses and prison records are Samaritans. We with Hispanic names are Samaritans.
But a Samaritan is exactly the person Jesus came to at a well one day in a stunning story reminiscent of Old Testament betrothal stories. And this prospective bridegroom invited an entire despised people into relationship.
He’s doing it still, among us modern-day Samaritans.
Let us be careful not to limit who sits by our well when our Lord has so clearly invited them.