March 12, 2023
In the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of John, we find him crisscrossing the land of Palestine. Chapter one, he’s in Judea at his baptism. Chapter two, he’s back in Galilee for the wedding in Cana. Chapter three, he’s in Jerusalem, talking with Nicodemus. And now, he’s headed back to Galilee.
The obstacle to all this travel is Samaria. In between the two major centers of Jewish population, Judea and Galilee, is the land of Samaria. It made for an uncomfortable situation because these two groups of people did not get along.
At one time, they were all the same people, the descendants of Jacob, the twelve tribes of Israel. But after King Solomon’s death, the ten northern tribes broke away, keeping the name Israel with their capital at Samaria, and the two southern tribes became Judah. At that time, there was a civil war, and they continued to be at odds with each other for centuries, sometimes allies, but often not.
Eventually, the northern tribes were conquered by the Assyrians. Some were deported to Assyria, and the Assyrians moved other people into the land. There was intermarriage between them, and first century Jews considered the Samaritans to be “half-breeds,” who had lost their “racial purity” and were no longer children of Israel. Meanwhile, the Samaritans still thought of themselves as part of the covenant people.
Later, the people of Judah were taken into exile. Some of them returned 70 years later. The Samaritans opposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem, adding to the conflict. The Jewish people rebuilt the Temple and then would not allow the Samaritans to come and worship there. So the Samaritans built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim.
When the Jewish people regained their independence in the 2nd century BC, they tried to conquer Samaria. They failed, but they did succeed in destroying the Samaritan Temple. The Samaritans tried but failed to retaliate against the Jewish Temple.
In short, there was a long and ugly history between these groups. They shared a common heritage, but they were definitely divided. And I’ve heard it said that often the strongest enmity is not between groups of people who are completely different but between groups that are similar, but not quite the same.
Most Jewish travelers went around Samaritan territory, but Jesus went there on purpose. The gospel is a message of reconciliation, not just reconciliation between holy God and sinful humanity, but also reconciliation between people. Peace only happens when we are in right relationships, with God, self, each other, and the world around us. We can’t be faithful to the gospel without seeking reconciliation. But reconciliation requires us to enter into uncomfortable situations. Jesus going to a Samaritan village was very much like a white person going into a “blacks only” diner in the 1950s segregated South. But the work of the gospel requires us to break down barriers of race, ethnicity, gender, culture, and lifestyle to seek restored relationships.
Jesus goes to the well of Jacob at Sychar. It’s an appropriate place, since Jacob is their common ancestor. It’s within sight of Mt. Gerizim, where the ruins of the Samaritan Temple were. Jesus is left alone at the well while the disciples are sent into the village to buy food, which, I’m sure they were just thrilled to do.
Jesus meets a Samaritan woman who has come to the well alone to get water. Not only is she part of an “outcast” group, she is an outcast within her people because of her lifestyle.
Jesus asking her for a drink could be seen as flirtatious, given the history of Jacob and wells and “meeting women” at them. And when she says, “I have no husband,” that could be seen as her saying, “I am available.” Jesus is definitely breaking down a barrier here, too. The convention of the day is that Jewish men did not talk to women in public, and certainly not to Samaritan women.
But there is no romantic meaning to Jesus’ words. He offers her living water. He offers her something that will satisfy the longing, the emptiness in her life that she is trying unsuccessfully to fill with the “right relationship.”
When Jesus gets to the heart of the matter, her relationships, she tries to change the subject. Don’t we all? She tries to steer things to the proper place of worship. The idea of “holy ground” meant far more in the cultural context of the ancient Near East world than it does for us today. We might think of a church building as holy ground, but we also don’t think it’s odd to worship in “ordinary space.”
Jesus’ answer is basically that the “holy ground” that really matters is a matter of the heart. If your heart is right with God, if you are earnestly seeking him, that’s holy ground. This would be a comforting word to many first century Jewish Christians reading this Gospel who had been thrown out of the Temple and synagogue for their faith in Christ.
“The Messiah will explain it all when he comes.” The Samaritans shared the Jewish belief in a Messiah to come. They called him the TAHEB, meaning “restorer.” Their belief in Messiah came from Deuteronomy 18, where Moses foretells of a greater prophet to come. Like the Sadducees, the Samaritans had abandoned the Old Testament outside of the Torah, the first five books, the books of Moses.
Jesus says, “I am he.” She leaves her water jar and goes to tell others about Jesus. There are several works of reconciliation in this text, and one of them is that this woman is reconciled to her community. She’s been an outcast, a “homewrecker,” going from man to man looking for a relationship to fill the void in her life. But she is restored to her community when she brings the gospel to them.
I would add here that the disciples also are reconciled to the Samaritan community. No doubt they shared the same prejudices against Samaritans that other first century Jews had. Now they have to spend two days in a Samaritan village, receiving Samaritan hospitality. I don’t know what all happened in that time, but I have to imagine the example of Jesus had an impact on them and they experienced a reconciliation with their long-estranged relatives.
When the disciples come back, there is a discussion with Jesus about food. Jesus says, “My food is to do the will of God.” We are nourished and sustained not simply by what we receive from God but also what we do in response to God.
I find it interesting that one of the most common reasons people give for leaving a church is, “I wasn’t being fed there.” That is the consumer mentality at work in the Church. “We go to church for what we get out of it.” But Jesus tells us that the truth is that we are fed by what we do in obedience to God. In his epistle, James says, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only.” If we want to be fed, we must do God’s will.
Do the work of the gospel. And the work of the gospel is reconciliation. Not just reconciliation with God, but reconciliation with each other. This means we must cross the barriers between people: race, ethnicity, gender, and lifestyle. The gospel is meant to cross barriers and break them down. Only in breaking down barriers can the gospel do its work: Creating a new humanity, the family of God, joined together in Christ.