Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Like people throughout human history, ourselves included, Jesus didn’t inhabit an ideal world, but a world that was polarised, fractured and divided into hostile and often alienated groupings, in his case from the much-hated Roman occupiers of his land to the rejected Samaritans. The Jewish society of Jesus’s day was stratified and fragmented, with Sadducees, Pharisees, zealots and collaborating tax collectors, with sharp divides between rich and poor, male and female, young and old, powerful and powerless. And there was, of course, a very sharp separation between Jew and Gentile, represented by a wall of partition in the Temple precincts, to go beyond which spelt death for the Gentile unbeliever. A key question then, as now, was: who is in, and who is most definitely out? The New Testament leads us to conclude that, because of Jesus, there are no outsiders any more: all are insiders. Prior to his death on the cross, he said, ‘I, if I be lifted up, will draw all people to myself…’ – not just some, but all. In this radical new approach, all are drawn into the divine embrace that excludes no-one. Such revolutionary thinking constituted an astonishing challenge to the religious professionals and institutions of Jesus’s day.
This morning, we read of the encounter between Jesus and the woman of Samaria at the well. It is the lengthiest conversation in the Gospels, and it is as fascinating as it is remarkable. The fact that it happened at all illustrates Jesus’s breaking of all sorts of taboos of his society. Let’s consider for a moment who the Samaritans were and why they were so despised? The Samaritans of Jesus’s time were descendants of the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and their 8th century BC invaders, the Assyrians, with whom the Israelites intermarried. So here’s the first problem. The Samaritans, racially, were not proper Jews. But they were also problematic in the religious sense. Although they essentially worshipped the same God as the Jews, albeit with some episodic lapses away from belief in one God, they held only certain scriptures as authoritative. Plus, they had built their own Temple on Mount Gerizim and asserted that its rites and priesthood were valid, rather than those of the Temple at Jerusalem. For the Jews, of course, only the Temple at Jerusalem and its practices were legitimate.
This meeting between Jesus and the Samaritan woman was so socially, culturally, politically and religiously incorrect, you’d be hard-pressed to make it up! One Gospel story tells us very clearly that ‘…the Jews have no dealing with Samaritans’, but this is one of various encounters Jesus had with an outsider. Even within her own community, this woman seems something of an outsider: an outsider’s outsider, if you like. She comes to the well to draw water at noon, but in that society at that time it would have been more usual for a woman to draw water in the cool of the early morning, or at dusk, rather than in the heat of midday. There is a clear suggestion here that she is shunned by others in the village and so wants to avoid their judgemental stares and whispered gossip – scorned, most likely, because of her string of marriages: five husbands and, as Jesus points out, she isn’t even married to the latest man under her roof. We can’t be sure this is factual: there was a tradition that Hebrew texts used metaphors about the relationship between two spouses to describe God’s passionate, covenant love for the chosen people. Because Samaritans had strayed from the covenant, it has been suggested that Jesus was speaking metaphorically about Samaria’s infidelity, pointing out that Samaria’s current ‘husband’ was not a source of living water for the people. While different scholars have offered numerous interpretations of this puzzling text, there is no real consensus. There are historical contradictions, however, that make taking it at face value a dubious enterprise at best. This is because in first century Palestine, a woman could not initiate divorce except in extremely rare circumstances. Therefore the Samaritan woman’s five former husbands must have either divorced her or died. This would have spelled disaster for her since women relied on the patriarchal household to survive. Perhaps we can conclude that, whatever else she may have been, the Samaritan woman was probably not a profligate divorcee!
Then, in the culture and community of Jesus’s day, men and women were not seen in public together, let alone a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman. When Jesus asks her for a drink, he is crossing boundaries and breaking down taboos, and he is inviting her to do the same. He shows her a respect it appears she did not have in her own life, and a dignity she did not possess in her own community. By Jesus’ day, the bitterness between Jews and Samaritans had been simmering away for some 400 years. The roots of the quarrel were, as is often the case, not merely theological or religious – there were political and racial elements to it, too. The religious hostility was a way of expressing your ethnic identity: to be a good Jew meant that you despised the Samaritans, and vice-versa. This story appears to turn all of that ancient enmity and isolationism on its head.
This woman can do something for him – give him some water – and he can do something for her by ascribing her an identity, a purpose and a value. This encounter necessitates risk on both sides, but once there is a willingness to risk saying ‘yes’ to Jesus’s generous and unconditional invitation, like the Samaritan woman, there is a promise that there can be a sense of liberation from all that weighs down and restrains people: an encouragement to anyone who feels ostracised because of their background or status, or who may feel haunted by past mistakes and regrets. All that is arid and barren in our lives, all that is trapped in stagnant water, opens up to the potential of being transformed by fresh running water, symbolising a new kind of relationship with God and with each other.
The world today is rife with such fear and hatred of ‘the other’. It is what has been destroying much of the Middle East, with chaotic conflict in places like Syria and Iraq, which have effectively deteriorated into ethnic cleansing – raw hatred on a terrible scale. In a less violent – though not less harmful – way, it has allowed people to use language which dehumanizes others – migrants, refugees, or simply those who don’t think the same way they do. Whatever your own views, I think we must concede that Brexit debates, the US presidential election and now the renewed divisions about Scotland’s place in the UK and have so far done little to heal divisions. Here, Jesus speaks to a woman who belonged to a group who were his nation’s ancient enemy. In some people’s hands, this could become an argument over whose religion and tradition is best, who really knows the truth. Here, however, it leads to a new self-awareness and a degree of reconciliation and healing, as Jesus discovers in this woman, whose name we do not know, someone who is excited by the prospect of repair of a broken spirit, the rehabilitation of a fractured life.
We all sometimes face situations that keep us in stagnant water and threaten to sink us: the depression that just won’t lift; the person we dread facing; the addiction we cannot break; the dysfunctional relationship that traps us; the bitterness we can’t let go of; the grief that overwhelms us. At times we end up in the wilderness, dried out, weary, disorientated, not knowing which way to turn. After this extraordinary conversation, though, we learn that change is possible. No wonder this woman’s response was to run to the city and tell others of a man who, apparently able to see right into her heart and mind, and knowing her history, nevertheless offered her living, running water – a way to transform her life. Hope for us all, don’t you think?