Reading John 4:5-42
Preacher Revd Wilma Roest
How is Lent going for you? Maybe you have set yourself a challenge at the beginning of Lent, for instance no chocolate for 40 days, or 3 books on theological matters to read during this season. Are you sticking to it, managing it? Is it a help in your devotion or is it becoming an obstacle? For some, if we are honest, Lent can be a bit of an obstacle course.
In theory there were lots of obstacles between Jesus and the unknown woman in our Gospel reading.
Firstly he was a man and she was a woman and in that culture a man wouldn’t strike up a conversation in public with a woman, who was not a relative. That’s why she asks him “How is it that you a Jew ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria.” Even the disciples, who must have been used to Jesus breaking rules are, we’re told, astonished when they find him in conversation with a woman. Which takes us to the second obstacle – she was a Samaritan woman and as our reading puts it rather coyly “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” Jews and Samaritans had a common ancestry. They both looked to Moses as their great ancestor. But as often when groups are closely, there was passionate disagreement over how and where to worship God that’s why we have the discussion in the story about Mount Gerazim and Jerusalem.
There was a whole history of mutual hatred going back 400-500 years, that’s why the parable of the good Samaritan would have been so shocking to Jesus’ hearers. To the average Jew, there were no good Samaritans and no doubt to most Samaritans there were no good Jews.
And thirdly it seems this woman had a bit of a chequered matrimonial history. It may not have been her fault. If she’d been a serial adulterer she’d probably have been stoned. More likely she’d been divorced or widowed. In Jewish society of that day if a woman’s husband died she’d be married off to the next available brother. Maybe all those 5 husbands had died and now the only one willing to put a roof over her head refused to marry her in case he too died. But even if she was entirely the victim, it seems that she felt she had to keep herself apart from the other village women, going alone to get water at noon -the hottest point of the day, rather than in the early morning when all the other women met to chat and socialise as they drew their water. Maybe people felt she brought bad luck. Maybe they judged her for living in sin, even though in that society she probably had little or no choice. But imagine how lonely and hurt she must have felt.
And had it been any other Jewish man that day, the Samaritan woman might have quickly left the scene, both of them remaining silent, maybe sneering at each other before they turned away from the other.
Most Jews wouldn’t have been in Samaria at all. They’d have found a route round it. The main Jewish trade route took a detour to avoid Samaria. But Jesus doesn’t avoid crossing into Samaria. He must have made a deliberate decision to walk right through it.
Most Jews wouldn’t have spoken to a Samaritan, let alone a Samaritan woman. Instead, Jesus not only speaks to her, he puts himself in her debt by asking for a drink of water. He makes himself technically unclean by drinking from her water jar. In an age where women were regarded as intellectually inferior, he engages with her in a theological discussion in fact his conversation with her is the longest recorded in the Gospels.
So often we forget how radical Jesus was. We turn him into meek, mild Jesus who never upset anyone. But Jesus was constantly breaking rules and crossing boundaries. Because God’s love, the love we see in Jesus, is a bit like water. It doesn’t pay much attention to walls and boundaries; it finds ways round them and through them. Jesus offers her the gift of living water, the water that gushes up and flows from within, the grace and love of God.
And almost immediately we see that living water, that love and grace at work in her life as she leaves her bucket and rushes back to tell the other villagers what she has found. They may not listen to her; they may treat her as an outcast but she is so full of what she has received that she is willing to face rejection; she can’t keep this to herself.
And that love flows on and barriers continue to tumble and fall as the villagers listen to the woman and are so impressed with her story that they do the unthinkable. They ask this Jew, this enemy, to stay with them for two days to teach them. Presumably they opened their homes to Jesus and his disciples; shared their food with them. And many of them, we’re told, come to faith and the living water continues to flow.
In fact, there is a small community of Christians today living in that same area, whose traditions venerate this woman as their ancestor. The Eastern orthodox church celebrate this un-named Samaritan woman as a Saint – St Photini which means ‘enlightened one’. She is remembered as an apostle and evangelist; the first to share the good news of Jesus with the Samaritans.
Because God’s living water isn’t given just to keep for ourselves. It’s there to be shared; to overflow, not to be stopped by human obstacles. Look, says Jesus when the disciples are astonished that he is taking to a woman, “The fields are ripe for harvest”. There are people out there longing for living water. And that’s no less true even today in our spiritually poor culture.
In a sense God’s people, we, are called to be water carriers or perhaps better, walking oases; people who bring the living water of God’s love into the dry places and deserts of our world, so that those who are thirsty can find that living water and come to know the love of God for themselves; those who know that God’s love is no respecter of boundaries and exclusion zones and let that living water wear down and break through every barrier and reach out to embrace and include.
If we start that this Lent, if our Lenten resolution is about sharing the love of God without any barrier, obstacle or restriction, who knows what our Easter will be like?