Whenever I do bible study, I like to encourage people to do more than just read the bible. There’s certainly much to be learned by just reading the bible, but there is a great deal more to be learned if we’re willing to do a little background research. Today’s story is a good example. It helps us to know, for instance, that during Jesus’ lifetime, the nation of Israel was divided into two parts. There was the northern area of Galilee, where the sea of Galilee is located, and the southern area of Judah, which was centered around Jerusalem. Right in the middle of these two, was a rather large territory called Samaria. If you were an Israelite and wanted to travel north from Jerusalem to Galilee, like Jesus was doing in our story today, John tells us he had to pass through Samaria. Technically, I suppose, he could have avoided going through Samaria. But that would have meant either crossing over to the east side of the Jordan and traveling way out and around through Ammon and Gilead, or hiring a boat to carry him about 60 miles up the coast. Either way, going through Samaria was much easier.
But not terribly comfortable. Maybe you know Samaritans & Jews didn’t get along very well. In our reading today, from the New Revised Standard Version, John tells us that “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” (John 4:9) Other translations use even stronger language. The Common English Bible says that, “Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other,” and The Message translation reads, “Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans.” If you think of the feelings that exist today between Israelis and Palestinians, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how Jews and Samaritans felt about each other. There was actually an old standard Pharisaic prayer that read, “I thank God that I am not a woman, a Gentile or a Samaritan.” Most likely, the Samaritans had their own similar prayers for the Jews. There wasn’t much love lost between the two.
Interestingly, the two peoples have a common heritage if you go back far enough. Jacob’s well traces back to the original Jewish patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac & Jacob. Jews and Samaritans both trace their history to Jacob’s children, the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. For a long time, Mt. Gerizim, near Jacob’s well, was considered the most sacred place on earth. The Samaritans worshipped God there and eventually built a temple there. According to their history, Judaism went astray when the priest Eli established a rival sanctuary at Shiloh, and they went even further astray when they set up the temple in Jerusalem. All this goes way back. Eli was the priest before Samuel, and Samuel was priest who anointed Saul, the first King of Israel, so, we’re talking a good 1000 years before Jesus.
Clearly, this rivalry between the Samaritans and the Jews was deep and long lasting. It was very similar in some ways to the feud within Islam between the Shiites and the Sunnis. They were originally one family in faith, but they split over political and theological differences. The bible we have today has come down to us from the Jewish side of this argument, so naturally, the Samaritans mostly come off looking like the bad guys. As far as the Samaritans were concerned though, this all should have been the other way around. They called themselves the “Shamerim,” which means “observers of the Torah.” From the Samaritan point of view, it was the Jews who were not observing the Torah. They were the heretics. It all seems pretty silly and overblown now, but back then it was deadly serious.
This history helps us make a bit of a sense out of why it was so shocking for Jesus to tell a parable about a “Good Samaritan.” At the time most of the Jews would have said there was no such thing as a good Samaritan. When Jesus said there was, it was a great way for him to get people’s attention. This history also helps to explain the woman at the well. “How is it,” she wonders, “that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” This was unprecedented. Samaritans and Jews didn’t share things in common. But Jesus came right out and asked her to help him get a drink. Right off the bat, we know that something unusual is happening. Of course, the story is unusual for another reason. The woman at the well was not just a Samaritan. The woman at the well was … a woman, and in Jesus’ day, that was just as bad, if not worse.
Think about how women are often treated in the Near Eastern world today. We read about places where they are not permitted to show their faces in public, or go out without an escort, or speak out, or vote, or drive a car. They’re sometimes not accorded the same legal rights as men, not protected from abuse. Of course, women in our own culture still struggle to get the respect and fair treatment they deserve, so it’s not like we have a right to throw stones. But the point is, male dominated, traditional cultures have roots that go clear back into the dawn of time. So completely apart from the woman at the well being a Samaritan, it was scandalous for Jesus to even engage in conversation with her as a woman. But the fact that he does is just so typical of Jesus. Make no mistake. Jesus was a died-in-the-wool first century liberal. There is no doubt about it.
Our story goes on, beyond the part I read to you a bit ago. Jesus says to the woman, “Call your husband and come back.” The woman responds, “I don’t have a husband.” Jesus says, “That’s true. You’ve had five husbands, and the one you’re with now is not your husband.” Now, sometimes when people preach on this story, this is what they focus on. A preacher might say that clearly, the point here is that this woman was a promiscuous sinner, and the moral of the story is that she found forgiveness in Jesus.
That, my friends, is hogwash. It is bad bible study. It’s a classic example of misreading the text and imposing our own cultural values and assumptions on an entirely different culture. Think about it. After what I’ve just been saying about attitudes toward women in traditional societies, do you imagine that this woman had any choice regarding the men in her life or who her husband might be? Well, it’s highly doubtful. It is much more likely she was simply given away to one man after another, and she had little or no say in the matter.
You remember the story of the woman taken in adultery? If this woman had been running around town having one affair after another, eventually, the men in town would have gotten together and stoned her to death, and we would never have heard of her. Jesus says nothing to her about her repenting, or turning her life around, or her needing forgiveness. This story is not about sin and forgiveness. It’s about is what happens next. She runs into town and calls people out to talk with this extraordinary man she’s just met. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” (John 4:29) Is it possible, she wonders aloud, that God has sent a Jewish messiah, to the Samaritans?
What a great question. This is a constant theme in the gospels. Jesus may have been sent specifically to the Jews as Matthew said, but over and over we hear of him being rejected by his own people and welcomed by others. We hear him saying that no prophet is accepted in his own hometown; that God sometimes sent Israel’s own prophets to minister to foreigners. We hear him crying out in frustration at the Jewish towns where his message is rejected. He gets himself in trouble for saying that the foreign towns of Tyre and Sidon were more acceptable in God’s eyes than the Galilean city of Capernaum. And now, we see him traveling through Samaria and ministering to people who were not only foreigners, but outright enemies of the Jewish faith. Is it possible that God has sent a Jewish messiah, to the Samaritans? Well, apparently is was entirely possible, and, we are told, they welcomed him with open arms.
Now, let me stop here for a moment and just say that we need to be very careful with all this. In same way that the Old Testament was written from the Jewish perspective, and makes the Samaritans out to be the bad guys, the New Testament was written by Christians, and it often makes the Jews out to be the bad guys for rejecting the one true messiah. Christians have a long and painful history of abusing Jewish people, and stories like this one, of the woman at the well, have often been used as justification for that abuse. So, we should be very careful. The point of this story is not that Samaritans were good and Jews were bad. The point is that Jesus’ message of love and grace was for everybody. You know Jesus. You know the stories. He had no patience with the normal cultural barriers between rich and poor, men and women, pharisees and tax collectors, Jews and Samaritans. In his eyes, all people were beloved children of God. All were welcome to the living waters of grace. And it is in that spirit that he says to the woman, “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water.”
Clearly, at least at first, the woman doesn’t get what he’s just said. Going to the well to draw water, probably a couple of times a day, would have been a hard physical burden that she would most likely have loved to set aside. “Give me this water so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” At least to begin with, she was clearly taking Jesus words literally.
But he was, of course, not talking about the literal water our bodies must have to survive. He was talking about the living water of the Spirit. Do you know what living water is? It is water that moves and dances, water that is fresh and clean, water that revives, not only the body, but the soul as well. When water stops moving, it quickly becomes brackish and stagnant. The best known example in Israel is the Dead Sea. According to the dictionary, (The New Interpreter’s Dictionary, volume 2, page 49) the Dead Sea is “the Jordan River’s terminal basin, a narrow, land-locked, hypersaline lake lying below sea level, near the southern end of the Syrian Rift Valley.” The sea is dead because water goes in, but never comes out. It stops moving. That word terminal is a perfect description. The Dead Sea is where the Jordan River terminates. It is where the Jordan River goes to die.
But Jesus is offering living water that cannot die; water of the spirit, water that is fresh and new, clean and sparkling, filled with promise and connection to a never ending grace. As Jesus said, “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.”
Like the woman at the well, we often go about the daily tasks of our lives focused so much on what we need to get through from one moment to the next that we can easily miss what is right before our eyes. However, when we open our eyes, when we come to know the gift of God that is offered to us, we too can ask for that living water. We too can receive a gift that so fills our spirits that we will never be thirsty again, a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.
We don’t actually know a lot more about the woman at the well. Her story may have been no more than a chance encounter. But, as we know, Jesus had a brilliant talent for turning chance encounters into opportunities for ministry. It seems likely that the woman’s life was changed. She became a witness to her friends and neighbors. “Many Samaritans,” the story tells us, “believed in [Jesus] because of the woman’s testimony.” The question for us is, do we also believe the woman’s testimony? Are we also sustained and refreshed by the living waters of God’s gracious spirit?