|“Jesus and the Samaritan Woman,”
Alonso Cano, c.1650.
In the early chapters of John’s Gospel, we are quickly introduced to Jesus’ first set of encounters in which he demonstrated both warm and gracious acts as well as confrontational ones. As noted in my previous posts, he turned water into wine at the wedding celebration in Cana and then went to Jerusalem and turned over tables and drove the livestock from the temple grounds. Jesus then shares the good news with Nicodemus that he can enter the Kingdom of God, but this proud religious man must start all over again by being “born again.”
The next event John records is one of my favorite stories in the New Testament. As I was preparing this post, I read through my research files and found notes from a sermon I was asked to preach a number of years ago. I realized as I read my notes how powerfully the encounter Jesus had with the Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar moved me. I commented on this meeting before, but have decided to reflect on it again.*
It is remarkable to me that Jesus engages this Samaritan woman after he sends off his disciples to get food from a nearby town. One Biblical scholar wondered why Jesus needed to send 12 disciples to get food, when a much smaller group of them could have done the job. John tells us that Jesus was tired and perhaps he was also weary of being with his disciples!
Read the story in John 4:4-42. By engaging the Samaritan woman and asking her for a drink and then drinking out of her cup, Jesus breaks through a racial barrier that separated Jews from hated Samaritans and a sexist barrier that forbade rabbis from speaking with women.
Then he goes even further: he makes clear to her that he knows all about her painful history of broken marriages. He understands her loneliness and isolation from other people in her village.
But then something takes place in their discussion that many fail to notice. As Jesus reaches out to her, after what seems to be a cruel act of exposing her past, he uses a name for God that was not used by 1st century Jews or Samaritans. It is the name “father” (v. 21 & 23). Jesus emphasizes that God desires an intimate relationship with her (and with us!) and he is indeed “our Father” – not some distant deity.
Part of the reason I love this story is the way in which Jesus is not willing to let cultural barriers or prejudices stop him from his ministry. He sees these walls of separation and shows his rejection of the status quo of his time – “It doesn’t have to be like this!” This is what Jesus is teaching his disciples.
During my twenty years with the American Studies Program, we used this example to teach our students that when we confront injustice or oppression in our society, we need to take a stand that “It doesn’t have to be like this!”
As our students studied both domestic and international issues and saw the brokenness and alienation in the public policy arena, we encouraged them to avoid becoming cynical – which is the default position in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, and instead to respond like Jesus did — “It doesn’t have to be like this.” I also love this story because of the way Jesus affirms the Samaritan woman for who she is as a person. Jesus takes her seriously and does not reject or ignore her as others did. And Jesus offers her the gift of eternal life – a drink of living water that they can share together. It’s the identical gift he offered to a distinguished leader of the Pharisees named Nicodemus and she is treated the same way.
Can you imagine what a shock this experience was for the disciples? Jesus has given them a greatly expanded view of his Kingdom in which all people are invited to enter, even those who pious Jews treated as enemies. What a remarkable start to their training program as followers of Jesus! Could they have ever imagined what they were about to experience with Jesus over the next three years?
- To help us relate to this encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman, what modern day parallel experience comes to mind?
- It has been my experience that following Jesus can lead to a life full of surprises, just like the disciples learned when Jesus called them. Sure, a life of discipleship can be risky; it doesn’t always mean you follow the safe path in life, but it sure can be an exciting one!
* NOTE: For my earlier reflection on Jesus’ meeting with this Samaritan woman, see my post of May 16, 2011, “Asking for a Drink.”