By the Rev. Darren Miner
Today’s Gospel reading requires a bit of background if we are to appreciate what is going on. First, we need to know something about the Samaritans and their relationship with the Jews. Second, we need to know something about the significance of a man meeting a woman at a public well.
The Samaritans were a people of mixed religious and ethnic heritage. When the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians, the Assyrians populated the region with peoples from five foreign tribes. These peoples intermarried with the Israelites who remained, and they worshiped their own gods alongside the God of Israel. By Jesus’ time, the Samaritans were politically part of the Roman province of Judea and worshiped the God of Israel; even so, the Jews considered them unclean foreigners because of their mixed ethnic and religious heritage. In particular, a Samaritan woman was considered a source of ritual pollution from the day she was born till the day she died. It was considered wrong for a Jewish man to speak to a Samaritan woman, and if he touched anything that she had touched, he too would become ritually unclean.
But there is more to be said about the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. In Jesus’ day, there was an implicit sexual tension in any meeting between a man and an unescorted woman. But to meet a woman at the public well had a special significance that is lost on us today. In the stories of the biblical patriarchs, it was not unusual for a patriarch to meet his bride at a public well. So, the very setting of the story hints at the possibility of an interracial betrothal, only furthering the impropriety of the encounter.
Already we see that two aspects of this story would have been scandalous: 1) that Jesus not only speaks with a woman who is ritually unclean, but actually asks to drink from her water bucket; and 2) that Jesus chose to have this improper conversation at a location associated with betrothals.
So, why does St. John share this scandalous story about Jesus and a Samaritan woman? Perhaps to demonstrate that Jesus is willing to transgress the boundaries of his religion and his society in order to offer the living water of salvation to everyone, including those considered ritually impure and sexually immoral. It seems clear that issues of race, ritual purity, and sexual propriety have no place in Jesus’ thinking. Instead, salvation is offered to everyone everywhere!
One message for us today is that Jesus’ offer of salvation is more radically inclusive that we can even imagine. Jesus offers the living water of eternal life to people who are outcast, to people who don’t fit in with social norms, to people who are outright sinners. We are left with the inescapable conclusion that Jesus freely offers eternal life to the kind of people that respectable people don’t associate with, the kind of people we would never think to invite into our homes, the kind of people we might hesitate to sit next to on a pew.
But there is even more to be learned from this story. Let us turn our attention to the actions of the Samaritan woman. It is not too surprising that at first she is puzzled by Jesus’ double entendres. He speaks of “living water,” when he really means the life-giving Spirit. At first, the woman takes Jesus literally. But when Jesus displays a prophetic knowledge of her life story, she begins to discern that something more is going on, that Jesus is more than he seems. Eventually, Jesus identifies himself to her explicitly. He says he is the long-awaited Messiah. At this point in the story, Jesus’ disciples return, and the woman hurries away. She must have some idea how scandalized they are by her very presence.
Unexpectedly, the first thing she does is announce to the people of her city that she has found a man who knew her entire life story and who she suspects may be the Messiah. The citizens are intrigued, and they go to find out for themselves. Later, they tell the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
Here, we find a wonderful example of how evangelism is supposed to work. The Samaritan woman has had a life-changing encounter with Jesus, and she is compelled to share her experience. Now, her understanding is far from complete, and her new-found faith is fraught with doubt. Even so, she shares what she knows. As a result, her people are intrigued enough to find out for themselves.
So much can be learned from the witness of this nameless Samaritan woman. Like her, our knowledge is incomplete. Like her, our faith is imperfect. Even so, we are expected to share what we have experienced of God’s son, Jesus Christ, so that others may be intrigued. We are told that it was not the words of the Samaritan woman that ultimately convinced her people of Jesus’ authenticity, but Jesus’ own words. Likewise, we are expected to share our partial knowledge and our partial faith with others and to invite them to encounter Jesus and hear his Word for themselves.
Admittedly, it can be disappointing when we invite friends and neighbors to our church and they don’t show up. It can be even more disappointing when our own family rejects the Church. We may feel that we have failed, and we may give in to despair. But, for the love of God, I ask you to resist despair and to do what the Samaritan woman did. Pluck up your courage, and invite the people in your life to come and see. Invite them here to this church to encounter the Savior of the world, to hear his life-saving Word, and to satisfy their thirst with Living Water. If you love the people in your life, you can do no less! If you love this church, you can do no less! If you love Jesus, you can do no less!
© 2017 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.