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.
Echoes of the Epiphany resound in today’s Gospel reading. Last Sunday was the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, and we heard St. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism. As I stated last week, that account is the principal reading in the Eastern Church on the feast of the Epiphany, whereas in the Western Church the story of the Magi is proclaimed. Today we get a second echo of the Epiphany in John the Baptist’s account of Jesus’ baptism—or to be precise, in his remembrance of that recent event.
In Matthew’s account, Jesus sees the heavens open up and the Spirit descend like a dove. It isn’t absolutely clear if anyone else sees what Jesus sees, or hears what he hears. St. John’s Gospel answers that question. John the Baptist also saw the descent of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism. And for him this was the sign he had been waiting for that the One who was coming into the world had arrived.
The Baptist announces to all within hearing distance that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” One wonders exactly what he means by this curious expression. Elsewhere, Jesus is proclaimed as the great Shepherd of the sheep, a reference to his status as the Messiah. But here, he is not the shepherd, but the sheep, and a baby one at that! The most common interpretation of this metaphor is that John is equating Jesus with a paschal lamb, the animal that was slaughtered, roasted, and eaten once a year in commemoration of the Exodus. The blood of a paschal lamb was a symbol of redemption. Recall that at the first Passover, the Israelites smeared their lintels with the blood of a lamb, so as to be spared from God’s wrathful visitation upon Egypt. While the killing of a paschal lamb was not originally a sacrifice, by Jesus’ day, when only the priests in the Temple were permitted to slaughter the lambs, the slaughter and communal sharing of a lamb was commonly thought of as a Temple sacrifice. We see this sacrificial understanding of the Passover when St. Paul writes, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us,” a phrase that should sound rather familiar.
Today’s Gospel starts out with Jesus’ appointing precisely 70 evangelists to go out ahead of him preaching the Good News, for Jesus knows that he can’t do it all alone. Why 70, you might ask? Well, it turns out that in the book of Genesis, 70 is given as the number of Gentile nations in the world. So, there is a symbolic and prophetic reason for Jesus’ picking this exact number of evangelists; it represents the extension of his mission to the Gentiles—in other words, to people like most of us! I say it was an extension of Jesus’ mission, because in Luke 9, Jesus had already sent out the twelve apostles to spread the Good News among the descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Luke tells us that Jesus sends out his evangelists to the Gentiles in pairs. And there are several possible reasons for this. One obvious reason would be mutual support. But another might have to do with the fact that in Jewish law, valid testimony requires two witnesses. And these evangelists, we are told, will be testifying for the Kingdom of God, as well as testifying against those towns that refuse to accept the Good News of God’s Kingdom. (As an aside, the Episcopal Church also encourages sending out home visitors two by two, but in this case it is to prevent misbehavior during home visitations.)