23rd March 2014 Year A
The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is perhaps one of the best known of our biblical stories. When those from Galilee travelled to the great festivals in Jerusalem they usually went by the more circuitous route of travelling east of the Jordan so to avoid passing through Samaritan territory such was the mutual distain between Jew and Samaritan. Jesus and his disciples however have chosen to pass through Samaritan territory perhaps on returning from one of these festivals. Because the hatred was so deep our reading tells us that Jews and Samaritans had no dealings, though this is an exaggeration for we read here that the disciples had gone into town in order to procure food, That hatred’s genesis lay first in the division of the kingdom into the ten northern tribes properly called Israel, and the two southern tribes of Judah after the death of Solomon. During the 8th century Assyrian invasion when the northern tribes were carried off and foreigners in turn brought into the land to replace them. From that point on those of the north were regarded as religiously and ritually impure.
While Jesus alone is resting by Jacob’s well, the same well where Jacob dreamt of the ladder to heaven, he is joined by a Samaritan woman who has come to draw water. Jesus enters into conversation with her with the request that she draw him some water. She expresses surprise, for well knowing the antipathy Jews had for her people, she asks how is it that you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan, for water? Of course John’s gospel loves to use symbol and metaphor so we find then Jesus immediately moving the conversation about water to another level. The woman of course, like Nicodemus last week, stays with the literal stating that Jesus has no bucket with which to draw this living water. She seems to have some understanding however, for she next asks, ‘are you better than our ancestor who gave us this well?’ In this we see how close really the Jews and Samaritans were for they each held that their common ancestor was Jacob. Jesus then again moves the discussion this time beyond history and the question of who were the true inheritors of the Jacob tradition. He does this by moving the discussion to himself and his capacity to give water that unlike that drawn here will lead to a permanent assuaging of thirst. In answering the woman’s question therefore he is implying that yes, he is someone greater even than Jacob. In response she seems to suddenly understand the metaphor of living water and its reference to Jesus, responding, ‘give me this water that I may not thirst, nor again come here to draw.’ Divine epiphanies taking place at wells are a common occurrence in the Hebrew Scriptural tradition and here is another.
Jesus next asks her to call her husband. The woman responds, ‘I have no husband’ to which Jesus with some sort of miraculous divine insight replies that she has had five husbands. The idea of a spousal relationship was one used in understanding Israel’s relationship with God, God as the husband and Israel as the wife. Reference then is probably being made here to Samaria having five husbands or gods, those gods introduced by the foreigners forcibly resettled in the land by the Assyrians (2 Kings 17). Shocked by his knowledge of her she retorts, ‘Sir, I perceive you are a prophet.’ The term translated ‘sir’ (Greek: kyrie) may equally be translated ‘Lord.’ The ambiguity in the Greek is introduced by John as the original conversation would have been in Aramaic. The woman then asks a question as to the true religious tradition, that of the Samaritans with their worship on Mount Gerazim, worship which continues to this day, or that centred on Jerusalem. Jesus replies that worship of the true God will move beyond local expressions and ritual centres to something more profound. While the religious tradition has found its way through the Jewish people, who ‘know what they worship’ it no longer can be contained within that framework alone. Those who truly worship God charges Jesus will do so in spirit and truth. There is something profoundly beautiful about this. In such the woman perhaps sees the messianic age, the time of peace, justice, love and the harmony of all things. Her conversation thus moves to speaking of the messiah. Jesus responds that he is the one who is messiah. He even uses the words ‘I am.’ The expression ‘I am’ is a circumlocution for the divine name often used in John’s gospel where Jesus often uses the ‘I am’ of himself. I am the truth, I am the life, I am the way, I am the good shepherd among others. In such usage John’s gospel is telling us that Jesus is divine.
As to Jesus own self-knowledge and extravagant self-claims here and elsewhere in John’s I concur with nearly all scholars these words in John’s Gospel reflect the views of the infant church reflecting on Jesus rather than his own actual spoken words .Certainly the Jesus as presented in John’s gospel with long discourses centred around himself is far different to the Jesus of the synoptic gospels with his parables not about himself but rather the kingdom of God. That is why scholars almost universally hold that the Jesus of the earlier written synoptic gospels is closer to the truth while that Jesus presented in John reflects a later theological development of the church as they reflected on Jesus’ significance. This doesn’t make the Jesus of John’s gospel any less valuable for our task is always to understand the significance of Jesus for ourselves in our evolving context. It just means that the Jesus presented in this gospel is probably further removed that that who actually walked the roads of Galilee.
Returning to our story, the disciples return and the woman departs leaving her water jar. Seemingly she has no more need of the type of water that such a jar can carry for she now has the living water within ‘welling up’ to eternal life. She, on reaching her hometown, begins to spread the news about the one she has just met; proclaiming that perhaps here is the Christ (the Greek term for the Hebrew messiah). One always does well to read between the lines for while the Christian Scriptures both coming out of a patriarchal tradition and then being developed by the patriarchal tradition of the church, diminish the significance of women thereby giving rise to the patriarchal institution of the church, we by reading between the lines can see glimpses of the truth. Here is a woman doubly disadvantaged in terms of the tradition in that she is both a woman and a Samaritan who becomes one of the first to understand and proclaim the good news of Jesus. Of course a not so subtle shot is being fired across the bow of the Jewish readers who very well knew their failure to appreciate living water in the desert as we read in our first reading.
The disciples have returned to Jesus with sustenance but of course he has sustenance of which they cannot know. As he has used water metaphorically to speak of something deeper now likewise he uses food as metaphor. His food and sustenance is in doing the will of God. While as I have said we cannot be sure of the depths of Jesus’ self-knowledge there seems to be little doubt that he saw himself as being significant in terms of the will of God being done. In what follows then to do with the time of the harvest being ready there seems to be a self-understanding that in him the messianic time of judgment is at hand. Here is a time of gathering in, of harvesting God’s people. This is John’s understanding of the eschaton or end. In John’s understanding, contrary to the other gospels where it is the future, the end is not future but is already present wherever God’s will is being done and it has begun in Jesus. The task then is to gather the harvest in Jesus’ name. It does not matter who sows the crop, be it the Samaritans, Jews or indeed any other tradition. ‘One sows and another reaps.’ Whatever and whoever gather it in!
The woman now returns with many of the Samaritans from the city who implore Jesus to stay with them. We are told that he and his disciples did so. This is certainly a dramatic case of intercultural coming together across barriers of hatred long built up. John then concludes the story by having Jesus say the words which he wishes his readers including us to believe, that Jesus ‘is indeed the saviour of the world.’
Here in Jesus then is true living water, water which assuages all thirsts and does so eternally. Such imagery as I have already said draws from the tradition. One of those stories within the tradition in which God is presented as assuaging thirst is that we read from Exodus, the episode at Massah and Meribah in the desert. Here those on an exodus journey through the desert, their faith having been found wanting, have their thirst assuaged. We too are called on to a journey. In that journey, often through the desert, we as those of old lacking faith will find our thirst assuaged in an even more miraculous way than that of old, for the water which will assuage our thirst has an eternal quality about it. This water is nothing less than Jesus himself. This one who assuages our thirst is thus the one who breaks down all our faith boundaries. Many may sow from all sorts of traditions but it matters not in the harvest. Thus we have here the truth proclaimed by one doubly excluded from the sacred tradition; this Samaritan woman here. Is it still not true that in such we so often find the divine while those wishing to lay claim to the divine are left in blindness. Such is the way of the divine in Jesus! Our mission must then know no exclusion but reaches out into the whole world, for as we are told here, ‘this is indeed the saviour of the world.’ Indeed that mission, the proclamation of the good news may be carried out, like in this episode by those, like the Samaritans, excluded from the tradition.