Reading: John 4:1-41
If you remember, I shared a few thoughts on the woman at the well the first year I was here at Raysville; today, I hope to expand on those thoughts. I know it is not easy to remember a sermon from over 3 years ago, so I will give a brief summary.
When I last talked about the woman at the well, I told you that the Samaritans were what remained of Israel after the kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians. I really focused on a single argument between the two groups: who owned the proper place to worship God. I mentioned that the Samaritans built a temple to God on Mt. Gerizm, and that the Jews destroyed their temple in the 2nd century B.C. The Jews made a holiday to celebrate the destruction of the Samaritan temple; and the Samaritans, near the time Jesus was born, defiled the temple by bringing bones into it. As a whole, I focused on the relationship between the first century Jews and their Samaritan cousins, and how Jesus’ act of ministering in Samaria was significant because it was reaching out and showing compassion for His culture’s most hated enemy.
My conclusion was:
As I walk with Christ, I must remember that sometimes good news is hard to accept. The offer of salvation to a Samaritan is offensive to Jesus’ Jewish disciples. C.S. Lewis tells us that there is no Christian teaching more offensive than that of forgiveness — because forgiveness offends our sense of fairness. Sometimes people want to look down on somebody, to feel more righteous; forgiveness offends the self-righteous. Grace is given to those who need it, and there is enough good news for everybody; friends and enemies alike. The good news that is hard to swallow is that God’s love is greater than the human capacity for hate and anger — and God tears down walls and makes enemies into good neighbors.
I really do think that this is still an important message. We need to remember that forgiveness is one of the most important parts of Christianity. Both the Jews and the Samaritans had much to forgive, and this polite exchange stands out to me as remarkable. Jesus was in the very community where his people destroyed the temple. When the Samaritan woman said: “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain”, she could have pointed to the mountain. Not only did Jesus reach out to the enemies of his people, but the community that was most hurt by Jesus’ people came to him and listened to him. Forgiveness is possible.
While I talked about the relationships between the two communities, I didn’t talk about the woman herself.Not only did Jesus reach out to the enemies of his people, but the community that was most hurt by Jesus’ people came to him and listened to him. Forgiveness is possible.
While I talked about the relationships between the two communities, I didn’t talk about the woman herself — I focused on the conflict between two communities, and how Jesus is the one that tears down the dividing walls that our culture builds. This is important, because it addresses a common way that we think when we meet people we don’t know. The simplest way I can put it is that the same person complains when other people judge him for this his group did to another group, because he didn’t personally do it — but sees no problem blaming people in other (perceived) groups for what they didn’t do. It would be trivial to come up with examples because this is as common as it is irrational.
The point is, Jesus wasn’t even alive 150 years earlier to destroy the temple on “this Holy Mountain”. It is extremely unlikely that the woman at the well traveled to Judea to harass Jews or took part in taking human bones into the temple. Neither person in this conversation was part of the centuries old feud between Judah and Samaria. There were social reasons why it was odd for a Jewish teacher to travel through the Samaritan equivalent of Jerusalem, and one could not expect a warm reception.
When Jesus’ disciples go to buy some lunch, Jesus is resting at Jacob’s well and when a woman comes to draw water he asks for a drink. The woman, knowing cultural norms knows that seeing a Jew at Jacob’s well and hearing him ask for a glass of water is highly unusual; she is of course confused by the request. Jesus mentions living water that quenches thirst forever, and she asks for that water. Jesus replies “Go call your husband”, the woman says she has none, and Jesus tells her that she has had five husbands and the man she currently has is not her husband.
This is the part of the passage that I’ve heard the most sermons about. It is easy to see that the woman would not be respected by society. Basically, this is given as another example of Jesus approaching a sinner and offering her new life. The message of salvation for sinners is a good message, but there is one flaw with this sermon; it assumes that the woman’s bad behavior was responsible for her undesirable situation. Women had very little power in society; she was either a widow or she suffered a string of divorces. Either way, she likely had no choice in the situation. Jesus challenges the idea that bad things happen because we deserve them in other places, and we assume too much when we blame the woman for her situation. Of course, we are not the only people who assume, the people in her community would assume and whisper as well.
This encounter does something amazing — it brings the community to listen to Jesus teach, because they are convinced that he is a prophet of God. Jesus stays there for two days teaching those who come to him and many believe and accept him as the savior of the world. People find salvation by putting the argument aside and listening and learning.
What is the important lesson here that tears down the dividing wall? The core of the argument between Samaria and Judah was “Who owns the place where we go to worship God?” This argument dated back to the time when Israel and Judah became separate kingdoms and Israel set up its own place to worship so that the people of Israel would not need to go to Judah to worship at David’s temple. The argument intensified at the time when Jews returned from the captivity and told the remnant that Jerusalem and the new temple was not for them, and it intensified even more when people from the two sides vandalized and defiled one another’s temples.
The center of this argument is the idea that one of these groups controls access to God. It is an argument about whether the true gatekeeper that all must go through are the Jews or the Samaritans. Jesus addresses this argument saying:
“The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”
The core argument about who controls access to God falls apart when we realize that God is too big for that. Can you imagine if the whole world had to go to a specific place and go through human gatekeepers who could keep your from God and salvation? While many in at a holy site might see it as bad news to hear they are not God’s gatekeepers, it is good news that those at a competing Holy site are not God’s gatekeepers either.
This is a message that we need to repeat over and over again. The problem is that it is very human to rebuild those walls, and go back to being gatekeepers. We like power; Jesus might have torn them down, but it didn’t take too long for Christians to fight over who got to be the gatekeepers just like the Samaritans and the Jews fought when Jesus was alive. One thing that stands out to me is that the message George Fox taught was “Christ has come to teach us Himself”. When Fox preached, the Puritans and the High Church Anglicans were at war to determine who could be the gatekeeper, and hold the power that the church had over people. Fox sidestepped both of these in the same way Jesus did by saying that we could meet with Jesus without human gatekeepers. We need to keep learning this lesson. The temptation to become a gatekeeper is great, because it gives us divine power — but that power is not real, it flies in the face of the Gospel.
The message of the incarnation is that God came to humanity, and he came to bring light to the whole world. Through the incarnation, God tore down the wall. This message is good news to all of us who are kept out by the gatekeepers — a gate without a wall is no barrier. This is good news for all of us who need to meet our savior.