The Third Sunday in Lent
23 March 2014
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
John 4: 1-26, 28-29, 39-42
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
The fourth chapter of John is Jesus’ breakout chapter. Everything up to this point was carefully shaped to introduce “the savior of the world.” But to appreciate this, we need to lay a bit of groundwork. As the Rector said last Sunday, the Gospel of John has to be read with some understanding of the historical situation of the church, associated with St. John, that gave it birth towards the end of the first century in and around Ephesus. It is written at a time when the Jewish communities in Asia Minor were forcing Jewish and Gentile followers of the Messiah to leave the synagogues. And John’s telling of the Gospel is really something of an intentional translation of the more chronological Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke into a new theological language (that of John and his churches), a translation carried out to address the Gospel of Jesus to a specific situation of crisis. It is for this reason that throughout the Gospel we detect the drastic contrast between Jesus and his disciples, on the one hand, and “the Jews,” on the other. The later rejection of Jewish Christians by the synagogue is projected backwards into the life and ministry of Jesus. It is a way of saying that the initial mistake of Jerusalem, of the temple-based Jewish intelligentsia in their rejection of the Messiah and collusion with Rome, is repeating itself some 50 years later in Ephesus. But this is in no sense to be understood as anti-Semitism.
The current situation of St. John’s followers causes a significant reshaping of the Gospel narrative. Most notable is the surprising placement of the story of the cleansing of the Temple: in the first three Gospels this occurs just before Jesus’ arrest, while in the Fourth Gospel, it occurs near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has just been baptized; he’s begun to gather disciples; made a brief visit to Galilee, where in Cana he turned water to wine in the wedding scene. Then, midway through chapter 2, Jesus turns towards Jerusalem and upon arrival immediately goes up to the Temple, finds it an abomination of money-changers, God’s house turned into an emporium, and he drives everyone out, overturns the tables and chases the animals away. This event in all Gospels is the surprising enactment of the prophecy: “the God whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple.” Meant to be a visitation of God to his people for salvation, in Jesus this visitation proved to be for judgment of the perverse religious machine that Judaism had become—one of its chief errors being its relentless intolerance of “difference,” and exclusion of all it deemed unclean. The cleansing of the Temple is the sign of its rejection by God. And by its placement in John, it becomes a launching pad for the story of salvation. Still in Jerusalem, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, comes to Jesus secretly, by night, where Jesus introduces him, in much fuller detail than the other Gospels ever give, to the new covenant in which the Holy Spirit in a new way would enliven God’s people. Nicodemus can only reply, “How can these things be?” And in astonishment, Jesus says to him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” This was the state of Israel’s “theology” . . . a failing grade in Theology 101. As Jesus unfolds a bit more, we come to the central theme of John’s Gospel, the basis for all that God had done, was doing, and would yet do: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” All that believe. EVERYONE. We are not able to fathom the reaction of a Pharisee, even a godly Pharisee like Nicodemus, to these “comfortable words” of universal access.
Quickly, as the story continues, we encounter John the Baptist for the last time: it is time for him to decrease and the One from above to increase. There is another mention of God’s design to give the Spirit, through Jesus, without measure to people who accept the Son. And then Jesus, sensing the disturbance his presence is causing in Jerusalem and Judea, turns towards Galilee—but he had to go through Samaria.
Samaria? In a tractate of the Babylonian Talmud, R. Jeremiah b. Eleazar said: “When Babylon was cursed, her neighbors were also cursed; but when Samaria was cursed, her neighbors were blessed.”
Samaria: despised by Judeans and the Jerusalem regime for good historical reasons. The people of Samaria from early times chose, as the proper place of worship, Mount Gerizim, the mount of which Moses said, “When the LORD your God has brought you into the land that you are entering to occupy, you shall set the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal,” and from which the blessings at the end of Deuteronomy were shouted across the valley. Their Scriptures, called the Samaritan Pentateuch, consisted of just the five books of Moses. From Deuteronomy 18, especially, came their version of a messianic hope: Moses said, “The Lord will raise up a prophet like me from among your own people: you shall heed such a prophet.” They called this prophet to come, Tahib. Samaria defied Jerusalem, choosing to be different. Samaria: the territory north of Judea, which after the decline of the Davidic kingdom, was devastated by Assyria, most of its people deported to the East. The small Jewish remnant became mixed with Assyrian colonists to become, in the eyes of Jerusalem, an abomination worse than Gentiles. It was Samaritans who opposed and plotted against Nehemiah as he set about the rebuilding of the wall. Samaria: so abhorred by the Jewish religious leadership in Jesus’ day that if a priest had to make the trip north from Jerusalem to Galilee, he would travel many miles out of his way eastwards to cross the Jordan and continue north to Galilee. To set foot on Samaritan soil was desecration, to render oneself unclean. Samaria: Jesus’ very first stop in the mission to proclaim and embody God’s love for everyone.
Jesus came to the town of Sychar, land Jacob had given to Joseph for an inheritance, and, tired from his journey, he sat down at the well of Jacob, at noon, in the heat of the day. He’d sent the disciples off to buy food, so he was alone when a Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. At this point, a story we know quite well unfolds—we know it well, but it can still surprise us. First of all, and this is crucial, it is a story about boundary-crossing, and not just geographical boundaries but the cultural and religious boundaries that are constructed, and carefully guarded, to exclude those who are different, to make them objects of hate. Jesus has already dared to enter unclean territory. Now he, a man, dares to speak directly with a woman, which could be taken as a sign of flirting; and not just any woman, but a Samaritan woman whom pious Jews believed to be unclean, because menstruating, from the cradle. But even more, this woman, it turns out, had a scandalous history—she’d had five husbands, and now was living with a man outside of marriage. This may explain why she came to the well at midday, when no one else from the village would be present. Daybreak and dusk were the normal times women came to draw water to replenish a family’s water supply, but the women of the town did not want to associate with her. This woman was a marginal person, and she knew it, as her response to Jesus shows: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Jesus crosses the margin to reach her.
Then, it is a story about water, about life, and about eternal life. The well of a town was its source of life; without a supply of water, a town could not sustain itself. This well was held to be Jacob’s ancient gift of life, and as Jesus weaves the dialogue with the woman, the miraculous supply of water in the wilderness by God, through Moses striking the rock comes to mind. Jacob’s well; Israel’s well; life-saving water from the Rock struck by Moses.
This is an episode in which Jesus, yet again, retells a story from Israel’s history around himself. (You may recall at the end of the first chapter of this Gospel how Jesus inserts himself into the ancient story of Jacob’s ladder.) This is a story of salvation, of the gift of life: the gift of eternal salvation glimpsed in the various wilderness interventions of God to save a stiff-necked people; a salvation now, in Jesus, reaching culmination, depicted as pure, purifying and gushing water, and being offered to a woman, a sinful Samaritan woman.
And finally it is again a story about the new covenant in Jesus, characterized by the renewed relationship with God in the Holy Spirit: “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” But as in the case of Nicodemus, so here with the Samaritan woman, this Spirit gift being announced would wait for the rock to be struck one more time. In this conversation, water gushing up into eternal life and Spirit go together. The rock in the wilderness that Moses struck, anticipates this Gospel’s Good Friday scene in which Jesus becomes that rock, from whom will pour forth, under the force of many blows, the life-giving water (and blood) for the whole world.
The symbolism and imagery so characteristic of this Gospel, the allusions to Israel’s past and the foreshadowing of Jesus’ deadly future all combine to make this story one that is far too rich to take in at one sitting. But if we take just one thing away, let it be this: this story of salvation begins with the crossing of a border that religion and custom and good taste said should not be crossed. I don’t want to say too much: Jesus affirms the Samaritan woman, offers her God’s forgiveness and eternal life, but her difference remains. Her difference is not erased by the gospel of God’s love; rather her difference is embraced. This is our calling, our mission. May God give us grace to embody his saving love for all.
© 2014 Philip H. Towner