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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent 03/23/2014

Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, a well respected man about town, came to Jesus at night, under cover of darkness. The woman of Samaria, a woman, an outsider, broken and disgraced working on her fifth husband, a woman not even given a name, meets Jesus at noon, in broad daylight. It’s quite a contrast and, knowing the nature of John’s gospel, it’s safe to say that the contrast is intentional.

With John there are always layers of meaning to consider and in looking at this story, much is made of the fact that people at that time in that part of the world didn’t go to draw water in the middle of the day as the woman did because it was just too hot. Instead they’d go early in the morning or in the evening when it was a little cooler. What then gets preached is that this woman went in the middle of the day to avoid the dirty looks and the nasty comments of the nice women; hardened to the world, she just didn’t want to put up with the aggravation any more.

Those ideas do hover in the background, but knowing the symbolic nature of John’s gospel and how he plays with things like light and darkness, it’s likely that he’s up to something else here. Nicodemus, in the dark, lacking understanding was stuck asking the wrong kinds of questions, those “How can these things be” questions from last week, questions that really didn’t take him anywhere.

The woman at the well didn’t understand much more than Nicodemus at first, but…in the light, she did better than Nicodemus in following Jesus’ lead toward greater understanding of who he is and what he represents, especially what he represents for her. For sure John is upsetting the expected order of things here; that is part of what’s going on; people of that time would not have expected a woman such as this one to be portrayed as becoming enlightened; the Pharisees, like Nicodemus, were supposed to be the ones in the know, but in the contrast of these two stories, Nicodemus pretty much stays in the dark while the light continues to grow around this woman.

When most of us hear the word Samaritan, the story of the Good Samaritan probably immediately comes to mind but to understand that story or this one you really need to have some idea of the ethnic, tribal hatred that existed between the Samaritans and Jews of that time. It’s always kind of confused me because I knew that Samaritans and Jews had once been closely related residents of the Promised Land. So why did they hate each other? As best as I can understand it though, here’s what happened. When Assyria conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721 BC, many of the residents of Samaria were deported and dispersed, spread around in other places outside of their homeland. Exile such as this was one tactic that the victors would use in those days to ensure that conquered peoples wouldn’t rise up again and cause trouble. So those taken into exile weren’t exactly prisoners, more like displaced persons living in a strange land separated from things that gave them religious and cultural identity.

Deportation wasn’t the only thing the conquering Assyrians did though. They also moved other people from other places into Samaria to occupy the land, intermixing with the Samaritans who remained. Several hundred years later it’s descendents of these people of mixed breeding who are identified as Samaritans in the New Testament. In other words, by Jesus’ time, most of the people who were called Samaritans were not full blooded natives of Samaria; they were people of mixed heritage or descendents of such people, half breeds (or less) you might say.

By itself that would have been enough to create tension between them and the Jews but that wasn’t the only thing. On top of mixed breeding, while these foreigners had adopted some aspects of Judaism, their center of worship was on Mt. Gerizim, not in Jerusalem and that too was unacceptable to Jews; it was a form of idolatry and it made those called Samaritians an abomination, ritually impure. You know that if you’re looking for a reason to be prejudiced against someone it doesn’t take much and in this case there was plenty to work with, both racial and religious reasons.

The text says that Jesus was going from Judea to Galilee and if you look at a map of the time, the shortest route would take him right through Samaria, that’s what his GPS would tell him. It is the route Jesus chose even though the prevailing wisdom would have been for him to stay out of Samaria, to stay away from those people even if it made the journey longer. But his route really had nothing to do with geography; it had to do with him being who he was supposed to be, taking on issues like the ones that caused Jews and Samaritans to hate each other.

What John is doing here is taking Jesus on a journey not just through Samaria, but it’s a journey into the future, a journey into the world that God intends as opposed to a journey through the past, or even the present, the world as it is, a world often filled with tension and hatred. Jesus’ whole life was a journey into his future and our future and for this part of it, this unlikely Samaritan woman would travel with him into and through things that should have divided them.

The woman knew the boundaries and she knew the history. She knew this Jewish man should not have spoken to her because…she was a woman, she ws a Samaritan and because she knew she had a less than reputable past. To her surprise Jesus knew all that too, he knew the conventional boundaries and the history including her history, but on a journey into the future, he wasn’t worried about the past. Arriving at the well Jesus would have been hot and thirsty but while he did ask for a drink of water this wasn’t about his thirst; note that he never does get a drink of water in this story. This wasn’t about his thirst, it was about his offer of what he called living water, living water that was for everyone, even a Samaritan woman with a past.

The term living water though, caught the woman off guard; she was just thinking about the water she had to draw and carry home so her initial response was a very practical one, first asking Jesus where he was going to get this water since he didn’t have a bucket and then “Give me this water so that I don’t have to keep coming here to the well.” She just wanted a break from a difficult life. But living water was a term used in that part of the world to refer to flowing water like water in a stream or water bubbling up from a spring as opposed to water held in a cistern or some other container and it was water that had theological significance. In Leviticus and in other parts of the Torah, living water, or fresh water, was specified for purification from certain diseases and discharges. Even more significantly, the prophet Ezekiel also talks about a time when God will use this kind of water to wash people from the sin of idolatry, people like Samaritans.

In using this term in connection with Jesus and with this particular woman, John no doubt has all that in mind but living water is also one of the poetic images he uses in his gospel, images that invite us to go deeper in our own imagination as we think about Jesus and what he does. Symbols like living water are intended to make us probe for meaning as there are always many angles to approach them from, and it’s that probing and going deeper that leads to faith.

As this woman persists in her interaction with Jesus, in the light, she does help to enlighten us in the realization that worldly identities and distinctions don’t matter to this stranger at the well; barriers of division are removed. But living water also has to do with a change in how we identify ourselves. Drinking from the water Jesus offers becomes his very presence welling up and growing inside each of us. It quenches a deeper thirst, the thirst for acceptance as children of God despite who and what the world and the prejudices of the past may say that we are.

Living water is the water of Jesus’ future, a future that is also called eternal life, eternal life starts now. It’s life in the present that allows us to leave the past behind which the Samaritan woman does symbolically as she heads back to the city leaving behind the water jar that had been her burden.

That’s part of what makes this a good text for Lent because part of what we focus on in Lent is confession of sins. In confession, we acknowledge the past but leave it behind, trusting that God leaves it behind too. We leave behind those things that burden us as we move toward Easter which is God’s future in Jesus. With him we move into that future drenched in and our thirst quenched by the living water that he offers.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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