John 4.1 -26
What stops someone from feeling able to trust in Jesus? There are many potential barriers some of which are intellectual regarding questions about the historical or scientific evidence. Some questions are philosophical perhaps regarding suffering, justice or whether there can be only one true religion. However, for many the barriers that prevent the act of trusting in Jesus are not so much about these wider questions, they are ones concerning personal identity, culturally and emotionally. It is in this highly personal area that the account of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman is highly relevant. Before moving on I want to say there are highly coherent responses to scientific, historical and philosophical questions and if anybody would like a steer towards where to read, listen or view these, please get in touch via my personal e mail or facebook page. (See below)
Jesus left Judea where his disciples had been baptizing because his presence was attracting more attention from the Pharisees than he wished at that time. It was still early in his ministry and there was much more to be done before his death on the cross. He returned to Galilee, taking the shorter route north and therefore passed through Samaria. Many Jews would have gone around Samaria, up the east side of the River Jordon, because they would not have wanted to mix with the Samaritans who they considered, “half-caste, religiously barbaric heretics”. (Josh Moody, John 1-12 For You.) The Jewish view of Samaritans, who lived in part of what was the Northern Kingdom of Israel prior to the Assyrian conquest, were people who were mixed race due to Assyrian deportation and settlement policies. Their religion whilst sharing the Pentateuch, although it partially differed in content, also mixed in pagan worship practices. The Samaritans had a different centre of worship to Jerusalem, Mount Gerizim, where Moses pronounced the law’s blessings. It was on this mountain that the Samaritans had erected a temple but in 128/7 BC John Hyrcanus, a Jewish High Priest, destroyed it. There were then deep historical and cultural divides between the Jews and the Samaritans although they were immediate neighbours.
Jesus and his disciples arrived at Sychar, half way through Samaria and close to Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. It was midday, Jesus was hot and tired and his disciples went on into town for food while Jesus settled down by the famous “Jacob’s well” just outside town. A Samaritan woman arrived on her own to fetch water and Jesus asked for a drink. John 4.7 The woman was shocked because she was immediately aware that the cultural and gender barriers that existed between her a Samaritan woman and Jesus a male Jew would normally prevent any form of communication. John 4.9 Jesus completely ignored these factors and spoke directly to her heart and need. He used water as a metaphor for the Spirit and spiritual life. He loved her and wanted her to have life that was the best it could possibly be. He used the term “living water” to describe eternal spiritual life. John 4.10 There then followed a conversation at cross purposes, the woman speaking literally and misunderstanding Jesus. She refers back to her cultural heritage and speaks of Jacob supplying them with water from the well and how it was revered as Jacob and all his family had used it. At this point the barriers between Jesus and the woman were historical, cultural, gender based and simple lack of understanding. There was little hope of this discussion making progress. Jesus then tries to clarify what he meant but initially that did not work and the woman still took him literally although she thought it would be wonderful to have water that satisfied one’s thirst once and for all time.
‘Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty again and have to keep coming here to draw water”.’ John4.13-15 Jesus then jumped over the barrier of culture, religion, gender and comprehension by showing deep insight into her life revealing her disgrace and sin while at the same time offering her the spiritual ‘water of life’. There could not be a greater act of love and respect for a woman who her own people considered did not deserve respect. Jesus had divine insight into her life and heart by exposing her relationship outside of marriage and five previous husbands. Culturally, at that time, it was unacceptable to have had more than three husbands even if there were acceptable reasons for multiple husbands such as widowhood. The implication is though that her multiple husbands were for more unacceptable reasons than that. It was the turning point for the woman. Jesus had made contact with her heart and revealed himself as the Messiah. He moved her thinking from understanding that religion is based on place and culture to spiritual connection and truth. She was looking forward to the Messiah coming who would reveal truth and Jesus revealed himself to her as that Messiah. Instead of a body of ideas her faith was now placed in the person of Christ.
When we reflect on our own spiritual journey can we identify a time when culture and religious practices were replaced by encountering the person of Jesus? Can we also identify a time when our understanding was changed by the Holy Spirit convincing us that the “water of life” is Jesus himself? Can we think of a time when the Spirit of Christ showed us up to ourselves how we really are without excuses?
Jesus’ conversation with the woman was a private conversation, she was not publicly humiliated or made a fool of. He respected her dignity and valued her highly. He was patient in his explanations. He was spiritually insightful. It would be great if as Christians we prayed for these qualities as we meet people cross culturally. When we speak of cross cultural work we often mean across global cultures, however as disciples of Christ we belong to another culture, the kingdom of God. May we have the attitude and discernment to communicate with those around us, cross culturally.
There is power in the name of Jesus – Noel Richards