2014 29 March

Lenten Study 3: THe Samaritan Woman at the Well

Posted in Steinbach United

Lenten Study 3 – by Moderator Gary Paterson

It begins with an encounter… Jesus and a woman from Samaria (John 4:4-42). No doubt you already know that in simply initiating this conversation and asking for a drink, Jesus breaks down all kinds of social norms: Jews don’t talk to Samaritans; men don’t talk to women; rabbis don’t talk, alone, in a public space, with a woman who has had five husbands and is now living with number six without the blessing of marriage. (Was she just unlucky, or is something more being suggested?)

It’s just not done, except that Jesus does it. Which comes as a challenge – go and do likewise! A lived-out parable of inclusiveness and radical hospitality! And it comes as a gift, speaking to those times when we ourselves have felt shunned, on the outside, unworthy, and have yearned for a word of acceptance, respect, welcome.

This story goes to the heart of what it means to be in Christian community – the inclusive, intercultural, radically hospitable congregation, where we give and receive an absolute welcome. “There is no longer Jew or Greek (or Samaritan), there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” so says Paul. The floating question, “Is that your experience in the church?”

You have here another story about a seeker; not quite like Nicodemus, since the woman doesn’t start with any expectation that her encounter with Jesus might be life changing. But Jesus turns an ordinary encounter into a moment of searching.  He recognizes, I think, the unexpressed hurt, the thirst, so to speak, and tries to engage her, and us, in conversation.

He ask her for a drink and gets a question in response, “How is that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Which sounds strangely similar to Nicodemus’ “How can that be?” Watch how this intelligent, on-the-edge woman keeps asking questions. Questions can take us into the presence of the holy; we just have to figure out the right ones to ask. (Though I suspect that God, that Jesus, will use any opening to get to the heart of the matter, to our hearts.)

Once again what Jesus seems to be offering is the gift of transformation – not through the spirit wind this time, but through living water. Living water… powerful metaphor, no? I hear echoes from the Book of Psalms, “My God, why have you forsaken me…my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws…” (Psalm 22). Or Psalm 42, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God, my soul thirsts for the living God.”

We all have desert moments, when we are desperate for a spring in the middle of the wilderness, water to green our withering spirits. You know what I’m talking about. But can you imagine what it would feel like to simply say, “Yes, give me a drink.”… to accept the gift of living water, of grace, of spirit power? The offer is there… if you only knew the generosity of God, says Jesus, you would ask, and you would receive. Is it really that simple? Ours for the asking? Looks that way. Jesus offers, speaking for God, and we are invited to open ourselves, saying, “Yes, give me this water.” Has that ever happened for you?

The ability to ask, to say yes, comes not only because of the woman’s thirst, her desperation, her marginalization, but also has because of the acceptance she has already received from Jesus, the affirmation of her basic humanity. When Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for a drink of water, he was sweeping away all the barriers and put downs that we human continue to establish – who’s up, down; in, out; worthy, not. It’s almost as if he were saying, “I see you; I know you.” This becomes even more apparent when the question of how many husbands the woman has had comes into the discussion. He knows who she is, what she has done, not done. And that’s okay; the offer still stands. As it does for you and me. No matter what.

It’s a long passage, and you could stop right here, but there’s another round of conversation worth touching on, where Jesus and the Samaritan woman talk about worship, in particular, whether at the temple on Mt. Gerizim (for Samaritans) or the one at Jerusalem (for Jews). Sounds much like modern day denominational squabbles and point-scoring… which Jesus cuts right through.

Now, sometimes I find that John can almost overwhelm me with his theological circles, so I occasionally find the biblical translation/paraphrase offered by Eugene Peterson in The Message to be really helpful. Just listen to his take on verses John 4:23-24:

“It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”

I find myself wondering what it would be like to worship like that; to find a faith community that worships like that, now that would be something. That would pour water all over my parched spirit.

One last comment, I’m caught by the way the story ends. This woman at the well becomes, well, an evangelist. Did you catch that? She races back to town, and before anyone can turn his back on her, she blurts out some good news about Jesus.  David Ewart, a semi-retired minister in Vancouver, has suggested that a good title for the sermon this coming Sunday would be, “The Other Good Samaritan.” I like that.

You are invited to join the “Turn Around Take Off!” discussion group on Facebook.