Text: John 4:4-24
Our Wednesday Bible study group is in the middle of a book called Introduction to the New Testament — not a very sexy title, I know, but it is fascinating, accessible, and very informative. (In fact, with this course, we have a record number of participants!). In that study, we were reminded a couple weeks ago that about seventy percent of the books of Matthew, Mark and Luke are comprised of stories that they share in common — i.e. they tell the same stories in about the same order, and sometimes Matthew and Luke copy Mark word for word (and I don’t want to take the time this morning to explain all the scholar’s explanations for this). In contrast, ninety percent of the material in the Gospel of John is unique to that book. His stories are not found in the others, there’s a lot of symbolic language, and he seems to have a different reason for writing what he does about Jesus.
The other thing about John is that he seems to have a complete lack of regard for geography, from a practical, historical standpoint. If we were reading John as a travelogue, we would see Jesus flitting to and fro across the Holy Land — some would say in a manner that would be humanly impossible in an age where everyone went on foot. Whereas the synoptic gospels show Jesus spending the whole of his ministry teaching in and around the Sea of Galilee, and then, at a decisive turning point, heading south toward Jerusalem, where he faces the religious authorities, is arrested, crucified, and resurrected, John has Jesus going to Jerusalem three times for Passover (this is the source of the traditional belief that Jesus’ ministry lasted three years).
But here’s the thing about John’s sense of geography; he’s also keenly aware of it. He knows that his fellow Jews usually made a point of avoiding the territory of Samaria, doubling their journey, when they travelled between the regions of Galilee, in the north, and Judea, in the south. Samaria is the part of the world known as the West Bank today, and even before Jesus’ time, there was a backstory and a long, protracted conflict over ethnicity, religious faith, and place.
Sychar was a village located near the ruins of the old city of Shechem, a place that is mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures 60 times.
The Hebrew word shekem means “shoulder,” and is fitting because the city was located where the ground dips between Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim (here is what that area looks like today — the city is called Nablus now).
It is the location of many notable events:
- It is where God promised Abram: “To your descendants I will give this land” (Gen 12:7)
- 200 years later, Abram’s grandson, Jacob, purchased rights to camp here (Gen 33:18)
- Jacob’s son, Joseph, was buried here, his remains brought there from Egypt (Gen 50:12-14)
- 400 years after that, following the Exodus, Joshua, carrying out Moses’ instructions in Deuteronomy, gathered the people at Shechem to record and read portions of the Law during the conquest of Canaan (Jos 8:30-35). The native Shechemites (referred to as “aliens” in the biblical text) were among those who gathered with the Israelites there; this was a place where the people weren’t commanded to slaughter all the original inhabitants, and in fact there was not even a recorded battle there. Shechem was named one of the “Cities of Refuge” and one of the cities of the Levitical priesthood. Years later, Joshua would again gather the Israelites at Shechem for a ceremony of commitment to God, when he told the people, “Choose this day whom you shall serve … as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Jos 24:14-20).
- Shechem was also the site of some serious unfaithfulness. Back in the patriarchs’ time, Jacob’s daughter Dinah was raped in Shechem, and two of her brothers effected a mass murder in retaliation. One of the Judges, Abimelech, razed the city to suppress a revolt, burning 1,000 people alive in a tower. King Solomon’s son Rehoboam was crowned in Shechem, but his foolishness resulted in a division of the kingdom. The Assyrians destroyed Shechem when they invaded Israel in 724 BC, and then repopulated the area with foreigners from other lands, who brought in other religious influences that mixed with the worship of Yahweh (this is the origin of the Samaritans and why they were so hated, considered “half-breeds” and perverters of the true religion — but to hear them tell it, it was the Jews who returned from Babylon who were the ones who had changed, and the Samaritans the “true worshippers.” The Samaritans only follow the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, whereas the Jerusalem Jews had their Talmud, comprised of later teachings of various rabbis). When those returning exiles from Babylon began to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, they refused to let the Samaritans help — and the feud erupted. The Samaritans made Mt. Gerizim their place of worship and built an altar and temple there, which irked the Jews to no end. There was some rebuilding of the area in the Hellenistic period, but when the Seleucids and Ptolomies were contending elsewhere, the Jewish leader John Hyracanus pressed his advantage and destroyed the Mt. Gerizim temple in 126 BC and the city of Shechem in 109 BC, and it was never rebuilt. The village of Sychar stood within view of those ruins at the time that Jesus passed through there, and the memories were, undoubtedly, still fresh.
So, in this story, pretty early in his ministry, Jesus had made the choice to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he was even heading in the wrong direction (at least in relation to the synoptic accounts). What does that tell us about Jesus?
Now it seems to me that the disciples were nervous about all this, and they tried to protect Jesus, either from sullying his hands by mixing with these townsfolk, or they wanted to keep him physically safe. Perhaps against their better judgment, or perhaps out of desperation, they went into town to buy food, maybe thinking they could avoid trouble for Jesus by leaving him out at the well, where no one would be expected to go during the heat of the day. Or maybe Jesus feigned his tiredness, and he directed them to go, setting up the encounter that was to come. (That would be typical of John’s all-knowing, always-in-charge-of-things Jesus.)
Wrong place, wrong time, wrong direction — and now, the “wrong” type of person shows up — the type Jesus “should” have no business talking to. And the woman is well aware of this. We might call her “reactive.” With all the spite (and, perhaps, courage) that she can muster — for this is her territory, and he’s in the wrong place, and yet, she is a woman alone, away from the protection of town (for whatever that was worth) — I imagine she spits out her responses to the lone Jewish man sitting by her well — Jacob’s Well, the one given by Jacob to his son Joseph, to her people, the Samaritans, who were comprised of the tribes of Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh. The she points out her mountain, Mt. Gerizim, and I imagine the ruins of the old city of Shechem sitting there as a reminder of the brutality her people had suffered at the hands of those she saw Jesus representing.
Interestingly, Jesus does not gloss over the differences between himself and the woman. In fact, he also points them out, one by one, just as she does. But he does not use those differences as a means of passing judgment, lording power over her, or driving a wedge between the two of them. Instead, he demonstrates curiosity and respect, and keeps the conversation going, opening the door, which becomes a means of grace. His probing demonstrates that her self-righteous bravado holes in it, for, in fact, she is not protected by her own townspeople, but is coming out to the well at noon, when none of the other women do, because she is an outcast, a woman with a “reputation.” And still Jesus offers her grace, living water, and the opportunity to come to God face-to-face, “in spirit and in truth.”
In an age of bitter division, a world of haves and have-nots, where people go out of their way to avoid contact with those they deem “other” or “undesirable,” what might it mean to follow Jesus — to courageously venture into “the wrong places” and to converse with “the wrong people,” with an attitude of respect and curiosity?
Where are the “wrong places” for you? Where might you come into contact with people whose political views differ from yours, or whose skin is a different color, or where the religious climate might even be hostile toward you? Where might you embrace the opportunity to walk with people who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, or who have in some other way experienced oppression or been rendered voiceless? In such a place, could you practice listening in the Spirit, and humbly seek truth and common ground?
When walking into a crisis, I often ask God to put me in the right place at the right time so that I might be useful. But I have to remember that God’s definition of “right place” and “wrong place,” of “right time” and “wrong time,” sometimes don’t look like mine. Maybe I should turn that prayer around, to ask for strength to be useful in the wrong places, and to ask God to bring me to the people that no one else wants.
If you are still wearing your friendship bracelet, and using it as a memory device for this series, I want to suggest that you think of the white thread as representing the Samaritans (note the color of the robes in this photo of modern-day Samaritans celebrating Passover). Note how the white contrasts with the other colors in the woven pattern, and think about the curious, respectful “boundary crossing” that Jesus made in speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well, and the invitation to worship in Spirit and in truth.