Given by David Teall
24th February, 2008
John Chapter 4
For a few years after we retired my wife, Pat, and I lived on board a sailing boat in the Mediterranean. I well remember an occasion when, after a short sail from a neighbouring island, we moored in a deserted bay on the northern side of the island of Meganisi in Western Greece. We were low on food and decided that there was just about time to walk up the hill to a nearby village before the shops shut for their afternoon siesta.
As we left our boat it was about noon. The sky was a deep Mediterranean blue with not a cloud to be seen and there was not a breath of wind. It was hot – very hot indeed. As we struggled up the hill we zig-zagged from one side of the road to the other to keep wherever possible in the minimal amount of shade cast by the occasional olive tree. Every few hundred metres we stopped under a tree to catch our breath, wipe the sweat from our eyes and take another sip from the bottles of water that we had taken with us for the journey. By the time we reached the village we were feeling extremely hot and bothered and needed a sit down and yet another drink before we felt able to face doing the shopping. Walking up hill under the Mediterranean noon-day sun is definitely something to be avoided if at all possible.
Our walk to the village and back was no more than three miles. When Jesus arrived at Jacob’s Well, he and his disciples had walked many times further than that. They had been in Jerusalem for the Passover and were now on their way back to Galilee, a distance of at least 80 miles. That’s about as far as from here to London. Jacob’s Well was in a mountainous area of Samaria about half way along the route. If you imagine yourself walking from here to London, that’s somewhere around Bedford! No wonder John tells us that Jesus was ‘tired out by his journey’. Picture the scene in your mind: Jesus sitting by the well, very probably in the shade of an Olive tree, taking a well-earned rest after maybe six hours of hard walking along a mountainous path. Can you understand his tiredness? Can you appreciate his need to sit down for awhile? Of course you can. It is a very normal part of being human that we have all experienced and all understand. Jesus the man – I shall return to that.
When we set off up the hill to the village in Greece we took the longer route that skirted around the hill rather then the direct route that went straight over the top. We were approaching sixty years of age and knew our limitations! By contrast, Jesus was in his early thirties and was no doubt, a very fit man. He chose to go the shortest route from Judea to Galilee which took him through the mountainous lands of Samaria. The alternative route up the Jordan Valley would have been at least 40 miles further. At the time of Jesus there had been friction between the Jews and the Samaritans for hundreds of years. There are several disputed stories about their origins but the Biblical evidence comes from the Second Book of Kings, Chapter 17. From this text we learn that, in about 722 BC, the King of Assyria captured Samaria, deported most of the Israelites and brought in many settlers from foreign lands. Other versions of the story suggest that some of the Jews who escaped deportation to Assyria remained and inter-married with the tribes who were brought in. Whether this is true or not, aided by a priest appointed by the King, the Samaritans developed a religion based on the first five books of the Old Testament and they claimed that they were the true successors of the Law of Moses, not the Jews.
Around 250 BC the Samaritans rebuilt Shechem (Sychar) and built a temple to Yahweh on Mount Gerizim, not far from the Well of Jacob. This temple stood until it was destroyed by the Jews in 128 BC. However, the ‘Samaritan problem’ did not go away. In 6 AD, when Jesus was a young child, some Samaritans crept into the Jerusalem Temple and scattered human bones in it, an act of desecration. The repercussions of this outrage rumbled on throughout the life of Jesus until eventually, a few years after his crucifixion, Pontius Pilate ordered a massacre of Samaritans on Mount Gerizim. What we now refer to as ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, now thankfully behind us, were very short-lived by comparison with the Samaritan Problem’.
This then is the background to the seemingly simple picture of Jesus sitting by a well talking to a local woman. According to the received wisdom of the time there were two very good reasons why he should not have engaged her in conversation: first she was a woman and secondly, she was a Samaritan. But Jesus, whose willingness to engage with those whom others considered to be outcasts had frequently got him into trouble, had no time for racial or sexual discrimination and so, whilst the disciples were shopping for food, they talked.
No doubt we only have an abridged report of what was said from John, but what a conversation it was! What is it that we are taught about making conversation with strangers: avoid talking about relationships, religion or politics. And what did Jesus talk to the Samaritan woman about? Relationships, religion and politics! There are several gems within the conversation which I could expand upon but they are all eclipsed by what is arguably the most dramatic scene described in the New Testament: Jesus volunteers the information that he is the Messiah: ‘I am he,’ he said ‘the one who is speaking to you.’
There are other accounts in the New Testament where we learn from Jesus that he is the Messiah, but none as direct as this. In Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus affirms Peter’s statement that he is the Messiah and the Son of God, but he does not utter the words himself. Later in the same three gospels, Jesus tells the High Priest that he is the Messiah, but only in response to a question. In his conversation with the Samaritan woman he volunteered the information at a point when he could easily have remained silent. What can we learn from this remarkable decision?
Jesus was on a mission. He was on earth to establish a new covenant between God and his people: all his people; not just the Jews. What better way to deliver that message than to reveal his true identity to someone as far removed from the Jewish leaders of the time as possible: a Samaritan woman? This was, in the modern idiom, breaking news of the most spectacular order. If they had had today’s technology there would have been helicopters jostling for position over head and television satellite vans backed up on the road all the way to Jerusalem!
We started this story with a vivid picture of the humanity of Jesus sitting down in the shade for a well-earned rest. Through his conversation with the Samaritan woman we are brought face to face with his divinity. He is able to tell her ‘everything that she has ever done’; he speaks with authority on the nature of worship and he reveals that he is the Messiah – God’s chosen one. Here, by Jacob’s well, the Samaritan woman, an outsider, someone the disciples would have preferred to ignore, met the man who is God whom we now worship. She believed in him and it changed her life. What a powerful and irresistible image that is. Try to keep it with you throughout the rest of today.
Along with that vision, one final question to leave you with: who is the modern equivalent of the Samaritan Woman? Who is the ‘outsider’ that we feel can never share a part of God’s Kingdom, but whom Jesus wants us to include? Could it be members of other faiths perhaps? Or, within our own Church, could it be Women Bishops or Gay Clergy? Or even closer to home, could it be someone who simply lives in a different part of the village, or who wears very different types of clothes? Such questions can be very difficult to answer as Jesus never said that we should condone the breaking of God’s law: His passionate over-turning of the tables in the temple is testament to that. However, by revealing his true identity to the Samaritan woman, Jesus challenged the prejudices of his time and of his disciples in particular and forced them to re-evaluate what was and was not against God’s law. His encounter at Jacob’s Well challenges us no less today. Let us go out into the world this week more firmly resolved to confront our prejudices and to open our hearts to all of God’s people.