Thursday, 16 March 2017

Jesus and the Woman at the Well

John's Gospel was written about 60 years after Jesus's death and resurrection.  It was two generations
since Jesus had died and risen again when John decided to record the events of Jesus life.  John's Gospel is different to Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  There is a theological reflection a spiritual edge in his writing.  All of the stories that are written carry through themes and underlying messages.

So it is, that when we encounter the story of the Samaritan woman at the well we are not simply encountering a story of Jesus’ life we are encountering theological a reflection about who Jesus is and what he was doing. We are encountering a reflection about the community that John was part of and the people that formed community. He is trying to give them messages that are going to help them in their faith.

The fact that Jesus may have met a Samaritan woman at the well is secondary to the way John relates the story.  It has no doubt been embellished and enhanced to help bring a theological and spiritual message home to the people John is writing for.

There are three major movements, in the story, that I want to talk about this morning.  I have titled the first movement ‘revelation’. It may not be revelation per se but there is revelation about the identity of the woman and her significance. The second movement of the story is a movement of ‘proclamation’ with Jesus doing some teaching about the nature of worship and the relationship between Jews and Samaritans.  Then, the third movement of the story is a response. In this response there is a witness: the woman does something with the information and the encounter that she has had with Jesus. 

Overall the movements have a very similar to what we see in our image about the movement of liturgy at the front of the Church: revelation, proclamation, and witness.  Gathering, listening and responding.

So let us turn them to the first of these three movements: the revelation.  It is a revelation about who the woman is and information about her.  She is a Samaritan woman, and she remains anonymous, we are not given a name. She also comes to Jesus in the middle of the day.

Last week I preached on Nicodemus. This is an important connection to make because she is the next major character that we encounter in the story of John.  The significance of noting this is because she is almost the complete antithesis, or opposite, of Nicodemus.

Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a lawyer, a teacher, someone respected in the community, someone probably who has some wealth and some power.  He is male, a Jew and he comes to Jesus in the night.

The woman is female, she is a Samaritan, she is left anonymous, she is also possibly of questionable character (although this is never made completely clear), and she is probably uneducated.

The contrast between the woman and Nicodemus is the contrast between a Jew who is on the inside of the group and a Samaritan as someone who doesn't belong to the group.

It is probably, two generations after Jesus, that within John's community there would have been people that where non-Jews for whom this story was important.  They would people to John is appealing at this point.  He is giving them validation in their place in the community.  The earliest Christians were a sect of Judaism.  By the time John is writing a deeper rift is beginning to occur and no doubt questions about the relationship between Judaism and the followers of Jesus needed answering, as did the place of gentiles, and probably even Samaritans in the emerging Christian sect.

So what else do we find out about this woman? Well she doesn't really seem to understand the conversation about the living water and her need for the living water.  This is what Jesus is offering, ‘living water’.  This symbol of living water is very important because it points to cleansing and life and renewal. 

At the beginning of John's Gospel we are told that Jesus is the life of the world. He is the water of life and he gives the spirit of life through his presence.  Jesus is offering life to this woman but at this point she is not really sure about what this means.  Jesus takes the conversation on a tangent, he asks her about her husband.  Now Jesus may have been a prophet knowing about her position and her multiple husbands. We shouldn't jump too quickly to a conclusion that she is a bad person but what we should see is that Jesus is holding up a mirror to her and saying this is your life, this is what your life is like, and so do exposing things about her reality.

In begin confronted by Jesus she begins to see the truth of who she is and she also begins to suspect something of the truth of who Jesus is and what he is offering.

In this first movement of the story things are being revealed.  The woman begins to realise that she not only wants the living water but that she needs.   This is the water that we all need and I think that part of our initial encounter with Jesus is a confrontation with who we are as well.

In entering into the Christian faith we are called to look at the truth of our own identity and life – warts and all.  For John’s community and us imperfect people we find Jesus offering living water – cleansing and life – water our predicament in life might be.

As the conversation continues to unfold between Jesus and the woman Jesus goes on to proclaim the coming hour and the worship that will take place in that hour.  This language of the coming hour is a code or symbolic language about the end times.  The future that God promises.

In this future the mountain that the Jews worship on will be made obsolete just as will the mount that the Samaritans worship on. “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.”

Once again it is hard for us to appreciate and understand this statement.  The Samaritan’s had set up their place of worship at Mt Gerizim almost 500 years before Christ, just after the Babylonian exile.  The temple had been destroyed but the Samaritan’s still saw the Mountain as sacred.  The temple at Mt Gerizim had been set up in opposition to the Temple in Jerusalem.   

For the Jewish people God’s very presence had been associated with the Holy of Holies in the temple.  Jesus words which speak of worshipping in “spirit and truth”, or as another translation puts it “in the Spirit of the Truth’’, points at future where the differences between the Jews and Samaritans is dissolved and that the location of worship is less about a place and more about a person.

To worship in spirit and in truth anticipates the pouring out of the Holy Spirit which joins us to Jesus own life and worship, and to his claim that he himself is the truth.  A claim which will come later in John’s gospel.  For John’s community and for the early church generally this story helps bridge the gap between followers who were from other backgrounds, not only Samaritans, and also to help release any Christians of Jewish background from the need to go and worship at the Temple.

Worshipping in Spirit and Truth was worshipping in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.  What is even more surprising is that Jesus infers that this worship is not simply something that lies in the future but is already present.  He proclaims, “The hour is coming, and is now here”, in his presence and in his presence through the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus transforms our offerings to true worship.  Our faith and our prayer is that very same Jesus is present now with us through the power of the Holy Spirit as we worship and as we listen for God.  We worship in Spirit and in Truth and the living water is poured into our own lives.

This leads me to consider the response of the woman to this whole event and hear I am skipping over Jesus interaction with the disciples.  The woman witnesses to Jesus and shares her encounter with Jesus with the people of her village.

It is a rather strange proclamation. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”  There is an ambiguity to her proclamation which at the face value appears to revolve around Jesus knowledge of who she is more than his claim to be the living water – even his identity as the Messiah is left hanging.

What is even more remarkable than the ambiguity of her proclamation is that we are told that because of what she said some of the people came to believe in Jesus! Her proclamation basically was he told me everything about myself and then a question as to whether or not Jesus might be the Messiah.  There is no skilled presentation of the scriptures, there is no flashy course, there is no absolute certainty.  What there is, is a simple statement that Jesus has helped her know herself.

In an era when we find that people struggling to commit to faith and at a time when it feels like  every five minutes a new program or course seems to come out to help people get to know Jesus I find the simplicity and ambiguity of the Samaritan woman’s witness astounding.  Jesus helped me to know who I am, maybe he is the Messiah.  The belief that the villagers took on about Jesus was simple at best and could only come from them being born from above as was suggested to Nicomedus.

I know personally I sometimes struggle to find the right thing to say when people ask about my faith or when I am trying to share my faith.  For me there are certainly some things in the woman’s witness that we can take heart in.  Firstly, when God is at work through our sharing then anything can happen.  And secondly, simply sharing what knowing Jesus means to you and how it has changed your life would seem to be more than enough for God to work with.

Of course, we hear too that Jesus comes to stay at the village and more people come to people through his teaching that he is indeed the Saviour of the world.  So maybe when we don’t seem to be making headway on helping a person come to know Christ bringing them into Christ’s presence in a different way might help.

For many in John’s community the witness they would have had concerning Jesus would have been simplistic, second and hand and maybe even a bit ambiguous.  Such imperfect witness is superseded by the work of the Holy Spirit who alone can open the eyes of people to God’s love.

So for John’s community, and for we who have gathered here this day this is a story of hope.  Revelation: Jesus knows the truth of who we are and holds up a mirror to us.  Proclamation: to worship in Spirit and in Truth moves us beyond the limitation of the locale of Mt Gerizim or Temple Mount in Jerusalem and into relationship with God in Christ and through the Spirit.  And Witness: sharing the faith is simply telling the story of Jesus that we have experienced in our own life – God can do the rest.

So drink of the living water, present now, be transformed by Jesus within you and share the good news that Jesus may indeed be the Messiah, the saviour of the world, with all whom you meet.

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