Lessons from John

John 4:4-42 – Living WaterHome Moravian Church Adult Bible Class, originally broadcast 12-17-06

Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Before the divinity students left for their holiday, I read them Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Many modern Christmas movies have a theme of apocalyptic struggle between Santa and some agent of evil who tries to prevent Santa from bringing toys to children. Such movies reflect manufacturers’ fear that someone might find a way to curb the orgy of self-indulgence that Christmas has become and hurt their profits. But there is more to these movies. They are drawing on the tradition of Christian dualism, which is the idea that life is a struggle between Satan and Jesus. This idea is popular in many churches, and it sometimes leads to violence, as it almost always does in the movies.

            The Grinch endorses a different type of Christian theology. The villain in the Grinch is a petty figure who lives in isolation, warmed only by his resentment and his hatred. He is indeed Satan in the Christian tradition, a pathetic twisted figure who exiled himself from happiness. Like Satan, the Grinch works at night, secretly slinking into town to steal what he thinks is the source of happiness. He takes all of the trappings of Christmas, but he does not enjoy what he is has stolen because all he knows is resentment. But in his moment of apparent triumph, he discovers that Christmas does not depend on presents. Presents are merely symbols of the joy that the Whos know every day. It is the persistent joy of those he hoped to harm that transformed the Grinch, and made it possible for him to make a moral choice. He chose freely to embrace joy and love and giving. He returned what he had stolen, and was welcomed by those he had hated. This is what redemption and reconciliation are all about. What we have here is the theology of the early Christian theologians, like Gregory of Nyssa and Origen. The redemptive work of Christ will not stop until all have been reclaimed by the love of God.

Overview:       This leads us into our lesson for this week, which is the story of the woman at the well. It is one of the longest stories in the four gospels, and it can be nicely divided into three separate scenes. First, Jesus meets a woman at the well. In the second scene, she has left and the disciples converse with Jesus. In final scene, she returns with the townspeople who believe in Jesus because of his witness.

            I used the word “scenes” intentionally. This is one of the most literary stories in the Bible, which is one reason it is so popular in churches today. The conversations of Jesus work on more than one level of meaning, and there is dramatic tension throughout the story. To say that this is very well-written drama is not to say that it is fictional. As usual with the Gospel of John, there are details here that are remarkably accurate, but I think Raymond Brown is correct that the evangelist has taken traditional material “and with his masterful sense of drama and the various techniques of stage setting, has formed it into a superb theological scenario. Misunderstanding, irony, the quick changing of an embarrassing subject, the front and back stage, the Greek chorus effect of the villagers – all these dramatic touches have been skillfully applied to make this one of the most vivid scenes in the Gospel and to give the magnificent doctrine of living water a perfect setting.” (Brown, I:176) Rather than getting bogged down in discussions of whether the conversation with the Samaritan woman happened exactly as told by the evangelist, we will focus on the meaning of the narrative itself and the teaching Jesus gives here.

Read: 4:4-10

Samaritans:    Most of ancient manuscripts identify the town here as Sychar, but some researchers think this was probably a scribal error since the town that is described is clearly Shechem. That is where Jacob’s well is located. Shechem is also at the foot of Mt. Gerizim, the sacred mountain of the Samaritans. The woman says that her ancestors worshiped “on this mountain,” which indicates that she was standing near Mt. Gerizim. This story displays a good knowledge of Samaritan culture and religion. Even the reference to four months before the harvest later in the story indicates that the author was familiar with the Samaritan calendar, which reckoned months according the wheat and barley harvests.

            Even more important is the fact that the evangelists apparently understood that the Samaritans had a different understanding of the Messiah than the Jews did. For the Jews, the Lord’s anointed was a descendent of King David who would defeat his enemies and rule from Jerusalem. That is the messiah that we sing about in Advent, but the Samaritans were looking for someone called the Taheb, which means the one who returns. The Taheb was to be a prophet like Moses. This prophet would be a teacher of the true law of God who would restore right relationships.

            Since this story displays surprising familiarity with the geography and culture of Samaria, and the portrayal of the woman and the disciples is very true to life, it is safe to assume that it was based on actual events. But we should not read this text simply as history. For one thing, there are some unavoidable difficulties in this passage. The other three gospels state that Jesus avoided Samaritans and instructed his disciples not to preach in Samaritan towns (Matt. 10:5). That may simply reflect the anti-Samaritan prejudice of Matthew rather than the practice of Jesus since Luke’s Gospel gives a more positive view of Samaritans.

            In Acts chapter 8 we have a story of the conversion of the Samaritans after the martyrdom of Stephen. There is no indication in that story that anyone in Samaria had believed in Jesus before the apostles preached to them. It is intriguing that John was one of the apostles sent by the church in Jerusalem to teach the new converts and lay hands on them, according to Acts. It seems quite likely that the apostle John maintained ties to the Christians in Samaria and that this story reflects that special relationship between John and the Samaritans. I have often wondered if the anti-Jewish sentiments in John’s Gospel were a reaction to the hostility of the Jews towards the Samaritans.

            The Samaritans were descendents of the Israelites who had not been deported by the Assyrians when the kingdom of Israel was destroyed in 722 BC. For centuries the kingdoms of Judah and Israel had quarreled over land and over which temple was the true house of God. The Judeans believed that the Samaritans were no longer Israelites because they have intermarried with the various peoples who moved into the region. The conflict between the Jews and the Israelites in Samaria grew worse after the Babylonian captivity, especially after the Temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem. Jewish leaders insisted that only the Jerusalem Temple was the house of God. In 128 BC Jewish soldiers destroyed the Samaritan’s Temple on Mt. Gerizim, and Jewish rabbis instructed the faithful that Jews should have no contact with Samaritans. Intermarriage was especially forbidden. Thus, it was shocking that a Jewish rabbi and prophet would have been talking to a Samaritan, but doubly shocking to be talking to a Samaritan woman.

The Woman:              If we keep in mind the Book of Genesis, the encounter at the well becomes even more intriguing. The women specifically mentions Jacob, I think, to remind the reader of the famous story of Jacob meeting Rachel at the well. The Samaritans had this story in their Scripture, too. Jacob removed the stone so that Rachel could draw water, and they fell in love. Here, Jesus meets a strange woman at Jacob’s well and offers her living water. It is probably not accidental that this reminder of the Jacob and Rachel story comes immediately after John’s declaration that Jesus is the Bridegroom. This story looks like it will lead to the marriage of Jesus and this woman, but then it takes a different turn. Jesus offers her something more lasting than earthly love and marriage. He offers her living water.

            Preachers through the centuries have been overly harsh to this woman at the well. The discussion of her five previous husbands has been used to brand her as immoral, but that is unfair for many reasons. On the practical level, women did not have the right of divorce, so her situation was probably not her choice. Most likely, she was divorced because she was barren rather than immoral. More importantly, Jesus never condemns her or even mentions sin. This is different from the story of the woman caught in adultery. Lastly, it is possible that the reference to five husbands was symbolic. The Hebrew word for husband was ba’al, which was also the word used for pagan deities. This may have been John’s way of saying that the Samaritans had worshiped pagan ba’als in the past and now worshiped the true God without really knowing who him. We can’t say for sure.  

            What we do know is that Jesus and this unnamed woman carry on a fairly sophisticated theological discussion, which is an indication of the high value that the early church placed on women. That changed rather quickly after the first century, but we can be grateful that the Scriptures recorded the memory of a time when the gospel was for men and women equally. We can even contrast this story with that of Nicodemus. The Jewish man did not profess his faith publicly, but this unnamed woman preaches openly about Jesus. In John’s gospel, she is the first evangelist to spread the news of Jesus. She is also the first non-Jew to believe in Jesus; therefore she is the first fruits of all the nations. It is so sad that we do not know her name, but I bet she was remembered as a saint by the church of the Beloved Disciple.

Living Water              We cannot address all of the rich themes of this lesson, but the focal point of this story is Jesus’ discussion of living water. Like the earlier conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus uses a phrase that his listener misunderstands by focusing on the earthly meaning. Normally, living water means running water from a spring as opposed to water in a cistern. Living water is preferred because it is fresh and less polluted. Living water could also mean water that gives life as opposed to water that has gone bad. The Dead Sea, for instance, does not have living water.

            The woman naturally thinks Jesus is speaking literally here, and she gently mocks him for offering her water when he does not even have a bucket to draw from Jacob’s well. Jesus presses home his point by telling her that the water he gives means that she will never be thirsty again, but she again takes him literally, if not exactly seriously, and she challenges him to provide this water so she will not have to come to the well again. Throughout John’s Gospel, we have these stories to teach us not to take the Word of God too literally, and yet people still do. Jesus challenges the woman at the well, and us, to look beyond the needs and concerns of the moment; to look beneath the surface and draw life from the source of life.

            Jesus teaches her that the water he gives will cause a fountain to open up inside her and give her eternal life. In the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a wealthy industrialist is searching for the Holy Grail because his workers found an ancient inscription that said that the cup of Christ gives living water that grants eternal life. He was looking for a way to perpetuate his own pitiful existence on this earth, and completely missed the point of eternal life. The life Christ offers this woman is a form of living that starts in this world and continues beyond the death of the body. It is not simply existence; it is a living engagement with the source of life, an interconnection with all that is. Jesus tells this woman that her physical thirsts and longings are less important than her spiritual longing. She is thirsty deep down, and Jesus can make it possible for a fountain to spring up in her soul. It is likely that the evangelist or Jesus himself had in mind Psalm 42 “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God.” Some of you know this deep aching thirst for a meaningful and hopeful life, for a connection with the creator.

            Scholars have long debated the question of what Jesus was offering the woman. Some think he was offering himself, but the water he mentions seems to be a gift other than himself. It is likely, based on what we have read in John so far, that Jesus was offering the woman a new revelation of God. He was the one who would give the true teaching that would be available to Samaritans as well as Jews. It is also likely that the water was a metaphor for the Holy Spirit, which is often connected with water in John’s Gospel. The early church connected this passage to baptism, and we can see why. Not only does this story immediately follow a discussion about baptism; it makes specific mention to water as the source of life and salvation.

Worship in Truth:       This, in turn, leads to another vital theme of the Gospel of John. You will worship the Father neither on Mt. Gerizim nor on Mt. Zion. Instead, true worshipers of the Father will worship in spirit and truth because God is Spirit. There is some evidence in NT that there was a division among Christians over the importance of Temple worship. In the Book of Acts, the church in Jerusalem, under the leadership of James and Peter, continued the practice of Temple worship, but the so-called Hellenizers (or Greek Christians) associated with Stephen and Philip did not. It appears that the Beloved Disciple sided with the Hellenizers. We saw in the cleansing of the Temple that according to John, the appearance of Christ meant that the Temple was no longer necessary.

            This rejection of the centrality of the Temple by some apostles made it possible for the church to survive the destruction of the Temple in 70. It also made it easier for the church to spread throughout the world, which is a theme of this passage. According to John’s account, Jesus broke the bonds of Judaism and traveled beyond the borders of Judea to bring the good news of salvation to the Samaritans. Whatever else we or scholars may say about this passage, it is clear that it is a message of radical inclusion. The work of Christ, as Paul indicates in his letter, included the breaking down of the walls that divide people by race and nationality. Samaritans, Jews, and pagans could be brought into the new spiritual Temple of God.

            There is another aspect of this idea of worshiping in spirit and truth that is meaningful for us today. Through the centuries, spiritualist sects have used the Gospel of John to justify their rejection of traditional worship forms and houses of worship. I not sure that John’s Gospel is as anti-institutional and anti-ritual as they assert, but I do think we can agree that the key to understanding this statement is to remember that John wants us to look beyond the literal and earthly to the spiritual. Even the sacraments themselves must point beyond themselves to genuine transformation and worship of the one who made all things. Rather than fighting over rituals or styles of worship, we need to move beyond style to substance. What is important in worship is not the where or the when or the how; it is the why. Do we worship God spirit and in truth or do we merely perpetuate our prejudices? Do we worship in spirit and truth or do we use worship and doctrine to erect barriers and deny thirsty people the water of life?  

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