In an age, where differences in culture and religion are still acceptable as sufficient cause to keep sections of the community at more than arm’s length, there may be reason to revisit the Gospel story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well at Sychar.
We may not have Samaritans in our immediate community but we certainly have the equivalent. Nodding politely to those who dress differently to ourselves, whispering behind the backs of those whose sexual behaviour we disapprove, and simply acting as if to pass by unseeing those found in the parts of town we would prefer to avoid, are all familiar enough ways of coping with difference. But to do as Jesus did and engage in serious conversation with such a person as the woman of Samaria is to take the meeting with those we find inconvenient to a new and unexpected level.
Such teaching represents an important part of Jesus’ message which is hard to escape. He has other such recorded interactions with Samaritans, and even on occasion uses them for his parables, to remind us they too warrant respect.
To the Jews, the Samaritans represented everything to suspect. They claimed different lines of descent. The Samaritans didn’t accept the Temple as being located at the correct place. They lived in different territory and self-respecting Jews would walk around this territory rather than to be among those they despised. There was also a convention, not unlike customs in places like Saudi Arabia today, where men simply avoided being seen in the company of women to whom they were not already related, let alone to be seen in the company of those considered heretics.
There was also at that time, a custom (which I understand still exists today for some of the more orthodox Jews) that if a son or daughter marries a Gentile –if for example if they married a Samaritan, the son or daughter has their funeral service carried out to convey they are now dead to their family.
Given that background, we can start to realise just how subversive Jesus’ actions and words might have seemed to some in his audience.
He was in the heart of Samaritan territory near a town recognised as a Samaritan town. As a Jew he had not done as custom expected by taking the long way round rather than mixing with those separated by the Jewish version of Apartheid. He broke custom by speaking in public to a woman of the despised group and invited her to draw water. Later in the conversation it is revealed that he is aware that she herself would have been ostracised by her own community for living with a man who was not her husband. Some commentators suggest that the reason why she was at the well in the heat of the day, rather than being present at early morning, or in the evening, may have been because she felt she could not mix with the other women of the town. It was there beside the well Jesus engaged her in a conversation which went to the heart of belief, making the standard questions of the day, like which temple should be recognised, as seeming trivial in the extreme.
Perhaps we should pause on Jesus’ words about living water. He said, in effect, “if you had known who I was you would have asked for living water” – in other words, he is inviting her to realise that Jesus could offer far more than the essential of water. The term used in the Hebrew expression is mayim chayim, meaning fresh running water, water not left stale and brackish in grimy jars. Later in Chapter 7 (7:37) John will remind us that when Jesus is talking of living water he is really referring to the Spirit.
Of course there are levels of understanding. Even if we take his initial words at face value, the fresh running water is infinitely preferable to the standing, polluted water facing so many in the developing world. Perhaps we who have the luxury of clean water on tap might remember the huge number of young children sick or dying because they lack even this level of public health. Jesus clearly meant more than this, but even at face value there is an implied reminder of our minimal responsibility to those whose very life depends on living water.
Remember too, that if we simply admire Jesus’ clever use of words in this reported dialogue, if that is all we do, we have not recognised what he has to offer. It is not a formula belief that Jesus presents. Part of what he taught was a radically different way of approaching others. It only becomes our life-giving living water if we incorporate this approach in our own dealings. When Jesus’ approach to the marginalised becomes our approach to the marginalised, we are living his message.
We should also take heart in the way Jesus spoke and acted. It is almost a characteristic of every age that there is double thinking about perfectionism. Common wisdom says a public figure who engages in “hanky panky” is to be shunned and vilified. The fact that hanky panky is probably present in some form in virtually every family does not stop us talking as if we are all angels demanding perfection in others. Similarly when it comes to faith, we notice the few hundred Muslims who are suicide bombers and forget the almost one billion who are not. We notice the Russians taking strong action on their borders and forget our own recent history of interference with other nations. We laugh at the Mormons with their strange early history and conveniently forget the excesses of our own history.
I remember once seeing a T shirt with the ultimate slogan for one-eyed self-focus. “Jesus loves you – but I’m his favourite”.
In our more reflective moments we may go the other way and remember with deep shame, unworthy thoughts and dubious behaviour, even thinking that we are simply not worthy to be thought of as Christian. If Jesus had time for one who in his time was to be kept in her place because she was a Samaritan heretic, a woman from Sychar and a sinner, perhaps we can see that we too are worthy of consideration. If we can take that one further step and see that if we have a place in the kingdom despite our own weaknesses then we have no right to claim that others are shut out from the kingdom.
For some reason although we read and re-read this well known story, yet often its conclusion passes us by. What happened next? At one level, the woman at the well, like Nicodemus appears to leave the encounter with Jesus, still partly uncomprehending….almost unable to see what Jesus is getting at. Yet as with other teaching we ourselves receive, even if we don’t quite understand what the teacher is getting at, at the time, it can continue to shape our thinking.
In this instance, the woman at the well is so impressed by Jesus’ approach to her – and so impressed by his wisdom, she shares the experience with the town folk. They too are staggered by what has happened and invite Jesus to stay on with them for a few days. Perhaps even more surprisingly, he accepts their offer.
It is always easy – in fact almost standard expected behaviour – to allow convention to separate ourselves from those who don’t share our background and beliefs. For some of us the taboos may include things like sexuality and while homosexuality may not marginalise to the extent it once did, with so many debating gay marriage, we can hardly pretend there is no prejudice today. Similarly the degree to which many these days make sweeping condemnation of Muslims and Hindus, speaking from my own experience, I would have to say that even for Church people, it is relatively rare to find much mixing between those with markedly different faiths or those who have very different customs and social standing. Even at multicultural festivals, those of particular cultures and beliefs tend to congregate together.
Yet if Jesus’ teaching is supposed to make a difference to our interacting it is fair to ask if we can relate to, or even better adopt, his attitudes. Do the equivalents of the Samaritans in our lives respond to such warm acceptance offered on our part, that they in turn invite us into their homes?
The competing Temples of Israel and Samaria are now part of the dust of history. I have heard that the Well of Jacob is still there at the fork of the road just outside where Sychar stood. Jesus may have asked for water, but the true living water that he offers in return reminds us that baptism is not the only sacrament that should take our attention.
Sychar, Jacob’s Well, the Samaritan Woman, The Temple, living water, mayim chayim,