Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, January 22, 2022
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John 4:3-42

Jesus is on his way back to Galilee from Judea. And of course, Samaria is in the middle. John’s Gospel says Jesus had to go through Samaria. Well, most Jews did not. Most went around Samaria. But Jesus had a reason to go through Samaria.

There was a long and ugly history between Jews and Samaritans. They shared a common ancestry, though most Jews would deny that. They had been one people up through the time of King Solomon. But then the kingdom split, and there were frequent wars between them. After the Assyrians took most of the Samaritans into exile, those that remained often intermarried with other people, and in the eyes of the Jews, lost their racial purity. The Samaritans opposed the Jews rebuilding Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile. In return, the Jews barred Samaritans from coming to the Jerusalem Temple. So the Samaritans built their own Temple on Mt. Gerizim. The last volley in the conflict was that after the Jews regained independence in the second century BC, they attacked and conquered Samaria and burned the Samaritan Temple to the ground. In short, they were not good neighbors.

Jesus comes to Sychar, where Jacob’s well was. This was actually within sight of Mt. Gerizim, where the Samaritan Temple had been. And it sets up a little bit of ambiguity in the story, because Jacob met his wife Rachel at a well. So there will be a little question about what’s happening here.

The disciples go into the village to buy food, leaving Jesus alone at the well. At noontime, a Samaritan woman comes alone to the well to draw water. Now in the ancient Near East world, women went to the well in the morning and evening, and they went in a group for protection. The fact she is here alone at noontime tells us that even among her own people, she is an outcast.

Jesus asks her for a drink. That defied social conventions. According to the conventions of the day, a Jew would not talk to a Samaritan, and a Jewish man would not talk to a woman in public who was not a member of his family. Even asking for a drink of water from a woman was considered by some to be a “flirtatious act.” But Jesus will break down social conventions because people are more important than conventions. She’s taken aback. “Why are YOU asking ME for a drink?”

And Jesus says, “If you knew who I was, you would ask me for a drink and I would give you living water.” Living water, or water of life, has two meanings. One is the literal meaning. Living water was moving water, preferable to the stagnant water at the bottom of a well. But

in John’s Gospel, and other places in Scripture, water is used to speak of God, and especially of the Holy Spirit.

She takes it only in the literal way for now. “You can’t even draw water. Besides, are you greater than our father Jacob?” The phrase “our father Jacob” is clearly meant to challenge the Jewish view that Samaritans were “half-breeds.”

Jesus continues, “The water I give takes away thirst. It becomes a spring in them, giving eternal life.” Jesus is clearly talking about water as the Holy Spirit. He does the same thing in John chapter 7. Just as our bodies yearn for water, so our spirits yearn for God.

The woman’s words in verse 15, I think, are hard to know how to take. She seems pretty dense, but I have to wonder if she is being facetious. Or maybe even mocking Jesus. “Oh, yeah, give me that water, crazy Jewish guy at the well!”

“Go, get your husband.” That could be interpreted as, “Are you available?” And she says, “I have no husband.” That could be interpreted as, “Yes, I am available.” Remember, there’s some ambiguity in this story.

“You’ve had five husbands and you’re not married to the man you’re with now.” Now we’re used to people living together and not being married. But that didn’t usually happen in Jesus’ culture. If two unmarried people moved in together, they were married. No wedding, no legal document was required. So if she’s living with a man who’s not her husband that means one of them is still legally married to someone else. It’s no wonder she’s at the well alone. She is what many people today would call a “homewrecker.” The Jews may have looked down on the Samaritans, but in their own minds, the Samaritans were no less pious or devoted to God. She’s an outcast for her lifestyle.

She quickly changes the subject to “Where should we worship?” Jesus’ answer is basically just “the attitude of worship is far more important than the place of worship.”

You might wonder about Jesus saying, “You Samaritans know so little.” It seems a little rude. Well, the Samaritans only held onto the Torah. Their Bible only had five books: Genesis to Deuteronomy. So they don’t have as much to go off as the Jews did. But they did believe in a Messiah. The first promise of a Messiah is in Deuteronomy 18, where it speaks of a prophet like Moses who would come. The Samaritans called this Messiah the TAHEB, which meant “Restorer.”

Jesus says, “I am he.” She believes him. We know because she goes back to tell the rest of her village about him. And when she goes, she leaves her water jar behind. John doesn’t mention that detail for nothing. She has found the water of life.

Jesus came to save broken people. She was certainly a broken person. She was trying to fill that brokenness in a string of relationships, but that didn’t fill it. She needed to hear good news. We all do. We’re all broken people. That is the common trait of humanity: We’re all broken because of our sin. We all need a healer and Savior.

The disciples try to get Jesus to eat something. But he says, “I have food.” When pressed, he says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me.” Earlier, Jesus compared the Spirit to water. Now he compares doing God’s will to food. Both are necessary. We need both in our lives. We can’t always just be “taking in.” We need to be “giving away,” too. What we do because of our faith is every bit as important as growing in our faith.

And the fields are white with harvest. “White” refers to the barley harvest, which came in March each year. There is always a harvest out there. There are always people who are hungry for God. We might be inclined to disagree with that when we look around at our churches, most of which have less and less people each year. But maybe the problem is not that people aren’t hungry for God; it’s that they’re not hungry for the church. Or at least not for the experience of church that we’re offering to them. Rather than sitting around complaining that the world doesn’t go to church anymore, we should be asking ourselves, “How can we do a better job of going out to the world?” Because the days of people going to church as a normal part of life are gone. We can’t sit back and wait for the world to come to church!

Jesus also tells them, “You will harvest what others have sown.” And I think you could say that happens in this very passage. The Samaritan woman goes and testifies to her community. She plants the seeds. And then Jesus and the disciples go and spend two days among them, harvesting what she planted. It’s a radical move of racial reconciliation, given the history between Jews and Samaritans.

If we’re going to offer the good news of new life in Christ, we must be willing to step across boundaries: Boundaries of race or ethnicity, boundaries of social convention, boundaries of class, and so on. Jesus crossed every boundary when he came from the glory of heaven to live among sinners. We must be willing to cross boundaries, too, if we want to see the harvest Jesus promised. We must be willing to leave our comfort zones, get out of our building, and go where people are hungry and thirsty for God. The fields are ripe for the harvest, but we have to go to the fields.

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