Scripture: John 4:1–26
I invite you this morning to turn in your Bibles to today’s story. But I don’t want you to turn to John, but instead to the back of your Bibles. There you will find the part of the Bible I loved the most as a kid: not the words, not even the pictures, but the maps! I want you to find one that looks like this: Palestine in the Time of Jesus. For today’s story, it is important to understand the differences between these three colorful blobs running down the center of the map. They represent three different regions, and also three very different people groups that exist in the Gospel of John. The map tells the story for us.
At the top of the map is a region called Galilee. It’s the orange territory on this map. Remember that Galilee is where Jesus was raised, and this region was mostly filled with smaller towns and resort areas on the lake. In our context, think Branson. And like Branson, it was largely rural and not at the cutting edge culturally. There was no place to properly worship in Galilee, and so folks had to travel back and forth to the Temple all the way down in Jerusalem (at the bottom of the map), where the Temple folks likely rolled their eyes at the Galilee pilgrims, tromping in all their mud on the floor. If you have ever made fun of Branson or folks in that part of the country for being uneducated or a little backwater or redneck, you are starting to understand the dynamic.
Next, I want to skip to the bottom of the map to a second location: Judea, in the pink section in the south. Now, if Galilee is Branson, then Judea is Kansas City. The big city! This is the closest thing to a city in the region, and is where all of the Jewish pilgrims from around the world must come to worship. It is cultural and religious center. King David was from Judea. It is said that the coming Messiah will be from Judea. Everyone loved Judea. Except for—spoiler alert here—Jesus. Throughout the Gospel of John, it is the Judeans who butt heads with Jesus most consistently. You can start to see the underlying cultural reason why, as the urbane, sophisticated Temple crowd sees Jesus as a backwoods redneck from Galilee. It is a bit unfortunate that the NRSV and other translations use the word “Jews” when talking about these folks, because at some level, just about everyone in the story is Jewish—Jesus is Jewish and the Galileans are Jewish and just about everyone we meet in the New Testament is Jewish. But in John, when our translations name “the Jews,” what the Greek literally says is “the Judeans.” And this is a big deal. It is the Judeans—this specific power-laden people group—who are a problem in the Gospel of John. The Judeans, and especially the Pharisees and the religious leaders, are the ones who think that they have all the answers, who end up in endless arguments with Jesus as he travels back and forth from Galilee to Judea, and eventually kill Jesus for what they perceive to be religious heresy. In the Gospel of John, the Judeans are the ultimate bad guys.
Finally, we make a connection with the third region: Samaria. The green section in the middle. Folks in this region also considered themselves loyal to the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. They were Yahweh followers and worshippers. But their ethnic history was a bit complicated. Remember back in the Old Testament, when Assyria invaded the Northern Kingdom and sent all of these colonists to settle in the area? During those years, some of the local Jews intermarried with those Assyrian colonists, and had children, and raised families, and tried to create a loyal faith-community. But the Jews who did not intermarry, and especially those who were shipped off to Babylon a few years later, were resentful of those that they considered sell-outs, and half-breeds, and heretical worshippers who didn’t follow the rules. Well, a few hundred years later, the descendants of those folks never forgot it. They still thought that the descendants of the intermarried community were still sell-outs, and still half-breeds, and still heretical worshippers. By the time of the New Testament, we know those folks as the Samaritans. Now, they believed that they were being as faithful as they could, worshipping Yahweh at their local worship site, Mt. Gerizim, and that God honored their faithfulness. The people who lived to the north (in Galilee) and to the South (in Judea) could not disagree more. So the Samaritans lived in kind of a no-man’s land, in between the rural resorts and the big city. Think Osceola. You gotta go through there to get to Branson. But there aren’t a lot of people vacationing in Osceola. Anyone ready for a road trip to Osceola? Maybe if you really like Colby cheese. But the people who live in Osceola, and who grew up in Osceola, are perfectly happy with their town and their community and think that everyone else can just shut up. That’s the Samaritans.
Scholars Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh suggest that the geography of the story sets the stage for the social dynamics. The people and land were intimately tied together, so where you lived defined who you were. They write about what they call an insider-outsider dynamic at play between these three regions. Inside of your geographical people group, there would be an almost innate trust. They were “your people.” An extended family. You shared a common worldview, a common dialect or slang. It wouldn’t feel weird to walk up to someone inside your people group, even one you had never met, and share personal or even intimate details about your life with them, and even sit down at a meal and share utensils or a common cup with them. But those outside of this people group, you would never feel this close or intimate with. It is almost like you would have an innate distrust of them. The New Testament shows this distrust. Judeans think that the Samaritans are heretical half-breeds and the Galileans are rednecks. Samaritans think that Judeans and Galileans are stuck-up and arrogant and judge them for something that happened 500 years earlier. Galileans have kind of a “little brother syndrome,” resentful of everyone and ready to start a fight.
These are the social-cultural dynamics at play in the Gospel of John. Now, I want you to keep one finger in the map section, and flip up to the book of John, with this geography in mind:
- Start in John 1. First, the Prologue, which is really beyond time and space and geography. But by the end of that chapter, we read about Jesus’ calling of his fellow Galilean men to follow him. Malina and Rohrbaugh talk here about what they call a “fictive kinship.” Jesus is creating basically a fourth people group, a separate and alternative community with a completely new worldview and new way of speaking to each other. It is “kinship” because they bond together as a family would bond; it is “fictive” because they are not blood-related, but connected in a different manner. When these Galilean men meet Jesus, they are drawn to him, invite others with that all-important phrase “come and see,” and start to understand his power and authority as they watch him turn water into wine up there in the Galilean town of Cana.
- But then, John leaves Galilee for the pink section in the South: Judea. And we start to see him butting heads with the Judeans. In the first five minutes he is there, he is already turning over tables and pouring their money on the ground. Immediately, there is distrust. Even Nicodemus, the Judean religious leader, who has curiosity and even a begrudging respect for Jesus, doesn’t quite understand him, and cannot get on board with his fictive kinship, at least not yet.
- So, Jesus leaves that region, and heads to our third region: the green Samaria. The road between Judea and Galilee goes right through Samaria. Like Interstate 13 that runs right by the Colby cheese shop. For Jesus to return home from Judea to Galilee, he has to travel this highway. He has to walk in the shadow of Mt. Gerizim, the mountain where the Samaritans make their sacrifices, through a town known in the Old Testament as Shechem, now known as Sychar.
And finally, after the longest introduction to a Scripture reading ever, we are ready to read John 4.
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” 2 —although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— 3 he left Judea and started back to Galilee. 4 But he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water….
See how the context makes all the difference here? Jesus and his disciples travel on this road, get hungry, so they run to town for a bite to eat. Maybe check out the local cheese shop. A woman shows up to the well for water. Looks like normal stuff, right? But pay attention to the insider-outsider dynamics at play. First, this woman is a Samaritan in Samaria, and Jesus is a not. There ought to be an innate distrust that each of them feel toward each other. Second, you need to understand that in that time and place, women were the ones who retrieved the water from the well, but they did it in groups, and they did it in the cool of the morning or evening. When this woman shows up, at noon, by herself, it tells us that she has somehow been isolated from the community. We can make our guesses why, but the bottom line is that she has been shunned. She is an outsider. An outcast. She is a Samaritan who has lost her standing even with the Samaritans. Imagine for a moment what that might feel like. Isolated. Alone. A permanent outsider. You would probably go to any lengths to have some kind of human contact, even if it meant living with whatever husband would have you for whatever length of time. Cast aside by that one, you would have little choice but to find another. And as an outcast, in order to do your duty to the household, you go to retrieve water at a time when you are assured that no one else will be at the well. If you see anyone else, especially an unidentified man, the last thing you would do would be to talk to him. Right?
7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”
This unorthodox encounter keeps getting stranger and stranger. Clearly, these two outsiders to each other’s worlds should not have anything to do with each other. But immediately, Jesus begins to talk with her, and the conversation is incredibly personal. He wants to share a drink of water from the same jar, and he starts talking to her about some really private and personal stuff: her husbands and who she is living with. All of that should be way off limits according to the social norms of the day.
But look at it in terms of fictive kinship. If this woman were Jesus’ wife or sister or cousin, then none of this would be off limits. So for Jesus to speak to her and offer to share a drink speaks volumes about what he is doing here. He is treating her like a sister. Like a part of the family. What he offers and how he relates to her is an act of incredible grace and hospitality and inclusivity. In short, Jesus is calling this woman to be a disciple! Calling her to join his alternative community. His family. Just like Andrew and Peter and the other Galilean men from the first chapter. He is acting as though she were already an insider!
But wait, there’s more!
19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Jesus moves the conversation from water to worship. Another sticking point in this insider-outsider dynamic. But look at what he says about worship: “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” Whoa! Hold on there, Jesus! There are only two options for where to worship: Jerusalem or Gerizim. Did you say “neither?” Jesus is disrupting the exclusivity of all three people groups all at once! But he does this because he only recognizes the rules of one family, the family of God demonstrated in his mission on earth. This “fictive kindom” that he is gathering. And now, it isn’t just made up of Galilean men. Now, Jesus is inviting into the family a Samaritan woman. He invites her to follow him and join their mission. And simultaneously, he is declaring that all of those former divisions and rules and insider-outsider proclamations are null and void. They don’t matter. All that matters is commitment to the message and person of Christ.
The story goes on for another fifteen verses, but let me summarize three separate reactions to this conversation:
- The disciples come back and flip their lids. They see Jesus talking to this woman and try to play it cool, but you can tell on the inside they are all “insider-outsider dynamics.” But Jesus is all “fictive kinship.” And he tries to tell them a parable about bread and harvest and who belongs in the family, and they are all like “who brought you bread? Did someone bring him bread?”
- Meanwhile, the most beautiful reaction is that of the woman. The passage says that she “leaves her jar,” just like the fishermen leaving their boats and nets to become disciples. And she takes off for the center of town to tell everyone about Jesus, and in case we hadn’t figured it out by then, she uses exactly the same phrase that the Galilean male disciples did: “Come and see!” In essence, she is joining this family alongside of the other disciples, and taking her place as a sister. A beloved cousin. Part of the family.
- And don’t miss the reaction of the townspeople. The fact that they listened to this woman that they had shunned, and then came to believe on their own terms (“we believe, for we have heard for ourselves!”), and then begged him to stay for the next two days as he taught them…all goes to demonstrate the power and authority that Jesus brought. Recruiting disciples in the Osceola cheese shop. Building the Kingdom in leaps and bounds.
And still recruiting the strangest of people in the strangest of places. For this whole sociology lesson is well and good and perhaps fascinating to some and boring to others. But what matters for us today is that the fictive kindom that Jesus created, that broke down walls of exclusivity, that blew up norms of gender expectation, that dismantled divisions based on race and ethnicity, is still alive and well today! In other words, the door to the family room is still wide open!
And while so many of us tend to retreat to our own insider-outsider polarities, and social constructs that keep the “other” at arm’s length, and wave our hands around like the disciples did naming reasons why this person or that person shouldn’t be included, the bottom line is that Jesus is still telling us that there are those in our world who desperately want and need to hear about the love and acceptance that he still gives. Those who think that because we have a cross on our roof, we hate them. Those who just want to see that the Jesus that they remember from the Sunday school of their childhood, is not the same Jesus represented in the angry exclusivity they’ve heard from the Church. Those who just want to come home, who just want to be told that they are valued and valuable, who just want to hear someone tell them that they matter.
That family, created by Jesus with fishermen and skeptics and bumbling preachers and women with five husbands, still has a message to deliver to the world. Still has reason to proclaim, “come and see!” Still is ready to tell the outsiders of the world that they have a home. That family is still radical enough for us leave our water jars by the side of the well and run through the streets with a story of love.