Jesus Finds Himself in the Wrong Neighborhood

THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT

Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

Prayer of the Day: Merciful God, the fountain of living water, you quench our thirst and wash away our sin. Give us this water always. Bring us to drink from the well that flows with the beauty of your truth through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” John 4:20.

Disputes over how, where and by whom God is to be worshipped are as old as they are heated and bloody. The first murder recorded in the Bible grew out of a dispute about the right worship of God. See Genesis 4:1-16. That is what the Samaritan woman’s question is all about and it reflects animosity going back for almost one thousand years. Recall that the Israelite kingdom built up under the leadership of David split following the death of his son, Solomon. The Southern Kingdom of Judah continued to be ruled by descendants of David and worshipped in Jerusalem at the Temple built by Solomon. The Northern Kingdom of Israel ultimately established its capital in Samaria and was under the control of several successive dynasties. In 722 B.C.E. the Northern Kingdom of Israel was invaded and destroyed by the Assyrians. Judah fell to the Babylonians more than a century later in 587 B.C.E.

Though many Israelites were displaced as a result of these conquests, a substantial number remained in the land. Among them was an ethnic group claiming descent from the Northern Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh as well as from the priestly tribe of Levi. These  “Samaritans” had their own temple on Mount Gerizim. They believed this mountain, rather than Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, to be the location chosen by God for worship. When some of the exiles from Judah (now properly called “Jews”) returned from Babylon to Palestine in order to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, they met with hostility and resistance from the Samaritans and other inhabitants of the land. Both Jews and Samaritans regarded themselves exclusively as the one true Israel. Thus, the very existence of each represented an existential threat to the other.  The depth of Jewish animosity toward Samaritans is reflected in at least one daily prayer used in some synagogues pleading for God to ensure that Samaritans not enter into eternal life. Ellis, E. Earle, The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary, (c. 1974 Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 151 citing Oesterley, W.O.E., The Gospel Parallels in the Light of their Jewish Background, New York, 1936, p. 162. Of course, the Samaritans were equally ill disposed toward Jews.

Our gospel tells the story of a meeting between Jesus, the Jew, and a woman of Samaria. The tale is rife with elements of blood, soil, patriarchy, privilege and religious animosity. We are told from the start that Jesus was on his way from the Jewish land of Judea to the Jewish territory of Galilee. In the course of that journey, “he had to go through Samaria.” John 4:4. Samaria was not his destination nor, it seems, a place he necessarily wanted to be. But there he was, too weary to continue and thirsty besides. So he sat himself down in the shade of a very ancient well that belonged-well, that’s part of the problem. The well was in Samaritan territory, but it was just as sacred to the Jews. Everything is contested here, even the patch of ground on which these two antagonists stand.

Jesus and the woman are both vulnerable in many respects. The woman is alone, unaccompanied-which makes her suspect in first century Palestinian culture. But Jesus is also alone, in hostile territory and thirsty besides. For that reason, the woman is at an advantage. She has a bucket, without which the well is useless to Jesus. The woman is prepared to press her advantage to the max. “A drink you want? Sure! Oh, but wait. My filthy Samaritan bucket is surely too vulgar for a nice Jewish boy like you. Too bad!” When Jesus begins to speak to her about the living water he has to give her, the woman persists. “Only water around here, living or otherwise, is at the bottom of this well. Just how do you think you are going to get to it without a bucket?”

The conversation takes a new turn when Jesus tells the woman to bring her husband. We learn that she has no husband, legally speaking, but that she has been married five times before. There could have been any number of reasons for that and for the fact that she is now evidently living with a man who is not her husband. But Jesus doesn’t seem interested in any of that. The woman remarks how Jesus appears to be a prophet. Whether that was a sincere response to his knowing so well her life situation or whether it was said tongue in cheek, Jesus takes seriously her question about the correct place of worship. Perhaps the woman expected Jesus to reiterate the Jewish position with all of the supporting scriptural citations. Maybe she was already formulating a defense of the Samaritan position in her own mind. But if she was expecting the usual theological debate from the usual entrenched doctrinal positions, she was mistaken. Jesus will not respond within the parameters of the binary thinking dictated by centuries of conflict between his own people and the Samaritans. This is not an issue of either/or. For true worship is grounded neither at the temple in Jerusalem nor the one on Mount Gerizim. True worshipers of God, Jesus tells us, worship “in spirit and truth.”

We are told that as the Samaritan woman was leaving to return to her village, she left her water bucket behind. An unimportant detail? In John’s gospel there are no unimportant details. It is clear that the woman has responded to Jesus’ vulnerability toward her by practicing a little of her own. As an act of compassion, she leaves behind her “ace in the hole,” that is, the bucket Jesus may now use to quench his thirst. Upon her arrival home, she invites her neighbors to come and meet this odd, remarkable rabbi.

After meeting Jesus and spending a couple of days with him, the Samaritan villagers say something quite remarkable. “We know,” they say, “that this Jesus is the Savior of the world.” Now it would be remarkable enough for them to say, “hey, you might be a Jew, but deep down inside you’re one of us. You can be our messiah.” It would have been even more remarkable for the Samaritans to say, “Look, it’s time to put this animosity to rest. Samaritan, Jew, we are all Israel together and you, Jesus, are our messiah.” But more astounding than that, the Samaritans recognize Jesus as the Savior of the entire world-as we were told in last week’s gospel.

In the gospel of John, everything always comes right back to Jesus and nothing fits together without him. “You search the scriptures,” says Jesus. “But it is they that bear witness to me.” John 5:39. After Jesus enters the temple and turns over the tables of the money changers, chases all the sacrificial animals out of the temple precincts and brings the nation’s worship to a screeching halt, the religious authorities ask him, “What sign have you to show us for doing this?” John 2:18. Jesus let them know that there is a new temple in town and it’s him. Tear this temple down if you will, but God will raise it up again. John 2:13-22. Philip says to Jesus, “Hey, you keep talking about God the Father. The Father this; the Father that. Show us the Father!” Jesus replies, “Philip, how long have we been together? How long have you been with me, learning from me? Don’t you understand yet that you have seen the Father? Don’t you get it yet? I am all of God there is to see.” John 14:8-11. To worship the Father in spirit and in truth is to be a community of faith built around Jesus. It is to seek Jesus together through the diligent study of the scriptures; it is to join with Jesus at the Lord’s Table; it is to unite our prayers for the world, the church and for one another so that we can become a sign of the salvation God desires for the whole world.

Lest all of this become a mere abstraction, John the Evangelist paints us a picture of God’s reign in Jesus Christ. It begins with two antagonists, Jew and Samaritan, asserting competing claims to God’s election and sharing a history drenched in blood meeting on hotly contested soil. It ends with a community of Samaritans showing hospitality to a Jewish rabbi and his disciples, welcoming them to their city, opening their homes and sharing their table. This story is the best news possible for a world spinning dangerously toward the brink of bloodletting over racial hatred, nationalistic divisions and ancient feuds. It is a reminder that the love holding the Trinity together and the Word through which, according to St. Paul, “all things hold together” is stronger than the forces bent on tearing them apart.

The lyrics from country singer Garth Brooks’ hit, Belleau Wood, tell a similar tale of mercy, compassion and love breaking through the bonds of hatred and testifies to a better hope for the future of our world.

Belleau Wood

Oh, the snowflakes fell in silence
Over Belleau Wood that night
For a Christmas truce had been declared
By both sides of the fight

As we lay there in our trenches
The silence broke in two
By a German soldier singing
A song that we all knew

Though I did not know the language
The song was “Silent Night”
Then I heard my buddy whisper
“All is calm and all is bright”

Then the fear and doubt surrounded me
Because I’d die if I was wrong
But I stood up in my trench
And I began to sing along

Then across the frozen battlefield
Another’s voice joined in
Until one by one each man became
A singer of the hymn

Then I thought that I was dreaming
For right there in my sight
Stood the German soldier
‘Neath the falling flakes of white

And he raised his hand and smiled at me
As if he seemed to say
Here’s hoping we both live to see us
Find a better way

Then the devil’s clock struck midnight
And the skies lit up again
And the battlefield where heaven stood
Was blown to hell again

But for just one fleeting moment
The answer seemed so clear
Heaven’s not beyond the clouds
It’s just beyond the fear

No, heaven’s not beyond the clouds
It’s for us, to find it, here

Source: Garth Brooks & Joe Henry (c. Kobalt Music Publishing, Ltd.) Garth Brooks is an American singer and songwriter. His integration of rock and pop elements into the country genre has earned him popularity, particularly in the United States with success on the country single and album charts, multi-platinum recordings and record-breaking live performances, while also crossing over into the mainstream pop arena. Brooks was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame on October 21, 2012, having been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame the year before. Brooks was also inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in 2016 with his studio musicians, The G-Men. The above song is based on events that occurred during an “unofficial” Christmas ceasefire along the western front during the First World War.

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