Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The Woman at the Well

So I was sitting in Church last Sunday, as you do, and we read the passage from John's Gospel, Chapter 4, where Jesus has a conversation with a Samaritan woman at the well outside the town of Sychar.  The sermon has completely gone from my head, as most aural communication tends to, but I was struck by part of the story.

Jesus starts by asking the woman for a drink, and she is amazed that a Jewish man will ask a Samaritan woman for water - crossing racial and gender barriers was a bit of a shock back then.  Then they have a complex conversation about living water which seems to be a metaphor for eternal life, and the woman asks Jesus to give her this life.  Having got to that point, they address two issues - her sexual morality, and the difference in doctrine between Jews and Samaritans. 

Here's the first part.

15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

17 “I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

I think Jesus is simultaneously acknowledging and dismissing her promiscuity as an issue.  Perhaps he says it with a wry smile.  He has already crossed the gender barrier, and the barrier of historic enmity between Jews and Samaritans.  Now he makes her aware that her conduct is not an issue for him and he's known about it all along.

Then, with bewildering rapidity, she shifts topic.

19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

When I read these passages now, my mind buzzes with the voices of the Lives of Jesus.  Of course the participants in the Jesus Seminar will tell us this passage, like most of John's Gospel, has little to do with Jesus.  Marcus Borg though, along with Albert Nolan, would be very interested in his peacemaking and re-working of gender relations, with the implication of liberation for this double outcast.  Yancey would probably tell us a story about a prostitute who came into his church, and the way she was treated.

The voices which spoke loudest, though, were those of Albert Schweitzer and his latter day admirer, NT Wright.  For them, Jesus was a prophet of the end times, and the understanding of this conversation would begin here:

...a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.

This is not an abstract idea or a vague prophecy of some distant future.  It is a concrete statement of what is about to happen.  In 66 CE the Jews revolted against Roman rule, the country was laid waste and Jerusalem, including its temple, was destroyed in 70 CE.  The Samaritans also took part in this revolt and 11,600 of them were killed on Mt Gerazim in the same year.  Both communities and systems of worship were destroyed, at least for a time.  Jesus saw it coming.

This sort of trauma has a way of making our petty distinctions and our fine points of doctrine seem suddenly irrelevant.  What becomes of the centuries of enmity between Jew and Samaritan when both their homes, both their places of worship, are destroyed?  What faith, and what communal life, can be rebuilt from such a disaster?

In fact the seeds of the answer were already present in the Old Testament, because the Temple had been destroyed once before.  A little while ago I wrote about David's plans to build the first Temple, as told in 1 Chronicles 17.  God made it clear to David that while he didn't mind having a temple built, he didn't need it, and David shouldn't invest too much faith in it.  God is greater than any temple, or any mountain. 

...a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.

Such worshipers can be Jewish men or Samaritan women.  They can be fine upstanding citizens or they can be social outcasts.  They can worship on the mountian, or in the temple, or in their place of exile.  In the good times they can process joyfully to their place of worship, singing songs of victory.  In the bad times they can weep by the river bank, hanging their lyres from the tree branches because they have no more use for joyous songs.  Either way, God will be there, because he is greater than all these things and can hear his people wherever they are, whatever they are saying.

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