The story of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman is a story about courage. It is a story about what Jesus felt compelled to do in an attempt to courageously change the relationships between Jews and Samaritans of his day.
John 4:4 says that Jesus’ had to go through Samaria. Truth be told, Jesus didn’t have to go through Samaria for the reason we think. Samaria was situated between Galilee in the North and Judea in the South in ancient Israel. But, it wasn’t as if there were no other routes to take in order to get from Galilee to Judea. The other routes may have taken longer but one did not have to go through Samaria. In fact, the Jews almost always took these longer ways because it helped them to avoid Samaria. The reason Jesus’ had to go through Samaria was because he felt compelled to break down a wall between Samaritans and Jews. This is why he had to travel this particular route.
Simply said, this barrier existed because Jews and Samaritans didn’t like each other. It was a feud that went back hundreds of years to the period of the Old Testament Exile in which large numbers of Israelites were taken captive by outside invaders and carried off to foreign lands. Those same invaders left some of their number in the areas of Israel that they had invaded. And, over time, those foreigners who lingered behind married the Israelites who were not taken captive and who had also been left behind. Their offsprings were considered racial half-breeds – part Jewish, part Gentile.
Over the years and centuries, what also developed in this people group who would be called Samaritans in Jesus day was a group of people who had also mixed their religious beliefs between Jewish and Pagan thought. They had their own sense of what made one clean or unclean. And, they established their own temple on Mount Gerazim to rival the temple in Jerusalem.
As you can imagine, the Jewish people driven by strict obedience to the commandments, a determination to follow laws, clear guidelines for religious purity and a desire to celebrate and affirm their unique culture and ways hated the Samaritans. In some ways, the Jews probably liked Gentiles even better than Samaritans. After all, Gentiles had no regard at all for the Jewish culture while the Samaritans offered a corrupted version of the real thing.
Jesus, however, chipped away at this hatred and arrogance with numerous stories that painted Samaritans in a positive light. The story of the ten lepers in Luke 17 tells of ten figures with leprosy who are healed with only one returning to Jesus to express gratitude. As you will remember, in the story, the one who says “thank you” is specifically said to have been a Samaritan.
Similarly, in Luke 10, Jesus tells about a man beaten and left for dead on the Jericho Road. Several Jewish religious leaders pass right by the man and offer no assistance. But, then along comes a traveler who helps the man. Jesus makes it clear that the one who cared for the man, bandaged his wounds and paid for him a place to stay in a nearby inn was a Samaritan.
The stories of the thankful leper and the good Samaritan in Luke drive home the idea that Samaritans were not the evil people that most Jews had made them out to be. But, our story from John 4 takes things one step further. Here, Jesus does four remarkable things – he goes through Samaria, he engages a Samaritan woman in conversation, he asks her for a drink and he offers her hope.
First, Jesus goes to Samaria. He doesn’t avoid Samaritan territory as the Jews liked to do. He goes right through it while stopping at a specific Samaritan town called Sychar.
Second, Jesus has a conversation with a Samaritan woman who apparently has a questionable reputation. She had come to draw water from the community well at an odd time in that she came in the middle of the day. Most folks came early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the temperatures were cooler. Perhaps she came in the middle of the day because, as we will see later in the story, she appeared to have lived a bit of a hard life. Yet, Jesus talks to her. He is neither bothered by her past or by the fact that she is a woman in a day and age where it was also uncommon for men to talk openly with women in a public setting.
Third, Jesus asks her for a drink of water. Remember, Samaritans and Jews had different ideas of what it meant to keep the purity laws of the day. In turn, most Jews felt that Samaritan products were unclean because they had not followed the same, strict procedures as the Jews did. Yet Jesus asks for and drinks her water.
Fourth, Jesus offers the Samaritan woman hope. In the end, the story is not simply about Jesus giving dignity to the Samaritan woman by speaking to her and by gladly accepting her water, it is also about Jesus having an end game in mind of sharing with her and through her with others in her village that he is the Messiah.
Again, the word here is courage. Jesus breaks all of the rules to bring dignity and hope to someone that most Jews would have dismissed.
What about us? As we continue to wrestle this Lenten season with the question of who are the people in our lives that we have relationships with and with whom we cannot only build friendship but also sow gospel seeds, today’s text moves us in a new direction. So far, we have talked by and large about those with whom we already have some type of relationship or friendship. Said another way, we have talked by and large about those who are like us.
The story of the Samaritan woman invites us to think further and to also reflect on those in our lives who we also know, are in contact with and who are already a part of our world but whom we often ignore, avoid and dismiss because they are not like us. They are the people who live on the periphery of our lives and who we “walk around” almost like the Jews walked around Samaria when traveling from Galilee to Judea. What does it mean for us to have the courage to walk toward not around these people as does Jesus with this woman? What does it look like for us to have courage to set aside all of the reasons not to engage them in order to talk to them, know them and show hope to them? What does it mean for us to treat them with the same dignity that Jesus showed this woman even if that is not the response of the majority any more than it was the response of most of the other people in Jesus’ life to the Samaritans? It is indeed a story of courage.
Having said that, I also want to say this. Today is a good day to talk and to learn broadly from this story about courage on another front too. It is a good day to talk about and learn about courage in this strange, foreign world in which we find ourselves related to the Coronavirus pandemic. Life is about traveling through uncharted territory, dealing with unusual situations and living through moments that are new and unfamiliar. As people of faith, we always go into those moments better prepared than anyone else on the face of the earth because we know that we don’t go into them alone. God goes with us. It is God through the Holy Spirit who is our companion and who gives us a resolve, a peace and a hopefulness that is hard to express or quantify.
Whether is was walking right into the middle of Samaritan territory, standing up to the Jewish religions leaders, or facing the cross itself, this is what sustained Jesus each step of the way – the knowledge that God the Father was his companion as he went.
Christians are not exempt from life’s tragedies, we are simply not alone in them. Let me say that again, Christians are not exempt from life’s tragedies, we are simply not alone in them. God is with us in this and we are in support of, have love toward and are prayerful for one another every step of this unusual journey too.
I want to end with this today. In the life of the church, there is something called the Lectionary. Some of you may know what that is and others of you may not. The Lectionary is a set of biblical passages selected for each Sunday of the year. It follows the Christian calendar which is to say it suggests Easter related texts at Easter time, Christmas texts and Christmas time, etc. The Lectionary is on a three year cycle. If followed, over the course of three years, most texts in the Bible are suggested on a given Sunday as the passage to be focused on in worship on that day. The Lectionary was created 40 or 50 years ago and over time has become a guide for ministers and churches of all types all over the world. Sometimes, we here in our church use the text for the day but much of the time we do not.
Today, ironically, we are using the text that was suggested as the Gospel text for today. It was selected long, long ago for this day, way before 99% of the world even knew about the Coronavirus or cared about it. Long ago, a text was selected for this day to be used in churches of all types and all sizes in towns and in cities all over the world. It is a text about Jesus having courage while traveling through a place that was foreign to most Jews. To push it further, it is a story about Jesus traveling through a foreign land, the land of the Samaritans, while remaining in his own country.
Maybe, just maybe, this is the text that God knew long ago that we would need today. Maybe God knew that we would need to be reminded about courage in a foreign land. Maybe God knew that we would need to hear a story today about feeling like we were in a foreign land while never leaving our home soil. So I encourage you, be safe and smart, take precautions and be careful. But fear not. Like Jesus, we are not alone in this place where we have rarely, if ever, been before. Amen.