John 4 represents the founding narrative for the presence of a considerable number of Samaritans in the Johannine community.
It points to the diversity among the early Christian communities, and it legitimizes the discipleship of women.
It is presented in the form of a dialogue between Jesus and a woman of Samaria. Both are embedded in two different ethnic and religious groups, which provide the backdrop for their conversation. These two groups are the disciples and the Samaritan villagers.
In this story, Jesus overcomes exclusiveness and builds community through inclusiveness. The former movement is negative; the latter is positive.
As a Jewish male Jesus is in a position of advantage over the woman. But as a thirsty and tired sojourner he is obviously in disadvantage, for he is a foreigner and does not have a bucket to draw water.
After the woman’s initial surprise, Jesus invites the dialogue by becoming vulnerable (“Give me a drink”) and by allowing the woman to exercise some power over him (she is the one with the bucket!) The scene is paradoxical. Here is the giver of living water, thirsty himself. A thirsty Messiah and a resourceful woman will find out that they need each other, a wonderful metaphor for how God and humanity are intimately interconnected.
During the conversation, and after a play on words on the meaning of living water, Jesus overcomes his own Jewish cultic tradition by affirming that God is best worshipped in spirit. Thus, he does away with the temple institution both in Israel and in Samaria and points to a different eschatological reality, which he believes to be living in (verse 23, “and is now here”).
Jesus does this first by crossing gender boundaries and engaging the woman as a valid conversation partner to whom he makes the first self-revelation of the entire gospel: “I am he” (verse 26). By so doing he is de facto including women in the circle of disciples because the Samaritan woman goes back to the village and witnesses to the townspeople concerning Jesus. Consequently, they are able to make a Christological confession (verse 42).
Jesus also builds community by crossing racial boundaries and breaking the distinction between “chosen people” and “rejected people.” He extends the mission of the Jewish Messiah to the Samaritan people, who were hated by the Jews for their history of racial mixture and religious syncretism.
The Samaritan Woman
She is in clear disadvantage because of gender and race. But she has the advantage of being a local (Samaria is her home after all) and of having access to the water of the well, which Jesus lacks. Unlike Nicodemus in John 3, who seems to run out of questions as the dialogue progresses, this woman engages Jesus in a profound theological conversation.
She is the spokesperson for the Samaritans (notice the use of plural personal pronouns in verses 12, 20-22). She makes progressive affirmations of faith that prepare the way to her being sent as a witness (verse 39). When carefully read, this story provides the warrant for the presence of women among Jesus’ group of disciples. Two clues from the Johannine context will show this.
First, in 1:40, Andrew tells his brother Simon that he has found the Messiah and then brings him to Jesus. In 4:39, the woman’s testimony brings about the conversion of the Samaritans.
Second, in 1:46-49 Nathanael becomes a disciple after Jesus tells him his whereabouts under the fig tree. In 4:29 the woman becomes a witness to Jesus because of what Jesus told her. There is no doubt then that this woman is a witness to Christ, a disciple, just as much as the male disciples in 1:35-51.
A third disadvantage, besides those of gender and race, is the woman’s private life, her having had five husbands. But this is not necessarily proof of a licentious life. She could have been trapped in the custom of levirate marriage (see Tamar in Genesis 38) and the last male in the family line had refused to marry her.1 The text portrays her as an example of growing faith. The five husbands can also be a reference to people from five foreign nations who were brought as colonists by the Assyrians when they conquered the region in 721 B.C.E. (see 2 Kings 17:24). This created a situation of intermarriage that was aggravated by Herod the Great who continued with this pattern of colonization by settling thousands of foreigners in Samaria.2 If that is the case, then Jesus is commenting on the Samaritans’ mixed race and culture due to imperialism, not on her private life.
The disciples are the group to which Jesus relates ethnically and religiously. They are Jews (John 4:9). They appear at the beginning of the narrative, verse 8, and then after Jesus has finished his conversation with the woman, in verse 27, thus providing a rhetorical frame for Jesus conversation with her. Verses 7-30 can be structured in the following way:
A. A woman came to draw water (7)
B.The disciples had gone away into the city (8)
C. Dialogue between Jesus and the woman (9-26)
B. The disciples came back from the city (27)
A. The woman left the water jar and went back into the city (28)
In the narrative, the disciples stand for those people inside of the community who were not very enthusiastic about including non-Jews as fellow believers. The male disciples are summoned to participate in the mission but they must acknowledge that “others” have labored first. This is a veiled reference to the missionary work of the woman.
The Samaritan villagers
The Samaritan villagers acknowledge Jesus as the “Savior of the world,” not just the Jewish Messiah or the traditional Samaritan Ta’heb (“The one who returns”). This speaks of a new consciousness arising in the Johannine community that struggles to overcome cultural and national differences. Whatever it was that the woman told them, she did it in such a way that her conversation with Jesus was filtered through her own understanding of who Jesus was.
Even if, as Jesus said, salvation is for the Jews, it would not be limited to Israel alone but it would spill into the whole world. They initially believe because of the woman’s testimony (contrary to the Jewish disciples in 20:18-29) but then they themselves ascertain who Jesus is. Like the woman’s, their faith progresses.
What happened at the well that empowered the woman to become a witness of the gospel? Jesus treated her as a valid conversation partner, engaging her in serious theological conversation. The fact that he disagreed with some of the woman’s affirmations is the best proof that he was treating her with respect. Jacob Neusner, in his book A Rabbi talks with Jesus, explains that for a rabbi to argue and dialogue with others was a sign of respect: “It is my form of respect, the only compliment I crave from others, the only serious tribute I pay to the people I take seriously — and therefore I respect and even love.”3
The question of how Jesus was changed by the experience remains. If we can’t answer it, then we might have to conclude that this dialogue was staged, fabricated. I would rather think that because of this experience Jesus began to realize the universal scope of his mission. His ministry would not be bound by social, ethnic, or religious conventions. It was an exercise in inclusiveness similar to what he experienced with the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30.
Thus, Jesus left us with a crucial lesson to be learned: community can only be built when we are not afraid of overcoming old prejudices and are willing to break the social conventions that dehumanize us. The living water that Jesus promised the woman, symbolized in the water that Moses made come out of the rock in Exodus 17, is God’s purifying water, the Holy Spirit (7:37-39), which can purify our hearts of old hatreds and hostilities and form us into a diverse people of God on earth.
1 Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 567.
2 Craig R. Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel. Second Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 49.
3 Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi talks with Jesus. An Intermillennial, interfaith exchange (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 3.
Exodus begins with the Israelites living as slaves in Egypt.
The story says God saw their suffering, and sent Moses to bring them out of Egypt with much fanfare, over the Red Sea, and into the desert.
The desert stories tend to be critical toward the Israelites, emphasizing their disagreeableness and anger, their bitterness toward Moses. Yet high on the list of personal stressors are changing jobs and moving house. So surely, picking up and walking out into a desert with only what they could carry, leaving both home and employment behind, even if it was unhappy employment, wondering where basics would come from, all this must have been extremely stressful.
They had left their tormentors, but they still lived in the real world of hunger, thirst, and uncertainty. As they entered the desert, food became an issue. Water became an issue. These weren’t inconveniences, but serious threats. The travelers may have sounded angry and outraged, but underneath, they must have been afraid.
Most of us, most of the time, take abundant clean water for granted. We don’t comprehend what its lack can bring: fear, disease, and even death. Yet water is too crucial to take for granted.
My daughter is married to a Nepali. I’ve visited them twice in Nepal, getting much more than a tourist view of life in that beautiful, stricken country. It’s not possible to take water for granted there. Even in the relatively modern city of Pokhara, water doesn’t flow freely, but is available for two hours every other day, and residents use electric pumps to draw it to rooftop storage cisterns. Even then it must be filtered or boiled before drinking or food preparation.
During Nepal’s dry winter season, insufficient electricity is generated at the hydro dams, and power can be unavailable fourteen to sixteen hours every day. If electricity is off when the water comes through the pipes, no cisterns are filled. After two weeks in Nepal, I came to realize how dependent I am on systems I take for granted.
Around the world today, and in America, commercial operations are buying up water rights. This means that a basic need, access to clean, free-flowing water, which used to be a gift of the commons, is less and less available. In addition, as glaciers recede, deserts grow, and water is diverted to agriculture and industry, a billion people now lack access to safe drinking water. Many say that the next war will not be fought over oil, but over water.
The carelessness with which a basic necessity is treated came home to me in January 2014, when I took a group of seminary students to Israel and Palestine. Just three days before we left, we heard news of a chemical spill into the Elk River upstream from Charleston, West Virginia, which contaminated the water supply of 300,000 people. This was not in Nepal or Palestine, but in an American capital city.
When we arrived in Bethlehem two weeks later, some of the travelers asked if they could drink the water. Yes, I said. It’s expensive and often scarce in Palestine, but it’s clean and safe. One of the students was from West Virginia. It was deeply ironic to sit in a hotel lobby in Bethlehem, in a city without a country, and hear him say that his family in the U.S. still couldn’t drink water in their own kitchen.
I was slated to lead a retreat in West Virginia almost as soon as I returned from Israel. More than a month after the spill, the water was still no good. “You know that burned pizza feeling in your mouth?” some people told me. “That’s what this chemical is like. It burns the roof of your mouth, your throat, your gums.” Their frustration filled the room.
“What is the chemical?” I asked.
“It’s called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM. It’s used to clean coal. That’s its only purpose. The company that owned the chemicals filed for bankruptcy, so it won’t do anything. The water company gave us instructions to flush out our systems, but that didn’t work.”
“What do you think will happen?” I asked.
“We hope it will cause people to wake up and pay attention. West Virginia is a beautiful state, but our resources are being ruined. And now we’re paying for water we can’t even use.”
That was three years ago, yet the story continues in theme and variation. Especially since the discovery of deadly levels of lead and other chemicals in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, many other reports have erupted of lead in the drinking water throughout much of the U.S, as well as other toxic industrial and agricultural chemicals. And still water aquifers and wells continue to be threatened and contaminated by new industrial actions, and those who object are often ignored, the right of a few to make money overriding the right to drink water for the many.
In the Exodus story, God cared for thirsty people, giving them water straight out of the rock. A compassionate God met their basic needs even in the wilderness.
We often think of Jesus as coming to save our souls, but over and over the gospel stories show his very practical concern for neighbors’ health and well-being, healing the sick, feeding the multitudes, and honoring the poor and forgotten. To protect such basic necessities is to do what Jesus did, and what God did.
This story of God giving water in the desert invites several responses: first, it invites gratitude, because our creator provides all good things, even down to the fresh water given to this good world, which should never be abused or taken for granted. Second, it invites prayers for the many nearby and around the world who from a variety of causes lack safe drinking water. And third, it invites actions and advocacy to help make water available for everyone God loves.
“O come, let us sing.” So Psalm 95 begins.
Where else are people invited to sing together? During the National Anthem or the Alma Mater at a ballgame? Not in the workplace, not often at home, not at the Rotary Club. Singing is our closest approximation to what our life in heaven will be like. Voices joined in praise. Harmonies are lovely, if they happen. Did the Israelites harmonize as they sang Psalm 95? Different voices, different pitches, but complementary, richer than the solo might be.
The preacher could explore the singing/choral image at length, and profitably — or even just sing a few hymns in preparation for the sermon! Martin Luther got perturbed by those not caught up in song:
Music is a fair and lovely gift of God which has often wakened and moved me to the joy of preaching … I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the devil and makes people gay; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance and the like. Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor … This precious gift has been bestowed on men alone to remind them that they are created to praise and magnify the Lord. But when natural music is sharpened and polished by art, then one begins to see with amazement the great and perfect wisdom of God in his wonderful work of music, where one voice takes a simple part and around it sing three, four, or five other voices, leaping, springing round about, marvelously gracing the simple part, like a square dance in heaven with friendly bows, embracing, and hearty swinging of the partners. He who does not find this an inexpressible miracle of the Lord is truly a clod.1
If we dare to sing praises to God, we’d best be careful about how we as praising people actually live. There is an implicit moral demand tucked inside praise: if God is God, if God is magnificent, and worthy of all adulation, then we are on the hook to live in God-like ways, to be holy, faithful, as obedient as possible. Psalm 95 underlines this aspect of praise in an unusual way. God is praised for seven verses — and then, fittingly, right after the words “we are his sheep,” we bang on knees up against a stern warning: “O that today you would listen to his voice!” Stop praising for a moment, and listen, just as sheep need to hear the shepherd’s voice.
Or realize when you weren’t listening. The sorry incident of Exodus 17, when the people ignored God’s voice through Moses and bucked in rebellion is recalled. Meribah was a place in the wilderness, and the word appropriately means “contention.” There they tested God! They put God on trial, as if they were in any position to pass judgment on God! You may have heard people joke about the fact that in every church there is your obligatory “Back to Egypt!” committee.
The wayward hearts grew stubborn, and they nearly lost everything. Their question was a fair one: “Is the Lord among us or not?” This testing God does not mind; Jesus after all was subjected to severe testing in the wilderness at the opening of the Synoptic Gospels. But is there a readiness to listen, to be patient, to be healed? If God’s people are still, and listen for God’s voice, there may be silence — which doesn’t mean God isn’t there. Archbishop Oscar Romero, during days of severe trial for the church in El Salvador, was preaching shortly before his assassination; reflecting on the ordeal of Good Friday, he said, “God is not failing us when we don’t feel his presence. Let’s not say: God doesn’t do what I pray for so much, and therefore I don’t pray any more. God exists, and he exists even more, the farther you feel from him. God is closer to you when you think he is farther away and doesn’t hear you. When you feel the anguished desire for God to come near because you don’t feel him present, then God is very close to your anguish.”
Jesus cried out from the cross, and there were no words from heaven. Elijah endured thunder and earthquake on Mt. Horeb, but then God was in the sheer silence. God is a friend of silence. But God has not always been silent, so we rummage in our minds and through Scripture to the times God has spoken, and we are stupefied, humbled, and challenged by the way people failed to be attentive to God’s words. God always issues warnings. But God does not coerce. God speaks, God loves, God waits, God warns. There’s a lot of responsibility in us to answer, to stick with this God.
Worship then is a time for praise, but also a time to hear words of warning. Worship is a call to obedience, a warning flare fired in the air to illuminate the perils of the week to come. Interestingly, Hebrews 3:7-4:13 is a long, musing sermon on this same story in Exodus 17. The early Christians were evidently flagging in their zeal. Hebrews, using the same story Psalm 95 used, encouraged them to persevere. The promise offered there is the same pledge at the very end of our Psalm for this week: “Rest.” And not just rest, as in taking it easy or getting your batteries recharged. It is the Lord’s rest. Eternal rest. The kind of rest that can “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). The rest that is trust, the rest that is the liberation from me doing what I want and instead being part of God’s great movement and adventure in this world and the world to come.
1 Martin Luther quotation appears in Roland Bainton, “Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther,” Abingdon Press, 2013, p. 352.
I wonder if we are drawn, in part, to Paul’s letters because of their immediacy and transparency.1
We see in them communities that struggled, as we do, with how to live together and live out the gospel. We see people who squabbled over who could and could not eat certain foods; who could and could not speak in church; and whether or not one should get married (not, according to Paul); disagreements that continue to this day. The letters also reveal a man who rejoices in all God has done for him and everyone else — Jew and Gentile. But, at the same time, he writes openly of his failure to live up to God’s expectations, also as we do.
Theology and Christology Paul is writing to a disparate collection of churches that he had not visited rather than churches he founded. He wrote with the goal that “the God of steadfastness and encouragement [may] grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5-6). Paul wanted them to recognize, as he did, that there is one God and one Lord.
An important part of our Lenten journey is getting to know this God and the Lord with whom we are making the journey to Jerusalem. The gospel lesson this third Sunday in Lent presents us with the startling exchange between Jesus and a notorious woman in Samaria. At the heart of that lesson is her query, “He [Jesus] cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (John 4:29). Paul seeks to answer her question with a resounding “yes”. Paul wants us to know this man Jesus. Yes, Jesus was and is Messiah, the Christos, the anointed one. Therefore, a homiletical direction one might take is to examine the theological and Christological dimensions of this brief passage.
Paul writes that we have a God who loves us. God loves us so much that, even when we were (and are) weak; even while we were (and are) sinners; even when we were (and are) enemies of God, and each other, God sent God’s son. We have a faithful God who was and is willing to go to any length to reconcile us.
Paul paints a picture of God that is in harmony with the portrait of God given to us by Jesus. This is the God who will search high and low for us when we are lost and have wondered off. Ours is the God who runs out to meet us, the prodigal daughters and sons. And this is a God who forgives us seventy times seventy times seven times. Or, to use a more contemporary phrase, God forgives us a gazillion bazillion times.
Paul also paints a portrait of Jesus, the anointed one. Jesus was sent by God. This Messiah, anointed one, did not demand riches and power. This Christ did not conquer the city on a horse of war. Rather, this Christos rode to his battle on a donkey, a beast of burden. For us he dared to die; to offer his blood so that we would be saved. And through his death we have been reconciled to God. Through his death we are no longer weak, our sins have been forgiven, and we are no longer enemies of God.
A crucial dimension of this passage, therefore, is Paul’s understanding of Christ’s death; his theology of the Atonement. Over and over again Paul reminds us that we are not able to work hard to justify ourselves or bring about our reconciliation with God. That happens only through God’s love and grace. It is a free gift of God. Without the death of Jesus, Paul writes, we all would stand before God guilty and condemned. Only Jesus was able to save us from “the wrath of God” which is our due.
Christ’s Suffering, Our Suffering This passage also has a strong anthropological dimension. In the midst of discussing Christ’s suffering for us, Paul writes of the Christian life. As he offers us a challenging portrait of what the “peace with God” looks like, is Paul telling us something about his life in Christ?
Paul was a man who thought he had that peace of God; thought he was reconciled to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He had studied and lived the Law, the Torah. He had been an important religious leader. But then he picked up his cross to follow Jesus. He saw that the way of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation can also be a way of suffering.
Paul clearly wrote out of his experiences. In return for being a follower of Jesus he was beaten and imprisoned. And we know that eventually he would ride into Rome, not in triumph, but to his death. It is a chilling experience to stand in Saint John Lateran looking up at the baldacchino over the high altar. At the top are two reliquaries thought to contain the heads of Peter and Paul. For both of these men, to answer the call of Christ was to bring suffering and death.
But in spite of all that he experienced, Paul saw that through his suffering he grew closer to Jesus, closer to God. Employing the rhetorical figure of climax, Paul wants to lead us through suffering, to endurance, to character, and eventually to hope. To follow Jesus will bring us new life and reconciliation to God, but it does not mean that bad things will never happen to us.
For Paul, suffering and endurance are crucial aspects of the faithful life. However, to walk this homiletical path can prove difficult. As preachers it is important to recognize that Paul does not say that God sends this suffering. Likewise, he is not saying that all suffering produces character and must therefore be endured without protest. All too often, in the past, this passage has served to justify pain at the hands of abusers and demand silent acceptance. To quote Paul, “by no means!” No, Paul is encouraging all of us to pick up our cross and follow the way of Christ “because God’s love has been poured into our hour hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5) That is the hope of our lives.
1. Commentary first published on this site on March 27, 2011.