"Jesus and the Samaritan Woman" Detail of Samaritan woman at the well
Many of you are probably familiar with the hymn, written in the 1930’s, “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light.” I’ve been considering the lyrics as I reflected on the Gospel lesson for this third Sunday in Lent (John 4:5-42).
I want to walk as a child of the light. / I want to follow Jesus. / God set the stars to give light to the world. / The star of my life is Jesus.
In him there is no darkness at all. / The night and the day are both alike. / The Lamb is the light of the city of God. / Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably taken these words to be talking about Jesus’s sinlessness, his changeless and perfect divine character. But there’s something else there–or at least more there–because these are the words that came to mind as I read the selection from John’s Gospel, which we just heard, about Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.
Jesus is near the Samaritan city of Sychar, remarkable for a holy man in itself. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews because they were viewed as a living witness to apostasy from the Law. Jews were not to marry outside their faith/people, yet the Samaritans existed as a people because Israelite males from the Northern Kingdom had done precisely that, and intermarried with foreigners who had been resettled in the area by the Assyrians. The hatred and distrust went farther back than that, because the Northern Kingdom had rejected the worship of the Jerusalem Temple and instead had built their own temple on Mt. Gerazim, near their early capital of Shechem, called Sychar in John (they later moved their capital, but the temple remained on Mt. Gerazim). Not only did the Samaritans have their own temple, they had their own version of the Torah.
Needless to say, the Samaritans weren’t well liked by the Jewish people and the feeling was mutual: they were so close to each other in belief, yet they hated each other for their differences, seeing them as blasphemous–a classic example of odium theologicum.
It is interesting that Jesus chose to travel through Samaritan territory because–despite the fact that it was the most expedient route–many religious Jews would avoid the area completely, taking the extra time to travel around Sychar/Shechem so as to avoid contact with any “unclean” Samaritans. Not so with Jesus.
Jesus comes to the area of Jacob’s well, and it’s around noon, the hottest part of the day, and he’s tired from traveling, hungry and thirsty. The disciples have gone to buy food when a Samaritan woman shows up to draw water from the well. There are several things going on simultaneously in this passage. The first is related to the place. It was a common theme in the Old Testament for a man to meet his wife at a well. It makes sense considering the social function of “watering holes.” So the fact that Jesus would talk with a woman is scandalous enough, then there’s the fact that he’s talking to her at a well–not the sort of association a well-respected religious leader would want people making (hence the astonishment of the disciples when they do return).
But beyond this, there’s an issue with the time of day. There’s a reason that Jesus, who is traveling, and this particular Samaritan woman are at the well alone. It’s noon. The hottest part of the day. Most people would do their work, such as gathering water, in the cool of the morning or the evening, and gathering water or doing washing would be a time for socializing. Not so with the woman Jesus encounters. She’s an outcast; someone with whom the other Samaritans don’t want to socialize.
Jesus encounter’s her in the midst of her ostracism and her alienation. He knows what she’s done and how she’s lived, drawing the details out:
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” (John 4:16-18).
Jesus is able, in his conversation with her, to meet her where she is, recognize the difficulties she’s facing and the poor and sinful choices she’s made and yet present Good News to her rather than heaping more judgment and more condemnation upon her. She goes away from her conversation with Jesus, not chastised, not feeling worse about herself and her situation. She goes way from that conversation with Christ energized, more confident. The woman that had to go alone to draw water goes back to her city saying “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” and when the people hear what she has to say and the way she says it ‘They left the city and were on their way to him.”
Somehow Jesus is able to discuss religion (salvation is from the Jews, he says), politics and sex, and leave the woman in a better place, and in a state of belief. How many of us are able to say the same?
This is why the song was stuck in my head. I do want to walk as a child of the light, and I do want to follow Jesus. But in Jesus there is no darkness at all. I can’t say the same about myself. This is John 3:17 in action:
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
The problem that we face is that we fall into two extremes and both are fraught with judgmentalism, just of different varieties. As Archbishop Rowan Williams puts is:
We use God to bless crusades for this or that, for sexual liberation or sexual repression, for the free market or social ownership. If God is value and power, in short, we need him badly. To allay the anxiety that we might not have the kind of value and power that matters, we invent all sorts of ways in which we can be sure of having him with us, echoing what we say. And the God we thus capture and display as our ally is most emphatically a God who is there to condemn: thank goodness I, or my particular group, have avoided condemnation by getting on the right side of him, and now he can turn his wrath elsewhere, on my behalf (Rowan Williams, “Not to Condemn the World” in A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections, p. 27).
In other words, we can fall into the extreme of being judgmental conservatives or judgmental liberals. We can judge and condemn people because of their sins (as we percieve them) or because of they are benighted. Either way we are condemning and aren’t doing the work of Christ, who came not to condemn but save.
This Lenten season I pray we learn the lesson that we are to follow God, not claim that God somehow follows us. We all need to be reminded from time to time, of the lesson that the ancient Israelites learned: “Israel could not possess God because God possesses Israel” (Hauerwas, Naming God)
The Church today must relearn that we cannot possess God, because God possesses us, and somehow find a way to imitate Christ in speaking to one another, to our families friends and neighbors about God, about sin, about the Good News, in such a way that we can go forth from that conversation proclaiming the goodness of God.
After the encounter with the Samaritan woman, when the disciples urged Jesus to eat, he responded by telling them “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (John 4:34). In other words, Jesus gets satisfaction from doing the will of the Father, and the will of the Father is that everyone, even the ostracized of the ostracized, the alienated of the alienated, the blasphemers of the blasphemers and the most sinful of humanity–even you and me–come to know the salvation he offers, the love he has for us, and the peace we have in Christ. Jesus gives hope to the hopeless.
I want to see the brightness of God. / I want to look at Jesus. / Clear sun of righteousness, shine on my path, / and show me the way to the Father.
I’m looking for the coming of Christ. / I want to be with Jesus. / When we have run with patience the race, / we shall know the joy of Jesus.
Lord, help me to do so, and grant that I may.