May 25, 2008
Stories of Transformation from the Book of John
Pastor Brian Shimer
- To Nicodemus Jesus had said, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…” and here in this account, we find God doing just that. He is loving the world particularized in this woman whom Jesus met at the well in Samaria.
We find Jesus choosing to leave for Galilee at the start of this chapter in order to keep the people from placing him in competition with John. And even though the Jews had long used long ways around Samaria – there were other roads to use, Jesus chose to take the shorter route straight through their territory.
Jesus chooses to rest by this well, even though he had no way to draw water from it and sent all the disciples, we are assuming there would be 12 of them by now into town to buy food. Mind you just a few months earlier these same disciples would not have imagined going into a Samaritan village to buy food. But already the love of God through Jesus has worked on their hearts so that they seem to have no objection.
The story of the Jewish conflict with Samaria began in 721 Bc when the Northern Kingdom was carried off into Exile to Assyria. The king sent in Assyrians to resettle the area. These foreigners intermarried with the few Israelites left there. Then after the people were free to return to their homeland, others moved there and intermarried all the more. The result was a mixed group. They accepted the first five books of the Old Testament only, believed a Savior who would be like Moses would come and free them. The Samaritan temple on Mt Gerizim had been built in 400 BC and destroyed sometime before the birth of Jesus which had fueled their animosities. To this day there is still “a small group of a few hundred Samaritans offering sacrifice on Mount Gerizim” (Witherington, The Wisdom of John, p. 117).
In addition to the split between the Jew and the Samaritans, there was also the issues of gender and lifestyle which dictated less contact. A Rabbi was never to speak to a woman in public; and no man was to speak to a Samaritan woman. A woman of a disreputable past was not to be spoken to either. So for Jesus to begin to speak was more than a breech of custom it was wrong – a certain way to lose your reputation. The old Rabbinic precept was this: “Let no one talk with a woman in the street, no, not with his own wife.” So by the standards of the Rabbis Jesus could not have done am ore shatteringly unconventional thing than to talk to this woman (Barclay, John v1, p. 155).
Nothing quite compares to this for us, for everyone talks to everyone in this culture. But perhaps you have attitudes in your heart about people – judgments you make against certain people. Piercings, tattoos, dreadlocks, homosexual behavior, cross dressers are some choices which might make you hesitant to share, or might make it more difficult to talk at all. And depending upon where you are in the US, you can find people still who would never converse with someone of another race or color even today.
But we do not come close to the cultural stigma experienced by women in the Jewish and Samaritan cultures. This woman apparently was not only an outcast to the Jew because of being a Samaritan, but an outcast among her own people because of having been married five times and now living with the sixth man. We find her not coming to the well in her own community but walking a full half mile out of the village to this well where Jesus sat waiting for her. That she came at noon spoke of the level of ostracism she experienced. No woman in her right mind would come at noon, in the heat of the day, but this woman did.
Interestingly the name of the town Sychar means “the place of burden” – and here Jesus met this woman in order to lift her burden.
- There would have been no bucket at this well, but the woman would have carried a small leather pouch in order to fill her jar, hence her statement that Jesus had nothing to draw with. His offer of living water was running water, but to use this phrase he was in essence declaring himself to be the messiah. In the spiritual sense throughout the Old Testament it was the Messiah who would bring the living water, the fountain of life to quench the soul of man.
She declares she wants this water and this is when he tells her: “Go call your husband and come back.” This statement awakened her to the burden of her own heart and life – for the first time in the conversation she loses her bravado, she does not call Jesus “sir” and rather confesses, “I have no husband.”
When Jesus responds by identifying the brokenness of her life history with men, she responds by asking a question about worship, which on first glance seems to have nothing to do with this passage. But for her it had everything to do with it. The burden of her life was this: she was a sinner and had no way to find freedom. Here this man, clearly a prophet had identified her sin, but what was she to do with it? For too long it had been a burden to her heart and life. She was plum out of options, now living with the sixth in a line of men who had used her and left her.
So her question was a sincere desire to find a way to freedom from her sin. Where do I take the sacrifice? For her “worship” meant the place to offer the sacrifice. It was the only means she knew of to get free from sin, even though it had never worked for her.
Jesus makes it clear to this woman that worship practiced as it had been either in Jerusalem or on Mt. Gerizim would not meet the desire of her heart. Sacrifice would not bring the cleansing she sought. “You Samaritans worship what you do not know,” he tells her. Instead “a time is coming when you will worship the Father…” This is a new kind of worship, a worship of God as “Father” as intimate, close, personal and friend, a father who is seeking those who worship in spirit – being alive by being born anew, and in truth, through the person of Jesus Christ, who is truth.
This is worship that is the expression of the whole of life not just a ritual that happens
To this inquiry Jesus does not respond saying that there is a proper place, but that a time is coming when this woman will worship not an abstract God but “the Father” neither on this mountain (Mt. Gerizim) nor in Jerusalem but in spirit and in truth.
God alone in living relationship will quench the thirsting of her soul. This is worship – worship that is intimate relationship with the living God. To worship then “in spirit and in truth” is a description of worship that is spiritually alive because of new birth as John has declared to us in every section of his Gospel thus far, and worship that is “in truth” is centered in the person with whom this woman speaks, Jesus, who is full of grace and truth.
- So, here she stands before this one who is explaining the means to gain access to this living water and she decides this is a subject that the Messiah whenever he comes will have to explain to them. To this Jesus tells her: “I am He”.
Now, this woman had arrived at the well burdened. She had arrived an outcast of her village. She had arrived a woman of questionable moral character. She had arrived living with a man after having five husbands dump her. This is a woman who had arrived as a cynic, hardened and calloused. She was living a routine but was missing life.
How much did God love the world?
I ask that for Jesus did not have to be waiting by this well. Jesus had chosen to take what was the “less traveled route” to Galilee in order to pass through this community. He had sent all his disciples into town to buy food when just a couple of them could have made the trip on their own and brought food back to the group. He was waiting by the well because he was human and weary, but also because he was expecting this woman to come. “I only do what I see my Father doing,” he will later declare, and clearly, the Father had given him a glimpse of this encounter.
Jesus then initiates the conversation – and with some twinkling of his eyes keeps it going to the point that he lets her know that He is the Messiah.
So whereas she arrived burdened, she leaves her water pot at the well and runs into the village. She leaves her “source of provision” there in order to run and tell others about the “man who told me everything I ever did. This could not be the Messiah, could it?”
The one once the outcast becomes the evangelist. Her testimony is simply that Jesus knew everything about her life. That is her witness. Come and see the man who told me everything… And she ends up leading people toward not to Christ. They come to “hear him for themselves”. And after his two day stay many more became believers, believing not just because of what she had said but now they had heard for themselves and they knew that this man really was the “savior of the world”.
- In John’s third chapter we had someone who had believed in the name of Jesus because of seeing his miraculous works, here this woman and others believe simply based upon His Word. She is one seeking spiritual truth and seeking life. She hears of a water that will quench her thirst and begins to grasp the true thirst in her life is not physical but spiritual.
This is the purpose of any opportunity God gives us to witness to someone like this woman who is done with living life the way they have lived it and want to find something to “quench the thirsting of their souls”.
So far in this gospel we have met followers of John who were thirsting for something more and found this in Jesus. We have met guests at a wedding who encountered the glory of God revealed in the new wine. We have met a very religious man who needed to find spiritual life not just religious life. And now a woman caught in the web of sin with no means of escape except for the living waters of Jesus.
All of these needed the same thing: the means to be transformed in this life, the means to find a life that is true life, free life, not fettered by the rules of religion, not bound by the practices of sin. Jesus is the one who offers such a life.
We knew this. We knew that his life is the only life, but so often we become like this woman bound in sin and refuse to turn to the One who can set us free, or more likely like Nicodemus, bound by religion without any hope of freedom. The only means to freedom is the One who came to set us free, the Lord Jesus.
But the one thing this account tells me beyond what Jesus can do for me, which is significant, for I have been this woman and this man, is this: Jesus calls me to be sowing my faith out there where I live day by day. It is out there where there are many seeking to find a hope they lack and the only means of finding that hope is as the Holy Spirit brings our lives together with theirs. This is not a matter of “performance” nor of street corner evangelism, but of listening obedience. It is being aware of what God is calling us to do, and following through on that.
It is stopping to talk briefly to someone because there is a nudge in your spirit to do so that will offer seed sown in their lives.
Sometimes the seed will not even look like “seed” to you. Have you ever had someone tell you: “Wow, when you wrote this and such or said this to me, it changed my whole week”?
The fact is that we don’t always know when we are offering a “cup of cold water” in His name, or “visiting the sick” or the “imprisoned” or the “outcast”. Sometimes we are just doing what we are prompted to do and the unseen God is leading us to be His grace and bring His living water to a thirsty soul.
I found myself in such a circumstance this week when I went to see Willa on Thursday morning during what is usually my art class. I went for it was a convenient thing for me to do, I thought, once I was already over there. But when she looked at me she almost started to cry. “Oh Brian, I needed to see you just now,” she said. I wheeled her into her room and prayed with her, read a story aloud some, listened to her, and when she got sleepy, tucked her into her bed for a nap. I read Scripture some more and then just sat in the quiet. At one point she startled herself awake and said, “Brian? Brian? Brian?” And I reached over and said, “I am here, Willa.” And she relaxed. She said, “you know, Brian, I think I am going to go soon.” “I know, Willa. I think you are too and won’t that be a great homecoming! You will see Chaplain and I listed off many others who will be there waiting for her.” “yes,” she said, “It will be a great celebration.” She relaxed and slept some more.
God loves people – not in a syrupy, sappy way, but in a practical, pursuing, wanting to see them set free kind of way. God loved this woman enough to have Jesus there to meet her need even though Jesus ought to have been going another way. God loves people in your life enough to have you around. God loves Willa enough to send me and to send others at just the right time to encourage her in this time of departure. What a God!