We’ve been talking a lot about personal and cultural narratives over the last weeks. And this week’s gospel passage takes what we’ve been talking about and displays it in a very practical way. Jesus changes the life of the Samaritan woman not by healing her or doing anything practical to better her circumstances. Instead, he changes her life by changing the story of her life. He changes her life by helping her to see that her story can be part of the gospel story of what God is doing in the world through the Messiah.
So, what I want to do today is to dig in deep and see what Jesus is doing in his interaction with the Samaritan woman, so that we can then consider how we can practically imitate Jesus in our own witness to friends & neighbors.
There’s a lot going on in the passage, but we’re going to focus on just two things: 1, Jesus lives the gospel. And 2, he connects her story to the gospel story.
1. First, Jesus lives the gospel.
Everything Jesus does in this passage presumes that the gospel message is true. It is the story he lives in, and by living in it, he implicitly invites her to live in it as well.
This is most apparent in the way that we see Jesus re-drawing cultural boundary lines. As Paul would later say to the Galatians, because of the gospel, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” That’s not something Paul came up with on his own, that’s a reality Jesus lived in his earthly ministry.
He does that in three big ways. One, He is a man talking to a woman at a well. It was a very traditional culture in which men and women’s interactions were very scrutinized, and meeting at a well was particularly scandalous. That’s why Jesus’ disciples are so surprised when they find him talking with her.
Two, and more importantly, is that Jesus is a Jew interacting with a Samaritan, and Jews and Samaritans did NOT get along. The Samaritans claimed descent from the northern tribes of Israel. And they believed that true worship of Yahweh did not happen on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, but at Mt. Gerizim. And so, the Jews and the Samaritans had this kind of rivalry going that had become quite bitter in Jesus’ day.
As John points out, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” Which is to say, Jews avoided sharing cups or eating with Samaritans – things that in Ancient Near Eastern culture were ways of showing solidarity and community ties. So, when Jesus asks this woman for a drink of water, he’s not treating her like a servant, he’s treating her like a host. It was a very counter-cultural way of empowering her.
Three, Jesus is an upstanding rabbi talking to woman with a bad reputation. All the commentators point out that the fact that she is there alone at midday is telling. Women typically went for water as a group in the cool of the morning. It was a group chore that built community ties. So, the fact that this woman is out here alone, shows that she’s a social outcast. She’s not able to engage in the most basic communal tasks in her community. And when we find out about her romantic past, it’s not hard to imagine why.
But Jesus interacts with her in a way that disregards these social barriers, because they are barriers that the gospel breaks down. Human sin had created these cultural rifts, but Jesus’ came to heal us and set us free to worship God in spirit and truth together. Just by living into that reality Jesus invites this woman into His redemption story.
2. Second, Jesus connects her story and the story of her people to the gospel story.
He does that on the personal level by showing that he is willing to know her and know her story. He engages her in conversation. He asks her for hospitality. He listens to what she says. He answers her questions. And he reveals that he already knows about her many husbands and infidelity.
Although Jesus does not directly mention forgiveness of sins, he implicitly invites her into a story of forgiveness. When the woman discovers that this Rabbi who accepts her by asking her for a drink also knows her sordid personal history, it seems to be a turning point for her. To be accepted by a holy person, feels good; but to be accepted by a holy person who knows your deep dark secrets, that’s life-changing.
The people of her own village wouldn’t even do chores with her. She was viscerally aware that her life was a pitiable wreck. But when this amazing prophet who seems to be the Messiah invites her into a relationship with God, it suddenly becomes possible for her to imagine a new story of her life.
On the communal level, Jesus shares the gospel as a new story for her people. He does that by using the content of her people’s daily life – the well – as a metaphor.
The Samaritans all knew their well was built by their ancestor Jacob. He had given them this source for survival in a dry land, along with the heritage of faith they had received from him. Both of those were external sources from which you could draw and sustain a type of life – physical and religious. But Jesus offers something much more: the power of the indwelling Spirit of God that will spring up to eternal life within you.
Jesus offers her a new story for her community, in which God is seeking people like them to worship Him in spirit and truth – regardless of geography.
When she sees that he accepts her as she is and offers her and her people a new kind of life in God, she begins to experience the transformation that Jesus promises. It’s a born-again moment. And she immediately becomes bold in telling the people of her community about Jesus – totally disregarding their former exclusion of her or the further isolation she might face if they reject her testimony.
So, in sum, we can see that everything Jesus does and says in this encounter helps the woman to find her own story in the story of the gospel. But how can we apply these principals within our own efforts to share the gospel? Again, two things:
First, we have to know the person. Jesus hand-tailors his gospel message to this woman’s personal story and culture. But to do the same requires us know the people to whom we share. Meeting strangers can be uncomfortable, and even getting to know the deep stories and spiritual beliefs of our family and friends can be daunting.
We are products of a culture that can be very objectifying. When we’re all scrambling to achieve our own goals, other people become either stepping stones or barriers to personal goal fulfillment (whether professional, social, or romantic). And so, we guard our inner selves and our deep beliefs out of fear that we will be pigeon-holed or used in some way.
And that spirit of objectification sneaks into the church when we start to treat our neighbors as objects upon which we must practice our proclamation and charitable works in order to fulfill our religious agenda.
Some years back, when I was in seminary, I was going through a very humiliated moment in my life, and I walked down to the McDonalds to get some comfort food. And I saw a man sitting on the grass outside of McDonalds who appeared to be experiencing homelessness. He had all his personal effects there on the grass with him. And I thought, that’s how I feel, exposed for the whole world to see all my baggage. And I got this powerful felling that I should go and sit with him. But I said, no God, I’m having a terrible day. I don’t want people to see me out there, looking like I’m trying to win a Christian merit badge or somerthing. So, I got my food, and I went and sat on the opposite side of the restaurant. But I became so convicted that I couldn’t even eat. And I was begging God, don’t make me do this. I just want to be alone. But after a great deal of wrestling with God, I finally submitted. I approached him and asked if I could sit with him. He said yes, and I asked his name. “Clayton,” he said. “Clayton, would you like some food?” I asked. At this he got very frustrated and said, “Man, I’ve got cookies, and cakes, and crackers, and everybody always wants to give me food. But I want you to tell me what’s wrong with me man, because everybody wants to give me food, but no one wants to sit down and talk to me!”
Everyone wants to give me what they think I need. But no one wants to take the time to know me and find out what my needs really are.
If we do that with the gospel, we miss the point, and we miss the opportunity. Some people talk about the gospel like it’s just this thing that you can hit people with. Someone will say, “I just clearly lay out the gospel for people, and if they don’t accept it, well, that just means they’re not part of the elect.” But the gospel is not some abstract thing. The gospel is a person. The gospel is Christ Jesus. And Jesus cannot be explained; he must be introduced.
And our neighbors are not objects upon which to practice our abstract Christian witness, rather they are mutual subjects of the One who is reconciling us all to Himself. We become effective witnesses when we treat people as fellow recipients of God’s love, learn their stories, and help them to see the good news that their stories can be transformed in God’s story of redemption. Without learning people’s stories, we simply cannot do what Jesus does in this passage. Listening is the counterintuitive step one in evangelical proclamation.
Second, sharing the gospel cannot be separated from living the gospel. (If listening is step one, this is step 0.) We share most powerfully when we live in the gospel story, because it catches people off guard. We treat them with a kind of love and respect that breaks down cultural barriers. And that opens the door for a heartfelt and honest exchange.
When the Samaritan woman found her story in Jesus’ story, she became able to tell her neighbors about Jesus despite the possibility of further ridicule. Let us be brave like her, in introducing people to Jesus. After a few days with Jesus, the people in her village came to her and said, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”