Sunday, February 24, 2008

Water Rights

Water Rights

© 2008 Robert J. Elder
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
John 4:5-42
February 24, 2008

Saint Augustine once wrote, “Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger at the way things are, and courage to see to it that they do not remain that way.” Our passage for today is one that is filled with hope and marked by both of hope’s daughters.

Here we have a wonderful story that provides the exception to the usual rule which declares that all the gospel stories are about Jesus, not about the characters he bumps into. This is the longest recorded conversation that Jesus had with anyone in scripture. It has the wonderful ironies and multiple meanings characteristic of John’s gospel. If not the whole point, at least one large and unmistakable point of this story is the Samaritan woman herself, all the things about her, who she is, what she was, what she becomes, and, of course, who Jesus is in relation to her. She is both of hope’s beautiful daughters rolled into one.

Often we jump to too many disparaging conclusions about her, based on our own perversities and prejudices. As Winston Churchill once said, “A lie goes halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on.” We may take on a Jerry Springer Show mentality, thinking of her as one of those talk show guest targets, for whom Jerry has the surprise of all five husbands waiting in the wings to come out and confront her. She realized that Jesus knew everything she had ever done. But we don’t.

“To be sure, Jesus knows she has been married five times and now ‘has’ a man who is not her husband, but what are the particulars? Deaths? Divorces? Legal tangles? Or is it promiscuity? We do not know... Jesus does not urge the woman to repent or change her behavior.”1

So maybe it would be good to set all snickering, behind-the-hand remarks about her aside and consider two critical, and often overlooked elements of the story:

[1] Jesus found himself in what was, for all practical purposes, enemy territory. And while he was there, he ran into someone who shared his monotheistic faith, though the Samaritan woman’s faith had reached lots of particular conclusions differing from classic Jewish faith. It is in some ways like the way our monotheistic faith in Jesus has some similarities to, but is very different from, contemporary Muslim monotheism which celebrates but does not worship Jesus. It is while he was in this hostile territory that he identified himself as the awaited Messiah, the gift of God who can give living water to those outside the fold of Judaism.

[2] The story then provides a grounds for resolution of an age-old animosity between peoples, when many Samaritans believed in Jesus “because of this woman’s testimony.”

This story provided the early church with important guidance regarding the new healing and hope in Jesus available to all whose wounds and divisions are long-standing. It can serve us in that way as well. It is no accident that this meeting took place at Jacob’s well (a place that can still be seen today) a spot where two widely diverging traditions had a common beginning place, connected with Jacob, a common ancestor.

Jacob’s well was the place for the entirely unlikely meeting between Jesus and the despised woman of the hated Samaritans. The Samaritan people were considered a sort of half-breed of near-Jews by the people of Jerusalem and the officials of the sanctioned Temple religion of Judea.

By the time of Jesus, the rupture between Samaritans and Jews had had a long, long history over almost a thousand years. It began after the time of King Solomon, when the ten northern tribes of Israel broke away from the southern tribes of Judah with their capital in Jerusalem. The northern kingdom in Samaria was eventually defeated in battle over 700 years before the time of Jesus, and most of the leaders and well-to-do folks were carried away into exile, never to return. Those who remained in Samaria were poor, largely ignorant, powerless people. They intermarried with other peoples around them. Yet they retained the first five books of our Old Testament as their scripture, having this in common with the Jews to the south of them. The two peoples remained bitterly divided over political and theological differences. There is still a very tiny Samaritan community in Israel today, mostly in the city of Nablus.

Just 200 years before the time of Jesus, the Samaritans had built a shrine to God on Mount Gerazim, claiming that this shrine, not the Temple in Jerusalem, was the proper place for worship by the people of Abraham who had received the laws of Moses. Jews destroyed the Samaritan shrine a hundred years before Jesus, and the bitter hatred between them only grew worse.

So when Jesus met the unnamed woman of Samaria at the well, both of them carried a lot more than a water bucket to the meeting.

A friend of mine2 wrote,

“I’ve begun to think of this text as a way to explore the phenomena of the walking wounded. Old wounds can be emotionally crippling, social mores can be functionally crippling, and animosities between peoples and groups can be spiritually wounding. To the extent that healing takes place in this incredible conversation, it seems to take place on all those levels. Theologically, Jesus as ‘the gift of God,’ is the source of this healing, the woman becomes the instrument of this peace. We probably can’t honor her enough for what she can mean to our churches... in her own way she re-forms the church. Now they have a polygamous Samaritan woman on their hands with quite a following at Sychar. Imagine that!”

What will the Spirit think of next? If this woman comes to know and share the love of God through Jesus, who could resist it?

Frederick Buechner’s lovely little book, Telling Secrets, includes the story of his daughter’s struggle with anorexia as well as his own struggle with his desire to ensure her recovery from the disease, to make her better through the sheer force of his own will and control. In the process, he discovered his life-long desire to control all outcomes, really. In a search for his own healing and help, he sought out a group for adult children of alcoholics, people who come from families that have experienced problems with alcohol even though they themselves do not. He wrote,

“They have slogans, which you can either dismiss as hopelessly simplistic or cling on to like driftwood in a stormy sea. One of them is ‘Let go and let God’ — which is so easy to say and for people like me so far from easy to follow. Let go of the dark, which you wrap yourself in like a straight jacket, and let in the light. Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you — your children’s lives, the lives of your husband, your wife, your friends — because this is just what you are powerless to do. Remember that the lives of other people are not your business. They are God’s business because they all have God whether they use the word God or not. Even your own life is not your business. It is also God’s business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought.”3

It is life-transforming only when we believe our lives are God’s business, as well as our own, that God takes an active interest in our lives and is not only actively interested but takes an active role in them. If we can recognize this one thing, passivity is thrown out the window and we are empowered to take up our lives again in a whole new way. God’s constant activity in our lives is what we look for at every turn in the road, and often when it is expected the least. It is so difficult to seek that when we are busy managing other people’s lives. It is even more difficult when we believe our lives are only our business. In the Psalms God says, “From your mother’s womb I have known you.”4 What a total transformation it is to seek to know ourselves as God knows us.

The woman who met Jesus at the well that day became the missionary of good news to her own people. It is odd that the first missionary was a non-Jew, and the church began to burst the bounds of culture and social norms almost before it got started, here near the very beginning of John’s gospel. And all because a woman realized her life was an open book to the One who knew God better than anyone ever had. She let go and let God.

“At the conclusion of the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, most readers would have expected the hero to ride off on a white horse in view of a few baffled Samaritans ... instead, the One from Above chooses to submit to the way of the cross. With near unbearable irony, the Keeper of Living Waters will, on Good Friday, say to Roman and Jewish spectators, ‘I thirst.’ But once he is dead and pierced, out will flow blood — and water.”5

This beautiful daughter of hope came to know the truth of Jeremiah’s words6 when he said “I know the plans I have made for you, says the Lord, they are plans for your welfare and not for your harm, to give you a future with hope.”6 That kind of God met the woman at the well that day. That same God awaits us, prays we will open ourselves to him. Answer God’s prayer today.

© Copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder All Rights Reserved

1 Fred Craddock, “The Witness at the Well,” Christian Century, March 7, 1990. p. 243.
2 George Chorba, unpublished paper delivered at the Homiletical Feast meeting in Tampa, Florida, January, 2002.
3 Telling Secrets, by Frederick Buechner, Harper Collins, 1991, p. 92 ff.
4 Psalm 139.
5 Richard Lischer, “Strangers in the Night,” Christian Century, February 24, 1999.
6 Jeremiah 29:11.