by Mark Swanson
Harold S. Vogelaar Professor of Christian-Muslim Studies and Interfaith Relations, Associate Director of Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice
The first paragraphs of the Gospel text that Emily has just read can be summarized very simply: Jesus, worn out by his journey and thirsty, asks a Samaritan woman for a drink, and then goes on to have a conversation with her. But what a surprising sentence that is. This isn’t really supposed to happen! The woman knows it: when Jesus asks her for a drink, she says: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” The narrator knows it; he comments: “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans!” And the disciples know it, for, we are told, “They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.” “What are you on about, Jesus? Why are you speaking with her?” are the questions they thought to themselves – but couldn’t work up the courage to ask out loud.
Everyone who reads the Bible knows that Samaritans are not regarded particularly favorably. When Jesus tells a parable about a man who came to the aid of a traveler who had been robbed, beaten, and left half dead by thieves on the Jericho road (Luke 10:29-37), it is the unexpected twist that the one who proved neighbor was a Samaritan that gives the story its punch, that caused its first hearers to sit up and take notice. A good Samaritan? What a surprise. When Jesus healed ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19), and only one came back to thank him – and he a Samaritan – it is again cause for surprise; Jesus himself said, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner.”
This “foreigner.” The word here put in Jesus’ mouth is allogenês, giving the sense of other: other in nationality, other in race, other in kind. “This foreigner” is other, different-from-us, an outsider. That’s the role that Samaritans play in the New Testament. We remember that, for the Jews of Galilee and Judea, the Samaritans were ethnically suspect: the Assyrian conquest of Samaria more than seven centuries earlier had resulted in the transfer of populations and the mixing of peoples in Samaria. They were religiously suspect: most obviously, they refused to worship in Jerusalem. As the Samaritan woman in our passage today puts it: “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you (that’s plural), say that the place where people must worship is Jerusalem.” They were even politically suspect: in the not-so-distant past, Jews and Samaritans had found themselves on opposite sides in regional conflicts. The result of all this was suspicion, condescension, outbreaks of hatred … and a desire to steer clear of the others and maintain the boundaries: “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”
But Jesus, in our passage, proposes to share something in common with a Samaritan: a vessel of water, something to drink from – and not only with a Samaritan, but with a Samaritan woman; could that possibly be proper? In the light of several biblical stories in which men meet women at wells, and the women shortly afterwards become wives – think of Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Zipporah – what is one to think when Jesus has a long conversation with this Samaritan woman – completely without benefit of chaperone?? One commentator put the expected result into an equation: “Male Foreigner + Woman + Well = Betrothal.” (Adeline Fehribach, The Women in the Life of the Bridegroom: A Feminist Historical-Literary Analysis of the Female Characters in the Fourth Gospel (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998), 51.)
No wonder the disciples were astonished, and wanted to ask Jesus, “What are you seeking?” “Why are you speaking with this woman?”
Jesus, worn out by his journey and thirsty, asks a Samaritan woman for a drink, and then goes on to have a conversation with her. That seems a simple statement, but it’s unexpected, unsettling.
It would be nice to be able to call this woman something other than “the Samaritan woman,” but, to the distress of many of us, the woman in this passage is never named – unlike, say, the “Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews” (John 3:1) who visited Jesus in the previous chapter of St. John’s Gospel, just across the page in my Bible. Her anonymity is especially troubling in light of the fact that she really outshines Nicodemus. Nicodemus came to Jesus privately, secretly, by night – but the Samaritan woman spoke frankly with Jesus in a public place in broad daylight.
Nicodemus gets a total of three lines in Chapter 3, the third of which is not much more than a cry of incomprehension: “How can these things be?” But, in the reading that we have just heard from Chapter 4, the Samaritan woman gets seven lines. And they are substantial ones; in a sense, the woman speaks for Samaria. (Craig R. Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 47-50.) She knows her local religious traditions, reminding Jesus that “our ancestor Jacob … gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it.”
And: "Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain." And: “I know that Messiah is coming.” This anonymous woman holds her own in the conversation with Jesus much better than Nicodemus had; she hangs right in there. If she did not always fully understand what Jesus was saying, well, who did? Certainly not Jesus’ own disciples.
The Samaritan woman even draws Jesus into a bit of religious controversy: “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain,” she says, “but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
And Jesus comes back with “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” You do this. We do that. We all know this kind of exchange – the kind of exchange that draws contrasts. If this is as far as the conversation goes, then it hasn’t done much more than to erect or reinforce barriers …
But the conversation does go farther, and barriers come down with a crash. Jesus says:
Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. …
The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.
The phrase that really struck me this week as I studied the passage is this: “the Father seeks such as these to worship him,” … to worship him … “in spirit and truth.” What a beautiful line! The One whom Jesus calls Father is seeking worshipers, worshipers enlivened by the Spirit and liberated by the truth that sets free. Worshippers filled with trust and joy like the ones in the Psalm that we read together.
The One whom Jesus calls Father is gathering a family – and, once this becomes the reality that surrounds the encounter and sustains the conversation, many of the old suspicions and fears, the old ways of dividing people into “We” as over against “You,” or “Us” as over against “Them,” no longer have a place.
And so it works out in the rest of today’s passage. There is no more We-You or Us-Them talk. The woman hurries back to the city to tell everyone of her encounter with the person who might just be the Messiah; many believed. (Just so, the woman becomes the apostle to the Samaritans, even if she isn’t ever given a name!) The people of the city begged Jesus to stay with them; he and the disciples stayed for two days. And many more believed; our passage ends with Jesus’ new-found Samaritan friends confessing: “we know that this is truly the Savior of the world” – Jesus, and not someone else, certainly not the emperor. This is, by the way, the only time in the Gospels that Jesus is given this title, “Savior of the world.” And it’s given him by … Samaritans!
There are many details in this story that we could talk about, but one important detail comes in a verse that we did not even read. At the very beginning of the passage, before the part that we read together, St. John writes: “[Jesus] left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria.” (John 4:3-4) “Had to”? Why?? Geographically speaking it’s perfectly possible to travel down to the coastal plain and up to Galilee without passing through Samaria at all. There’s a clue in the Greek text: the word used here, edei, regularly refers to divine necessity, that is, what was necessary for Jesus to do in order to fulfill his ministry. Perhaps a better translation would be: “It was necessary that he go through Samaria,” that is, “It was part of the divine plan that he go through Samaria.”
The way of Jesus runs through foreign territory, through the territory of the outsiders. And what does he do there? He seeks and accepts hospitality: first a drink of water, later a two-night stay. He engages in conversation, conversation that does not remain at the level of comparing beliefs and practices but that moves on to bear witness to God’s desire for people who worship in spirit and truth, that is, for people who love God and are loved by God and who are, just so, alive and free and without fear. He makes connections with people. He finds friends.
The very first chapter of St. John’s Gospel, which we heard read on Christmas Day, has prepared us for this scene. There we read that the Word came into the world looking for a hospitable welcome, seeking those who would receive him (John 1:9-13). The way of Jesus runs through the territory of the outsiders … and, much to the surprise of the disciples, much to the surprise of readers, they receive him!
But now, from the beginning of the Gospel according to St. John to its end, to Chapter 20 when Jesus says to his disciples: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). As disciples of Jesus, we too are sent into the world … to be witnesses to the desire of God among those who are close and familiar to us, certainly, but also among those whom we might be tempted to regard as “other” – among our Samaritans, whoever they might be.
Whoever they might be. I should pause here. Many of you know that I often preach on or lead Bible studies on texts like this one in the course of my work in Christian-Muslim relations. I think that such texts – the biblical meetings with people who might be considered “outsiders” – are critical to the formation of a Christian imagination that can embrace the encounter with people of other faiths, Muslims in particular. Certainly, there are many North American Christians today for whom we might say that Muslims are their “Samaritans”: they regard them as Other, religiously and politically suspect, people to be feared and held at arm’s length. I think that texts such as our Gospel text are important in confronting such attitudes.
In this community, though, I don’t really think that I need to preach about the possibility and promise of interfaith relations; here I’d be preaching to the choir. But let me ask you: who are your Samaritans? (I ask myself: who are my Samaritans?) Fundamentalist Christians? Lutherans outside of the ELCA, including those who have recently departed? Or the people in the community who annoy us??
Who are your Samaritans? And what does it then mean that the way of Jesus leads through the territory of the Samaritans??
Jesus said: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” How do we do this? With hospitality … although our Gospel text reminds us that we are called not only to extend hospitality, but to receive it. We strive to be good hosts; but we must also learn to be good guests. We need not always be in control of the situation. Rather, we remember Jesus: although in one sense he becomes the Host of our story this morning, sharing living water with those who hear his words; he enters the story as a beggar, a thirsty traveler, seeking someone who will give him a drink of water. We know this role; we practice it at this table, where we approach with empty hands, and God extends us the divine hospitality.
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” How do we do this? With conversation. When we meet with those who are religiously different from ourselves, we may well spend some time comparing religious beliefs and practices. Jesus and the Samaritan woman did it. That’s a necessary part of learning about one another. But let us not build or reinforce barriers! Jesus does not send us out to justify ourselves – we Lutherans should know that this has already been done for us. And we are certainly not sent out to engage in identity politics! Rather, we are sent out to bear witness to God’s deep desire for humanity, for worshippers who are alive and joyful and free.
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” How do we do this? In the hope and expectation that we will find friends. And finally, in joy and confidence, because Jesus is savior of the world. Thanks be to God.
[Followed by the Hymn of the Day, “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,” ELW 611. ( The service opened with “Crashing Waters at Creation,” ELW 455. I’m grateful to M.Div. Junior Rebekkah D. Lorhmann for her excellent hymn selections.)]