A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 15 March 2020 by the Reverend Hugh Bonsey, Associate Priest
Today’s long Gospel is one of the most intriguing and beautiful stories in the whole Gospel narrative.
I think that we need to reflect and consider the importance of the well featured in this story. This is none other than Jacob’s Well, which has a rich history and connection with the Patriarchs of the Old Testament. Also, the location of the story is near Sychar, which is identified with Shechem. This is important as it was the place where, in the Book of Joshua, the twelve tribes of Israel met to enter into a new covenant. But after the death of Solomon there was a split. The tribes of the North separated from Judah in the South, and they made Samaria the capital of their new Northern Kingdom. Judah, in the South, saw themselves as having the true faith, and they viewed the tribes of the North and Samaria with distain.
In the time of Jesus, the Samaritans focused their source of scripture entirely on the first five books of the Bible: the Pentateuch. Moses and his mission were central to their study of the Bible as they knew it, so consequently any Messiah in their view would be a prophet – like Moses. They worshipped on Mount Gerizim.
By contrast, the people in Judah studied much more scripture, including the prophets (as we have them in our own Bibles, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos etc.). This Southern view anticipated a figure characterised as a ‘Messiah-King’, descended from David’s line. They worshipped at the Temple in Jerusalem.
It is not surprising that Jews and Samaritans did not communicate well in the first century. They were enemies. When Jews travelled from Galilee, in the North, south to Jerusalem, they would bypass Samaria, which stood in the middle. Jesus goes against this trend and travels through Samaria. The imperative that he should do so, reflects the imperative that Jesus must stay in the house of Zacchaeus, the little Taxman, at Jericho. There is an imperative that the whole redemption of creation revolves around that meeting. So also, perhaps, Jesus must travel through Samaria. And as he does so, he comes across the woman at the well.
The Jewish people who heard this story who were living at the time of Jesus would be been mortified! Jesus is braking two conventions simultaneously. He, as a Jewish man, should never speak to a woman in public, and he should never drink from a Samaritan cup, which was regarded as being ‘unclean’.
Many of us in Church today will have heard this story many times in our lives. Unfortunately, sometimes the woman in the story has been understood to be sinful, indeed even a prostitute. I feel that she should be supported and championed, by reading the text without prejudice.
There are details in the story which count against her in a superficial reading. The woman comes to the well in the middle of the day, in the sweltering sun. Water is normally drawn women in that society when the temperature is cooler – in the morning or evening. Why was she there? Did she have to evade the company of other women? If so, why? Such questioners will come to a speedy conclusion. Jesus said that the woman had five husbands, and that her current partner was not her husband. Therefore, the woman was immoral.
This interpretation does not do justice to the woman. There is nothing in the story to suggest that she was immoral. The text does not describe directly anything unbecoming, and the behaviour and speech of Jesus does not suggest any notion of sin or forgiveness. The woman could have been widowed five times or she may have been divorced, having been ill-treated by her husbands and divorced on the slightest excuse. Now, according to Jewish law, she would be living with her last husband’s brother.
Nevertheless, the encounter with Jesus changes her life so completely that she returns to her city in great excitement to tell the whole community about the wonderful prophet whom she has encountered. The woman is filled with admiration, and perhaps astonishment, at the wisdom and breadth of understanding being expressed by this Jewish Rabbi, not to mention his total disregard for human social conventions which stifle communication between people of different race and gender.
God is no longer to be worshipped in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim, but through Jesus himself, being empowered by the God-given Spirit and enacted in Truth. No wonder she returns to her city to share the wonderful message of the conversation with this extraordinary Jewish Rabbi! Jesus recognizes the opportunity to share his ministry with the Samaritans and stays in their city for two days. Given the hatred and animosity between Jews and Samaritans, this is remarkable behaviour, to put it lightly!
Notice how the Samaritan woman becomes a disciple and apostle of Jesus. I think that this story puts paid to the idea that Jesus had only male disciples! The people of that Samaritan city were hosts to this amazing stranger, who would have taught them truths about God that the world had never known.
This action of the woman is, perhaps, the highlight of the story. The impact of Jesus’ teaching to the Samaritans was enhanced by the witness of the Samaritan woman. There is a time-honoured view, based on common logic, that if we are to know God, then we must be told about him first. God does not invade a person’s life unannounced. A potential Christian believer and disciple must be given the Good News of Jesus Christ in the first place. Therefore, when we hear this wonderful story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, we need to be aware that St John, in writing his Gospel, is calling us to follow Christ and to proclaim the truths of the Christian Faith. In other words, we are all called to be apostles, working for the Lord: people sent into the world to proclaim and share the Good News.
I conclude by quoting an Australian New Testament scholar called William Loader. He says this about today’s Gospel:
This wonderful piece of drama has many levels of meaning. As always in John its central character is God and God’s gift of life through the invitation to live in the holy space of love, the true worship in the Spirit, which is also the living space of the Father and the Son.