This post is written by Michael Kimpan, our Associate Director at The Marin Foundation.
Jesus was tired.
The journey to Galilee was a long one and, as was custom, Jesus led his band of misfits through the Samaritan countryside. They had gone into the city to buy food, leaving Jesus alone with his thoughts at the ancient well, dug some 2,000 years beforehand by their forefather, Jacob.
He watched as the Samaritan woman approached, water pitchers in hand. She must have passed by his disciples along the way. Jesus wondered how they had treated the woman — if the seed of his story on being a good neighbor had yet taken root in their minds. When she arrived at the well, the Rabbi spoke.
‘Give me a drink.’ Jesus said.
Knowing her place, the woman was stunned. ‘How is it that you, being a Jewish Rabbi, would speak to me – a Samaritan woman?’ The very act of drinking out of her water jug would make this Jewish teacher ceremoniously unclean.
No self respecting Jew would dare do such a thing.
The woman wondered if he wanted something more than just water from her. She shuddered at the haunting memories of men she had known and attempted to ignore the stinging sensation in her soul. This man was likely just like the others. She had tried for years to forget, but she remembered. She would always remember.
His gentle voice interrupted her thoughts.
‘If you knew who I was, you’d be asking me for a drink. I have access to living water — whomever drinks of the water I give you will never be thirsty again.’
‘That would certainly be a time-saver,’ she thought. ‘Give me this water so I won’t be thirsty and will no longer need to come all the way out here to draw.’ It was a long walk.
The Rabbi asked her to fetch her husband.
‘I don’t have one.’ Those words were painful to speak.
Jesus pressed in, sensing her need for something to quench her spiritual thirst.
She had tried medicating with men. It wasn’t working, and her current live-in suitor had a fear of commitment. As she spoke with this stranger about the intimate details of her life, her protective instincts forced her to change the subject.
She exploited their differences.
‘You Jews say YHVH is to be worshipped in the Temple in Jerusalem, on Mt. Zion. We Samaritans have built our own temple on Mt. Gerizim since we have been considered outcasts by your people for centuries.’
Her blood boiled at the injustice and arrogance of those that deemed themselves pure bloods. The history was more complicated than that. She’d had ‘conversations’ with men like this teacher before.
Yet there was a subtle thought — a longing deep within her that believed this one could be different. Perhaps he had something that could bring life to her desperate heart after all.
‘An hour is coming — it’s here now — when where you worship doesn’t matter,’ Jesus said. ‘My father doesn’t care which temple you worship him in. He cares that you worship in spirit and in truth. God is spirit – so when you worship God, you must worship him with more than just the outside — and in sincerity.’
She looked forward to that day. The Scriptures promised of a liberating king who would come and make things right. ‘When he comes…’
‘I who speak to you am he.’
The woman ran back to her city to share the life-giving water with her companions. ‘See for yourself — he is the one!’
The disciples, meanwhile, had come back — amazed to find Jesus speaking with a woman. No one said anything, for fear they were missing something.
I fear we may be missing something, as well.
When the Scriptures were written, parchment was expensive. Ink was expensive. The authors of the letters and stories and narratives we encounter in our ancient sacred text gave us only the information they deemed absolutely necessary – it’s up to us to read in between the lines, understanding that context and usage determine meaning.
As we look at the stories of Jesus standing in solidarity with those previously pushed to the margins of society by the religious elite such as this story from John 4, we must ask ourselves :: What is really going on in this story?
Could it be that our demands for others to conform to our way of thinking about God — where and how he is worshipped — is missing the point of what God is doing in our midst?
Could it be that through his spirit he is drawing people to himself, just as he did with the Samaritan woman in the midst of her own religion?
Or is the work of Jesus limited to the religion of Christianity? If so, who’s version of Christianity? Do some get it wrong? Are others right? Who gets to decide?
What do you think?