Week 2: So that they would search for God
Vicar Anna Helgen
Wednesday, 24 February 2016; Text: John 4:1-42
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you and peace, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” God loves the world. And this story, the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, is a story about that world. It is a story about God’s love becoming embodied in the world. A story that comes to life in a conversation between the most unlikely pair: a Jew and a Samaritan. A story that names for us what eternal life in Christ looks like. A story in which we, too, are invited to participate.
As Jesus sets off on his journey from Judea to Galilee, we learn that he had to go through Samaria. If you take a look at the Greek, however, you’d find that this sentence would be better translated, “It was necessary that he go through Samaria.” But it wasn’t necessary, at least geographically speaking, that he go through Samaria. So why? Why did Jesus take this route? While it may not have been geographically necessary that Jesus travel through Samaria, it was theologically necessary. Because God loves the world. All of the world. And that includes places like Samaria. God’s love cannot be contained by lines on a map or by boundaries that we create. God’s love is for the entire world.
Before we get to the story, it’s worth noting some of the history here to understand why Jews do not share things in common with the Samaritans. While both groups trace their lineage back to Abraham, the Samaritans saw themselves as descendants of the northern kingdom. The Jews and Samaritans disagreed over the proper place to worship God–or what we might call the religious center. The Jews worshiped in Jerusalem, whereas the Samaritans worshiped at Mount Gerizim.
This backdrop sets the stage for the conversation that ensues between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Now, again, Jews do not share things in common with the Samaritans, so the fact that this man Jesus, a Jew, is talking with this unnamed woman, a Samaritan, alone in broad daylight, without any other people present is quite a big deal. Serious boundaries are being crossed!
As the conversation begins, we notice that there is a mutuality present in the dialogue. Both parties need something from the other. Jesus is tired and hot from his journey, and he needs water to drink. The woman has a bucket and she can provide water for him. She can meet his need. Jesus shares with the woman about the living water that he can provide and she quickly becomes curious about this water. He can inform her curiosity. This mutuality is important because it helps to propel the dialogue forward.
Jesus learns some more intimate details about the woman’s life and she responds by calling him a prophet and speaking of Jacob as “our ancestor,” noting the shared ancestry for both Jews and Samaritans. As the conversation continues, both Jesus and the woman come to understand more about one another. Jesus shows in this conversation that God’s love is available to those outside of his religious center. And the woman begins to further understand Jesus’ identity–the last person that we’d think would recognize him as the Messiah! The question of where to worship God is discussed, and soon after, Jesus confirms the woman’s suspicions and reveals himself as the Messiah. Isn’t it interesting that dialogue is what leads Jesus and the woman into deeper understanding? It doesn’t involve research or writing a detailed plan, but jumping in and making conversation.
The disciples return and the woman decides it’s time to be on her way. She leaves her water bucket behind, returns to the city, and invites her friends to come and see, to come and meet this man Jesus who has spoken truth to her. She knows what it means to be in relationship with Jesus, and so she invites others to have their own encounter. I love how she invites them, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” It’s like she doesn’t yet fully understand who he is. She remains uncertain, and yet that does not end her relationship with Jesus, but encourages her to invite others to experience him.
And many of these Samaritans do come to meet Jesus! They have their own encounter with him and then invite Jesus to stay with them for a few days. The verb “stay” is better translated as “abide.” In John’s Gospel, the language of abiding is the language of relationship. To abide means to take up space with somebody. It might mean living in the same space, sharing a meal, having a conversation, or simply noticing another person. But in that space, hearts and minds are opened, stretched, and made into God’s image. In that space, we come to see one another as God sees us.
What might this story mean for us today? This story teaches us about what eternal life looks like. It looks like relationship right now–in this time and place–with God and with others. But it requires dialogue! Because dialogue leads to understanding and understanding leads to relationship. Talking with our neighbors is the first step in building a relationship. And with a relationship comes opportunities for appreciation and recognition.
We live in a religiously pluralistic culture and world. It can be easy for us to talk about loving people on the other side of the globe, but sometimes it can be more challenging to love our closest neighbors–like the Muslim woman you ride the bus with, or the Jewish man you run into at the grocery store, or maybe even the teenager with neon hair who sees faith differently than you do. We can be afraid of those whose rituals, customs, language, and history are different than our own.
But are we really so different? Should we be so afraid? Or should we reach out, say hello, and be open to the possibility of seeing God in the face of all our neighbors?
With the woman at the well, I invite you. “Come and see.”