If I were to mention the Samaritans to you, I suspect that the first thing to come into your mind might be the phone-line for people in emotional distress, which was founded by The Rev’d Chad Varah in 1953. That organisation was named after the Parable of the Good Samaritan in St Luke’s Gospel. However, that it is not the only time that Samaritans are mentioned in the New Testament. In today’s Gospel we have just heard of an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. 

Water is something that humans cannot live without. If we are deprived of water for more than three days, we die. Thankfully, we are blessed to live in a country with plenty of water, and reservoirs to supply our needs. This morning’s texts have a watery theme, and begin the exploration of baptism which characterises the Eucharistic readings during the rest of Lent. There is a practical reason for this. Traditionally Lent was a time when people prepared for baptism on Easter Eve, sharing in Christ’s Death and Resurrection 

The Book of Exodus frequently depicts the people of Israel moaning and complaining. We can, probably, recognise something of ourselves in them. They are often stubborn, wilful, and are prone to making mistakes. Because they are thirsty, Moses strikes the rock at Horeb, as the Lord commands him, and out flows water. As St Paul puts it, ‘For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.’ (1Cor 10:4). This water, like the parted water of the Red Sea, prefigures Christ, the living water, and also our baptism, by which we enter the Church. Through baptism we are born again to eternal life in Christ. On the Cross, Jesus’ side was pierced and blood and water flowed out. This water speaks to us of the grace of God poured out upon us, His people, to heal and restore us, and to help us live His risen life.

The Gospel this morning takes place in Samaria, the midlands between Galilee and Judaea. The people living here did not go off into exile in Babylon, but instead stayed put. For centuries the dealings between Jews and Samaritans were fraught with difficulty. They had different holy mountains: the Samaritans worshipped God on Mount Gerazim, whilst the Jews worshipped on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. A Jew was not supposed to even drink from the same cup as a Samaritan.

Drawing water from a well is a necessity in a world without indoor plumbing. We are used to mains water nowadays. But only a few generations ago it was the norm to have to fetch water. In a hot country fetching water is something which you would do at the start or end of the day, otherwise it was too hot to carry the heavy burden back home. Bearing this in mind, the fact that the Samaritan woman is going to the well at midday tells us something. She is going to get her water when there is nobody else at the well because she has been shunned by her community and is an outcast.

When Jesus sees the woman at the well He breaks with convention:

‘Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.)’ (Jn 4:7-8)

Such social interaction was frowned upon. Men were not supposed to speak to women, and Jews were not supposed to speak with Samaritans. And yet, Jesus asks the woman for a drink of water. At one level it looks like the start of a romantic story: man meets woman, and asks her for a drink, before getting to know her better, rather like Jacob and Rachel in Genesis 29. The woman is surprised:

‘The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)’ (Jn 4:9)

Our Lord is breaking the rules because they are manmade, and He intends to use this opportunity to proclaim the Good News. The woman, however, doesn’t quite understand what is going on.

The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” (Jn 4:11-12)

She is concerned with practical considerations, and is unable to see beyond them. Jesus then tries to explain what He means:

Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” (Jn 4:13-15)

‘Living water’ can mean water that flows from a spring, or in a river. However, Our Lord is referring to the water of baptism by which we are washed clean and given new life in Christ. The woman is interested in Jesus’ words, mostly because she has had enough of being shunned. Her response is again focussed on practical considerations, but at a deeper level, she is saying, ‘Yes’ to Jesus. Their conversation continues:

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” (Jn 4:16-18)

The woman has had several husbands. We are not given an explanation, but this is possibly because the first died without leaving an heir. According to the Jewish custom of levirate marriage, she was supposed to marry his relatives until she had a son. The woman is possibly being shunned by the community because she is barren, and not able to bear children. Such behaviour appears cruel and judgemental, and Our Lord seems more than happy to proclaim the Good News to this woman who is on the margins of society.

The conversation continues, moving on to matters of religion, and especially where is the right place to worship God:

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (Jn 4:21-24)

Our Lord makes the point that true religion is not a matter of the place where we worship God. More important is our relationship with God, which allows us to worship in spirit and in truth. This then leads to a profound exchange, which sets the tone for the rest of the Gospel passage:

The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” (Jn 4:25)

Jesus tells the woman who He is: The Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. That is a lot of information to take in, so it is no surprise that we do not hear her response immediately. She is coming to believe in the source of life, she is growing in faith, and by the end of the Gospel passage we will see her speaking to others about Our Lord, spreading the Good News.

Indeed, only a few verses later the woman at the well is telling people about Jesus:

So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (Jn 4: 28-9)

The woman leaves the jar at the well, abandoning her water-fetching labour. This is because she has found the source of living water — Jesus — and is coming to believe that He is the Messiah, and sharing her faith with others. 

There then follows a discussion between Jesus and His disciples about Christian ministry. This is described as a cooperative process — regardless of where we are sowing or reaping, or indeed doing both. Christ’s vision for the Church is of a community where we all work together, for the glory of God.

The Samaritan woman’s testimony brings other local people to believe in Jesus. So they ask Our Lord to stay with them, so that He can teach them. He has gone from being a stranger, an outsider, to being invited to give religious instruction. It is an amazing turn-around, which speaks of the power of personal conversation, the new life of Baptism, and the joy of the Kingdom. The woman who was shunned by her neighbours becomes the one who helps to bring salvation to the whole community.

This Lent may we grow in faith, hope, and love, and share our joy with others so that all may come to sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom belongs all glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

James Tissot – The Woman of Samaria at the well (Brooklyn Museum)

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