Summary: An exposition of the story of the woman at the well in John 4, focusing on God’s grace and our response.
Have you ever been in a situation where you were caught red-handed? Unfortunately, I have far too many of those stories in my background. The one that really sticks in my mind was the time that I was collecting soda bottles at a construction site right across the road from my house. We lived in a very wooded area, right across the street from a 600 acre county park. The park commission was building a huge greenhouse, or arboretum, and each evening I would walk my dog over there and pick up all the soda bottles the workers had left so that I could return them for a 2-cent deposit. I was getting rich. And one day I happened upon about 10 pallets of 3x3 sheets of glass that they were installing to make the greenhouse. Too much for a pre-teen to ignore. Heck, they should have known better than to leave those pieces of glass out, don’t you think? What I did next was hardly my fault!
As you can imagine, I had a wonderful time sailing those sheets of glass into trees, launching them for distance like Frisbees, and making little Tee Pees to bomb from a distance with rocks. That was, until I just sensed someone looking over my shoulder. I turned around to see a policeman sitting in his car, just 10 yards away. He said nothing about what I had done, and I can’t imagine that he hadn’t seen me. But all he did was take my name and phone number and ask where I lived. To this day I don’t know if he contacted my parents. My dad was an FBI agent, so if he did, maybe my dad talked my way out of it for me. But it was the last I heard about it. And let me tell you, I spent many a night lying awake, just wondering when the police would show up to haul me away to San Quentin.
This is one of the most powerful stories in the gospels. On the surface of it, we find a woman who encounters Jesus and must have been incredibly embarrassed when she found out that Jesus knew every detail of her life. But she has her life changed. And there is plenty we can learn from this story about Jesus and his love, about how people come to faith, about how we can reach others for Christ, and about the nature of the gospel itself. In fact, as I studied through this passage I decided that rather than keep you here for an hour, I’d just make it a two part series. I think this passage is too rich to do it justice in only one sermon!
So… let’s get just a little background on this story.
Jesus was on his way to Galilee, and the shortest route from Jerusalem to Gal was through Samaria. Many Jews would not travel that road at all but instead they would take a longer road that bypassed Samaria. After the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722BC, the Assyrians deported many of the Jews and resettled the area with captives of other countries. These foreigners brought with them all of their own gods and religions. When the Jews returned in 539BC, they found a complete rift between themselves and the Samaritans.
The Samaritans who did follow Yahweh refused to worship in Jerusalem, and built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim in 400 BC. The Jews then burned the Samaritan temple in 128 BC. leading to the hostility the two groups held for each other to the time of the New Testament.
By the time of Jesus, it was an area with a kind of hybrid religion, syncretistic, worshipping both Yahweh and Baal, along with other traditions and idols. And there was incredible hatred between the two groups. Jews were offended to even travel there, much less associate with Samaritans.
Remember the story of the Good Samaritan? What makes that story so poignant is the fact that it was a Samaritan who helped the man who had been beaten. Sort of like having an Iraqi insurgent help a military service man on the road. It would have been incredible to believe that this would happen, because of the hatred between Jews and Samaritans.
So John tells us that Jesus “had to pass through Samaria”. We know that he really didn’t have to in the sense that it was possible to get there another way. Most Jews did go another way. So one wonders what John means by this. I suspect, though the text does not say it specifically, that Jesus had to pass through Samaria because had an appointment to keep. He knew that there would be a woman at a well there who needed living water.