Summary: This message is about how Jesus’ example teaches us to willingly cross boundaries and encounter people with the news of eternal life and living water.
“The Woman at the Well”
John 4: 1 – 26
By the time of Jesus, Samaritans and Jews had been enemies for centuries. But the most intense rivalry began at around 200 BC. The source of the conflict was a dispute over the correct location for the center of worship. The Samaritans had built a shrine on Mt. Gerizim and claimed that this was the proper place of worship. The Jews claimed that the Jerusalem Temple was the center of worship. In fact, the Samaritan shrine was destroyed by Jewish troops in 128 BC. So the division between Samaritans and Jews continued. To Jews, Samaritans were outcasts, ritually unclean (hence the comment about not using anything in common), and bitter enemies. They were heretics. Samaritans avoided Jews and Jews avoided Samaritans.
Crossing Borders and Breaking Barriers
At the outset of our story Jesus and his disciples are headed from Judea to Galilee, and our passage says that “he had to go through Samaria.” The ancient historian Josephus notes that the route through Samaria was the most efficient one. Even so, while Samaria stood between Judea and Galilee and going that way was perhaps most efficient, many Jews would have steered clear of Samaria even if it meant taking longer to get from one place to the next. And while it is true that a number of scholars and commentators see travelling through Samaria as geographically necessary, it is interesting to note that the word translated as “had to” (as in “he had to go through Samaria”) is usually associated in John’s Gospel with God’s plan.
One commentator puts it well: “Jesus’ itinerary may have been governed by geographical expediency, but his stay in Samaria was governed by the theological necessity of offering himself to those whom social convention deemed unacceptable.” In other words, while to get from point A to point B going through Samaria made the most sense, the words used in our passage suggest that it was God’s will that Jesus and his disciples stop in Samaria. So when Jesus and his disciples entered Samaria on their way to Galilee they were crossing a border in more ways than one.
I love what happens here. They get to the Samaritan village of Sychar. Jesus, tired from the journey, decides to rest by a well while the disciples go to get some food for lunch. I imagine Jesus is tired and hot, and his throat is dry. He feels thirsty. And as he waits for his disciples a woman comes to draw water from the well. Whether she notices him there or not isn’t clear. If she does, she ignores him. Perhaps she notices his Jewish prayer shawl. That tells her enough. “Keep quiet,” she thinks, “This man is a Jew.”
And then Jesus does the unthinkable. He speaks to her. He actually speaks to her. In doing so Jesus defies social convention and breaks barriers in two ways: first, he speaks to an unknown woman; and second, he talks to a Samaritan. Both were forbidden for Jewish men. To put it simply, here we see Jesus talking to an unknown woman of an enemy people. Commenting on this story, Eugene Peterson, in his new book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, says that “Jesus risks his reputation by being seen with a Samaritan woman. There is a sense of ignoring conventions here on both sides, a crossing of the lines of caution, a willingness on both sides to risk misunderstanding.”
And so Jesus does what no self-respecting, pious Jewish male would do: he talks to a Samaritan woman. We see later on that when his disciples return with food (in v. 27) that they were astonished that he was speaking with this woman. But of course they didn’t say anything – this was Jesus after all! But we know what they were thinking, right? “What was he doing talking with her? Doesn’t he know that he shouldn’t be talking to her?” But Jesus does talk to her. He willingly crosses boundaries and breaks barriers.
Let me ask you this: have you ever known someone who was off limits? A group of people, perhaps, that no one else would socialize with? I know that sometimes when you’re a kid you know your friends will make fun of you if you play with that kid. No one plays with him! Lying beneath this attitude might even be a degree of prejudice: maybe that other kid is poor, socially awkward, of another race or religion, maybe he or she has special needs. It could be that prejudice toward another neighbourhood kid is based on what the adults in the community say. You’ve overheard your parents talking. Whatever the case, you know you’re supposed to stay away.
As sinful human beings we are much more capable of erecting walls and barriers than we are at breaking them down. We draw lines in the sand. We separate. We divide. We do so on the basis of economic status, social status, race, religion, geography, church denomination, and theology. It happens in and outside the church. And once these barriers are built, we reinforce them with time and stubbornness.