Going out of the way…to be in the way…
March 19, 2017
Scripture: John 4:5-42
As Jesus traveled, he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” He was there alone as his disciples had gone to the city to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (For you see, Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
The woman said to him, “Sir, you don’t even have a bucket, and the well is deep. Where would you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”
Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Hearing this, the woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 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 have now is not your husband. What you have said is the truth!”
The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 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 true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Just then his disciples came back. They were astonished that Jesus was speaking with a woman, but no one said to her, “What do you want?” or asked Jesus, “Why are you speaking with her?”
Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Hearing her story, the townspeople left the city and set out to meet Jesus.
Meanwhile back at the well, the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because the woman told them, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came back out to meet him they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there with them in Sychar for two days. And many more believed because of his word. The townspeople said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
Jesus went out of his way that day…out of the ‘normal way’ of traveling…as well as out of the way of usual and expected social interaction and discourse in order to be ‘in the way’ of his disciple’s comfort and previous understandings. He sought specifically to upset their previous understanding on several issues in order to make a number of profound points to them as well as to further the cause of his mission and ministry. In other words he went out of his way…to stand in the way.
You see, Jesus was traveling that day from Jerusalem up to Galilee. And while the most direct route there was to travel directly north, that route passed squarely through the region of Samaria. Most Jews, wanting nothing to do with Samaritans, chose to go around the Samaritan territory thereby taking a much longer route. Jesus however decided to travel directly through the heartland of Samaria.
As you may remember, the historic enmity and bitterness between the Jews based in Jerusalem and those of Samaritan descent had a very dark history indeed. In the beginning, the twelve tribes of Israel were divided into two kingdoms, one in the north and one in the south. Starting around 600 BC the Northern Kingdom was conquered by Assyria who took many Jews off into exile and resettled many non-Jews in the territory instead. As a result of this, many of the remaining Northern Kingdom Jews intermarried with these gentiles and eventually even worshipped some of their gods. The Southern Kingdom on the other hand was conquered by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon who also took most of the upper class and skilled artisans off to exile in Babylon, but did not re-populate the region with non-Jews, leaving merely a remnant of poorer Jews behind to work the land.
Later on, when the two kingdoms were re-patriated and allowed to return to their homeland there were significant differences between the two peoples, most notably the belief in where it was that God should be worshipped, with those from the Northern Kingdom holding that it should be on Mount Gerizim in Samaria and the Southern Kingdom Jews favoring rebuilding the Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which was strongly opposed by those in the north.
In addition, the Southern Kingdom Jews now looked very negatively on their fellow Jews from Samaria as no longer worthy of the Temple-based practice of the religion as they saw them as being of ‘mixed blood’, as ‘impure’, and therefore untouchable cast-offs due to their intermarriage with those non-Jews the Assyrians had re-settled in the Northern Kingdom.
This hatred and distrust between the former two halves of the Jewish nation continued to build for over 550 years with the two bodies of believers growing farther and farther apart until they had absolutely no dealings with each other whatsoever. Their hearts and their minds had become hardened and the bitterness had become fixed into their way of understanding and the conduct of their affairs.
And it was into this mix of racially and ethnically tinged hatred and historic distrust that Jesus led his disciples when he decided to take the shorter more direct route to Galilee through Samaria and ultimately to his resting spot there by the well of Jacob in Sychar that day.
Yes, Jesus went out of his way that day…in order to stand firmly ‘in the way’ of both his disciples and the people of Sychar deep within Samaritan territory. He chose to stand broadly across the gap that had separated the two peoples from each other for over five centuries in order to somehow gently and lovingly call out their hatred and rank prejudice towards each other. But he also had lessons for all who were there on other ingrown habits of hatred and discrimination that dealt with common weaknesses and the everyday life and affairs of both the disciples and the people of Sychar.
So, not only was Jesus once again using Samaritan references to call out the Temple Jewish culture for its unacceptable behavior regarding their racial and ethnic bias against their own brothers and sisters in the faith much as he did previously in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but he was also engaging them regarding the state of the Samaritan woman herself, who at least as our text seems to indicate, was a victim of grave abuse and oppression as well.
Historic treatments of this woman within the story of our faith have often been based in male-centric fears and insecurity as well as in extreme biases against women, and not at all on what the text actually reveals. She has often been portrayed inaccurately and unfairly as a ‘loose woman’, as one who flitted from man to man, unable to be faithful or ‘proper’ in any of her previous five marriages. In truth however, we have no indication that that was at all the case, just as we have no indication either that one of the women closest to Jesus, Mary Magdalene, was a prostitute, when in truth she was most assuredly one of Jesus’ closest confidants and the one he chose to be the first to see the Risen Lord and to tell the story of the resurrection to the rest of the disciples. In truth, Jesus takes many opportunities to lift up and to exalt women in his ministry…a fact far too often glossed over in traditional interpretations of the gospel stories.
To be sure, the woman at the well was surely hard-pressed by the circumstances of her life, as shown by the revelation that in fact she had had five previous husbands and that she had traveled to the well for water all alone in the heat of midday. In the time of Jesus there was a widespread and deeply troubling practice within Jewish culture whereby according to a rule first put forth by Moses, a man could divorce his wife and cast her out of the house for any reason whatsoever. All that was required was that he write out a Bill of Divorce and present it to his wife. Upon receiving it she was then forced to leave her husband and her house behind and to fend for herself. In those days, women were regarded as ‘chattel’ or property belonging to a man and as such could be dismissed and sent away for whatever reason the man decided including just being tired of her or not caring for the fact that she had a mind of her own and chose to express herself openly. This practice was very broadly interpreted and women were often dismissed and cast out for the flimsiest of reasons, often without reason and with no recourse whatsoever. So the interpretation that this woman or her actions were somehow ethically suspect has no basis in the text or in fact, and in truth the real blame for her condition may well have been those to whom she had been married to in the first place.
In addition, the very act of her traveling alone to the well at midday as she did also reveals that she was an outcast even in the eyes of the other women in the city, as it was a common practice for the women of the town to travel together to fill their water jars early each morning before it got too hot to do so. So either the other women also saw her as some sort of local pariah who they had best stay far away from, or they were pressured by the prevailing social conditions in their own homes and felt trapped between their sympathies for their troubled sister and the consequences for themselves should they dare to associate with her.
And so it was this woman whom Jesus chose to lift up and to honor that day there in the heat of the desert sun. He stood on her side against all that the prevailing social opinion and climate had chained her with and chose her as well to do some profound teaching of his own on the true meaning of justice and unconditional love, for his disciples and for all the residents of Sychar…and by extension for all of us today.
For in truth, anyone who feels that Jesus was simply a ‘proper religion’ or ‘proper ethical and moral behavior advocate’ and not instead as one who came to set the entire social, political, and religious order fully on its head needs to read the scripture accounts a little more closely, especially those passages such as today’s. Truly Jesus was first and foremost all about sharing the good news of God’s unconditional love for the whole of humanity. But secondly, and just as importantly, Jesus sought to teach that without justice and equality for all there was no possibility of ever realizing the truth and reality of that love.
Jesus came to earth to stand against all that stood in the way of human love as best expressed in holy community, and consistently went out of his way to expose all that stood against that vision of God’s kingdom (or ‘kindom’ as Spanish theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Dias so beautifully puts it). Jesus frequently went far out of his way to be ‘in the way’ of allowing harmful or unjust conventional understanding and practice to persist in his walk amongst humankind.
For he did not come just to tell us to ‘be more kind’ to one another…he did not come to tell us to find a way to somehow ‘shoehorn’ his difficult message of ‘love one another as I have loved you’ into our everyday lives…no he came for much more. He came to change our way of thinking entirely.
Few if any of his contemporaries realized the full impact of what Jesus was actually teaching and how deeply he sought to upset the status quo so firmly ensconced in the very human and selfish system that belonged to the world. To be sure there were a few, perhaps several women who were close to Jesus and who actively sought to support his ministry, along with at least the disciple John, who were able to grasp the fullness of Jesus’ message while he was with them.
And that small number speaks to the fact that what Jesus was actually trying to share through his ministry was that the whole trajectory of the divine ‘human experiment and story’ was not going in a direction that was originally laid out or hoped for. Specifically, it would seem that the ways and behavior of humanity that had evolved over the eons had come to rely very heavily on individual and personal needs, goals, and desires at the expense of communal trust and dependence. And that as a result, this development of the ‘self-that-stood-alone’ had led to ways of living and ways of interacting with others that were less than loving and considerate…in fact far less, tending towards selfishness and isolation and away from compassionate community. This tendency to push others away in an attempt to sequester oneself safely within a particular space, a particular people, or a particular understanding, is and always has been fully contrary to God’s will for the family, the community, and the future of humanity.
And it seems, through an analysis of our passage today and of Jesus’ message and actions that it was this condition of selfish individuality and strife-torn human relations that Jesus came specifically to engage and overturn. Jesus sought to expose any human behaviors that had been birthed out of greed, or fear, or lack of trust as he sought to confront each instance of un-Godlike behavior and to expose its true colors. Unfortunately the world and its systems are fairly jealous when it comes to preserving a sense of status quo and as such the world reacted strongly with resistance and anger to the person and message of Jesus…much as it still does today unfortunately.
For, like the attitudes the Southern Kingdom Jews held about their northern Samaritan brothers and sisters, many of these ‘ways of the world’ have become hardened over time into systems of behavior and stratifications of social relations that are at their heart unjust and abusive to those on the lower rungs of the social order…an order that far preferences the few on top over the vast multitudes below.
And it was against these somewhat hidden and fixed systemic sources of evil that Jesus directed his greatest and most vociferous criticism. Wherever he found such ‘relational-defects’ as these within the human experience he set about confronting and exposing them as harmful and opposed to the ways and the will of God. Be they in the structured and brutal oppression by the Roman occupation of the Jewish people’s lands and economy, or in the rigid legalism of the Jewish Temple authority and culture that strictly limited or denied people’s direct access to God, anything or anyone that was beholden to the world’s ways and systems was fair game for Jesus’ criticism and his calls for radical change.
And it was his disciples who were the first to be exposed to just how much they had been born into and had absorbed these inherent weaknesses of the world’s systems and ways. Their own weaknesses, prejudices, and biases were on full display throughout the four gospels as they struggled to understand why it was that Jesus seemed to be so confrontational and so seemingly determined to undo and totally re-orient so much of their previously held beliefs and understandings.
And a troubling, or perhaps fascinating aspect of this push for justice and a changeover to holy thought and behavior is that the things Jesus was working to change the most…were not time-bound or in any way specific to his time alone. In fact they are all still current and are all still wreaking the same havoc in people’s lives today as they did during Jesus’ time on earth. And therefore the need to continue to engage them forcefully and with resolve also still remains. However, it is now up to us to be the ones who call it out, who expose it, and who must be willing to suffer the consequences for our own revolt and rebellion against the power, the oppression, and the evil of the world’s systems…but we go there not alone….
Those systemic or ‘baked-in’ ills or ‘evils’ which Jesus was seeking to expose and defeat included and still include: discrimination against women overall including its original source in male dominance and patriarchal institutionalism as well as all prejudice and bias that is based on race, creed, gender or origin, especially as it leads to the repression and abuse of others. In addition, and especially as we find in our passage today, Jesus called out the scapegoating of weaker social elements and the objectification of them specifically in order to create and maintain a class of ‘others’ on which to pin hatred in general or unfounded blame for other social ills. For much of this behavior unfortunately often serves merely to deflect from poor or despicable behavior of the one or ones doing the scapegoating to begin with.
This then is our challenge…and our call. We must break down the barriers we have built or let stand between all members of the human family. We must find ways to imitate our Lord Jesus by going out of the way to stand in the way of continued injustice, unfair and abusive bias, and any attempt to diminish or dismiss the value of any who bear the irreducible image of our Creator. We must refuse to diminish or lessen the worth of any individual by pushing them off into some convenient, or socially acceptable category thereby making it easier for us to ignore them or their needs…or…to fool ourselves into thinking there is any way we can somehow absolve ourselves of the commandment to love them as fully as ourselves…
Let us walk boldly alongside of our Lord straight through the heart of prejudice, greed, and the worst the world has to offer…
…willing to suffer the consequences of our actions…
…with a heart that is forever bent towards justice…
…and a dogged determination to continue this good work our Lord has begun…
…let us stand in the way…
…that all might truly find the Way…the Truth…and the Life…