Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
March 14, 2010
PICTURES OF TRANSFORMATION: THE WOMAN OF SAMARIA
Texts: John 4:4-30, 39-42
There are a lot of ways to preach this text. And a lot of bad ones. I know, I’ve preached some of them. For example: Woman as sinner; Jesus as hero-savior. Just a teeny bit chauvinist. Or the equation that keeps people away from church: The toxic connection of sin, sensuality and shame. Some people preach the text like a dime-store romance novel. Picture the cover of the cheap paperback. The woman would be a dark-featured voluptuous beauty, exotically alluring. The man would be a White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant in a grey business suit, tasteful tie. The setting would not be Jacob’s well in ancient Samaria, but some contemporary watering hole, say the bar at the Ritz Carlton. She is on her third gin. He asks for iced tea. Cigarette smoke fills the air.
O.K. Let’s throw those out. Sandra Schneiders, the New Testament scholar who was with us two years ago, has wrecked most of my past sermons on this text. Here is one. (Throw down from pulpit) - - And she has given me new eyes to see it.1 George Buttrick used to say that good biblical scholarship takes away a lot of sermons, but it gives us back even more. I hope this sermon will be the case.
Let’s start with a few observations in the text, some brand new to me.
1) This passage is the most sustained theological conversation Jesus has in John’s Gospel – and it is with a woman, a Samaritan woman.
2) The woman’s five husbands and presumed present live-in companion may not be literally true but instead has primary symbolic / theological purpose.
3) There is no textual connection between this woman’s marital history and personal sinfulness. Even if it were historically true, it could have been a series of levirate marriages, she passed from one brother or uncle to another, each ending in the husband’s death and no children – marriage as serial catastrophe. Such is the setting of one biblical story, Tamar, and one whole book, Tobit.
4) Jesus clearly crosses boundaries in an astonishing way to convey the unconditional love of God: racial, religious, gender, theological.
5) John’s Gospel is a multi-layered work, like a set of transparencies, one laid on top of the other. The first layer is what happened in Jesus’ ministry, the top layers are the life of the Johannine community and the final writing of the Gospel some sixty years later.
And one of the key issues of John’s community was how and whether to admit Samaritan Christians to their Jewish-Christians church. The differences were theological, biblical, racial, social, worship practices, even expectation of what the Messiah would be like. Their relationship was not unlike the relationship of Jews, Christians and Muslims today. Shared histories, ancestors, different holy places and holy books with a nasty habit of spiritual bigotry, mutual persecution and religious one-up-man’s-ship. It was not like letting a Presbyterian into a Baptist church.
6) There is a sacred romance going on in the encounter between Jesus and the woman of Samaria leading to relationship between the woman and her God. In the Bible wells were often meeting places where people met, fell in love and later were married, Jacob’s well one of them, where he met Rachel. Jesus is seeking to unite this woman with God her Beloved. Mystical connection.
Now to the story.
Jesus was passing through Samaria, an odd route for a Jew enroute from Galilee to Jerusalem, but he “had to go through Samaria,” the text says. It was a divine summons. Sometimes our route is not by MapQuest but GodQuest.
He came to a Samaritan holy place, Jacob’s Well. He was tired and thirsty. Yes, we have a Lord who got tired and thirsty, tired and thirsty on all kinds of levels. And we have a Lord unashamed to have needs and ask for what he needed. So he asked the woman for a drink of water. He had no way to retrieve the water, no bucket, no rope, no canteen, no cup.
The woman is startled by the request. Here is a Jewish man asking a Samaritan woman for a drink. There are at least four uncleanness boundaries Jesus is crossing here: religion, race, gender, utensils. While he was at it, why didn’t he ask for a B-B-Q sandwich?
Jesus moves to the spiritual, mystical level:
If you knew of God’s gift, and who is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you’d have been the one to ask, “Give me a drink” ... and he would have given you living water.
The woman bantered back, “Sir, so you say but you’ve got no bucket, and the well is deep. Where is this living water you are talking about? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob?”
She’s not tripping over the symbolic ambiguity of the words like Nicodemus. She is playing with them.
We glimpse the difference between Jewish theology and Samaritan theology. Samaritan theology used only the Torah, the five books of Moses. The patriarchs and matriarchs were their heroes, in contrast to Jewish theology based on Torah, Prophets, and Writings with a focus on David, the Davidic kingship, and Jerusalem, and temple.
Jesus answered in one of the great mystical passages in scripture:
Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life (zoen aionion, life eternal, forever, full, abundant, never ending).
John 7:38 comments: “Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Jesus connects us with the rivers of living water within us all. His heart connects us with the heart of God.
The woman responds, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty.”
In Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop an Indian guide named Jacinto leads the French Archbishop Father LaTour through the mountainous wilderness outside Sante Fe. A snowstorm arises, and Father LaTour fears for his life.
Jacinto led him up a cliff to a small opening in a rock. They crawled through the mouth-like opening and found themselves in a cave. When they built a fire Father LaTour saw they were in a great cavernous underground that looked in the flickering light like a Gothic cathedral. They had entered an ancient Indian holy place.
Father LaTour began to hear a dizzy noise in his head. At first he thought it was vertigo, some roaring in his inner ear. This is how Will Cather describes what happened next:
“But as he grew warm and relaxed, he perceived an extraordinary vibration in this cavern; it hummed like a hive of bees, like a heavy roll of distant drums. After a time he asked Jacinto whether he, too, noticed this. The slim Indian boy smiled.... He took up a ...torch, and beckoned the Padre to follow him along a tunnel.... There Jacinto knelt down over a fissure in the stone floor, like a crack in china, which was plastered up with clay. Digging some of this out with his hunting knife, he put his ear on the opening, listened a few seconds, and motioned the Bishop to do likewise.
“Father LaTour lay with his ear to this crack for a long while, despite the cold that arose from it. He told himself he was listening to one of the oldest voices of the earth. What he heard was the sound of a great underground river flowing through a resounding cavern. The water was far, far below, perhaps as deep as the foot of the mountain, a flood moving in utter blackness under the ribs of antediluvian rock. It was not a rushing noise, but the sound of a great flood moving with majesty and power.”2
Jesus is Jacinto digging out the clay in the fissure there in the surface of our soul, beckoning us to kneel and place our ear there and hear the great river flowing deep within.
This river, it is not the Jordan in Israel, but the Jordan within. Not the underground river in New Mexico, but the one deep inside you. It is not Jacob’s well, it is yours, Sarah’s, Tom’s, David’s, Stephen’s.
It is not owned by clergy, culture, church, family or tradition. It is God’s own flowing water within you. Jesus takes us there, and we drink living water.
Now the conversation about the woman’s husbands – and it is more than what you have thought, I have thought.
On the surface here is what is said, “Go call your husband.” It sounds like a non sequitor. It is not. It is part of the entire theological discussion they’ve been having. She answers, “I have no husband.” He answers, “You spoke truly, for you have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband.”
She said, “I see that you are a prophet!” Who were the five husbands? Sandra Schneiders identifies them with the five foreign gods brought into Samaria after the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C.E.. II Kings 17:29 names the five:
1) The Babylonians made Succoth-benoth
2) The men of Cuth made Nergal (sounds like an anti-depressant)
3) The men of Hamath made Ashima (a goddess)
4) The Avvites made Nibhaz and Tartak
5) And the Sepharites burned their children as offerings to Adram-melech and Anam-melech.
When the Northern Kingdom fell the Israelites were deported, scattered through the Middle East, and foreign peoples were settled into the area. Hence came the intermarriage and mixing of religions. And hence came the disgust and judgment Jews held against Samaritans.
But let me move from the historical to the squirmingly personal. What gods have we taken up with in place of the one true God? How many of our children have we sacrificed to the gods of nation, pride, prosperity, vengeance?
Roger Williams, the father of the Baptist movement in America, was thrown out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony because he got up close and personal about idolatry. He also befriended the Native Americans and fought for their right to be compensated for their land. He warned against the union of Church and State because it is so easy for the State to become a false god. So he named some the gods of his culture:
These, he wrote with no little sarcasm, “must not be blasphemed, spoked ill of, no not provoked.” In 1986 William Safire wrote, “Greed is finally being recognized as a virtue...the best engine of betterment known to man.” How late and how tragically we discover “the gods that are no gods,” to use Paul’s language.
Which gods would we add?
They are the gods of Wall Street and Walmart. The god of NIMBY: Not In My Back Yard. Charlotte has a housing crisis with long-time racist and classist roots. No one wants low-income housing in their neighborhood. All seven districts need to step up, rotate equally every low-cost housing request. The first should be Myers Park and Ballentine. The churches should lead the way. Who is the God we worship? Which are your five husbands/gods?
God-consumerism, what Serene Jones called “turbo-capitalism”
A friend went to an addiction recovery center. She was told there were four core addictions.
Maybe our core-addictions are another way of saying core-idolatries – listen carefully – things good in themselves, in their proper place, but which can take over, define us and enslave us. We build our ego-self around them. Emily Dickinson wrote to someone, “Save me from the idolatry / Which would crush us both.” Idolatry is the human condition. Perhaps anxiety is the root of them all.
The woman spoke truly. Jesus is a prophet who, like all the ancient prophets, named our idolatries, the false gods we had married, and called us to return to the one true God, our true Beloved.
The woman takes the next step in the theological conversation: O.K., she says, then where should we worship? In Jerusalem as the Jews do or on Mount Gerizim as we Samaritans do?
And Jesus radically transcends all the categories and points to the coming kingdom which transforms all our religious allegiances which have become spiritual idolatries.
Not in Jerusalem, not on Mount Gerizim,
not in Mecca or Rome, or Salt Lake City or Tibet.
No, the hour is coming, Jesus said, when we will worship neither in Jerusalem nor on Mount Gerizim but wherever Spirit and Truth are, “For God is Spirit, and those who worship must worship in Spirit and in Truth.”
The woman brings up the Messiah question, and here again is a disagreement between Jews and Samaritans: Jews looked for the Messiah as a Son of David, establishing a new kingdom; Samaritans saw the Messiah as a Son of Moses, teaching us the fulness of spiritual truth.
She says, I know the time is coming when Messiah will do such things. And Jesus said, “I am he.” The time is now. This is true with every encounter with the divine: the time is now.
The woman left the well, leaving her bucket behind. (She had a new kind of water to bring!) And she becomes the apostle to the Samaritans! “Come and see,” she said, “this man who told me everything about me. Can he be the Messiah?”
Here is a very interesting form of witness: witness as question. Can he be the Messiah?
And the text says that the Samaritans came to Jesus and believed in him – and this is literally how John puts it – “through the word” (dia ton logon) “of the woman bearing witness” (tes gynaikos martyrouses).
She led them to him – which is where all transformation happens.
How do you not salute this woman?
How do you not love that kind of Jesus?
1 Sandra Schneiders, Written That You May Believe (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co. 2003).
2 Death Comes for the Archbishop (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926), p. 131-132.