Jesus enters a situation today of great discord and division and leaves one of peace and concord. Let us see how.
This community is broken in many ways with three particularly bad fractures.
The Jews and the Samaritans hated each other. Their enmity went back centuries. David’s kingdom was held together under Solomon but in 922 BC was divided between the 10 tribes of the North, Israel, and the two of the south, Judea. In 721 BC the Assyrians conquered the north, deported many of the inhabitants and resettled other people in Israel. They intermarried, accepted the worship of the LORD, and became known as the Samaritans. There was always friction between them and the Jews of Judea, but it became irrevocable when the Jews destroyed the Samaritan temple at Mt. Gerizim in 129 BC. (See footnote below)
Samaria was situated between Judea and Galilee but as the Samaritans were very hostile to Jews who would take a detour around it. Jesus however says that he “had” to pass through Samaria. This was not for practical reasons but in obedience to his earthly mission to make us one as he and the Father are one. (John 10:30) He knew it would be neither easy nor pleasant. The first fracture was between Jews and Samaritans and Jesus confronts this intentionally and directly. It will not heal itself.
We should not be surprised that the woman at the well was so hostile. Yet she is surprisingly open to Jesus. Perhaps she was intrigued that a Jewish Man would even speak to her. She allows herself to learn. She first referred to Jesus as “sir” a respectful address but a bit generic.
When however, Jesus tells her that he knows that she has had 5 husbands and now a lover she calls him a prophet. And because a prophet knows things hidden from others asks Jesus the most important question for a Samaritan. Are they worshipping correctly? Jesus does not focus on the past but shows her the future. He does not take one side over the other but tells her that the world has been changed and that Jews and Samaritans indeed all people will worship not on a mountain but in spirit and truth It is a message of unity that would have been beyond her immediate understanding, but she is intrigued. Like the Jews, the Samaritans awaited a Messiah who will tell them everything. Jesus tells her that he is the Messiah for Jews and Samaritans indeed everyone. The second fracture was with the truth, Jesus instructs not principally to impart knowledge but to heal lives both individual and communal.
The woman is so engaged by Jesus that she goes into the town to tell them that she has found the Messiah. But there is another division here. Note that she was at the well in the heat of the day. She was entirely alone. Drawing water and other daily tasks were done communally in the cool of the morning for safety as relief. Noon in the Holy Land is bestially hot, but this woman would rather brave the heat than the company of other women. I imagine that the 5 husbands and one lover had something to do with this. Whatever the cause, she was alienated from her own people. Yet she finds the courage to go into the town to preach to them. She was very effective, and the villagers went out to meet Jesus.
The fracture between the village and the woman was also healed. Notice how. She came to know Jesus not just about him and had to share it. She gave testimony about him. A sinner who shows redemption is a powerful witness. She had changed and people wanted to know why and how. Yet she did not bring the people together, Jesus did. Jesus stayed with them, and they got to know him. It is always the same, the more we know and love Jesus the closer we will be to each other.
A truism of community organizing is that there are times to disorganize to reorganize. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it but if it is broken don’t do a minor repair but start over again. The prophets and lawgivers were repair men. They brought their duct tape and WD-40 and did their best to reform religion and society to keep it going. Jesus however did not come to reform. Earlier in John’s gospel he said, “destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it”. (John 2:19) He does not mean the physical temple but the relationships between people. God has become Man, his spirit is with us, and we must change. We need no longer be broken.
But it will be neither easy nor painless. Although Jesus brings lasting peace, he has also said that “I have come not to bring peace but the sword”. (Matthew 10:34-36) Human resistance to the divine invitation to the kingdom is deep. Broken people and societies often don’t know it and would prefer to remain broken. Jesus knew that going to Samaria would be difficult, yet he did not stop until they were one as he and the Father are one.
This must be the same for us. Discord and division are all around us. Our society Is broken, and the next election cycle will reveal how broken. If the split between the two main parties is not as ancient as the Jews and Samaritans social media has made up the difference. Both think that only the other needs to change and only the other needs to be saved. This pattern is repeated throughout our society and neither the cause nor the solution is purely political. The necessary truth will hurt. Who will reveal it?
The woman at the well asks us today “Do we know Jesus? “Have we had an encounter with him”. If we had, we would have the courage to testify to his presence and to proclaim the truth of the Gospel for we know that he is truly the savior of the world.
On the Samaritans
Jews and Samaritans were ethnic and religious rivals in antiquity, and the history of their relationship was marked by dislike and occasional persecutions. Samaria is the central part of Palestine, situated between Galilee to the north and Judea to the south. It takes its name from the capital city of the northern kingdom of Israel, which broke away from the Davidic monarchy in Jerusalem in 922 BC (1 Kings 12:16–20). In 721 BC, this kingdom was conquered by the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians, in keeping with their occupation policy, deported some Israelites and resettled foreigners in those lands. The intermarriage between the Israelites and those foreign peoples became a source of ethnic tension with Jews.
Samaritans worshiped the God of Israel but did so in a way different from Jews. The major point of religious contention between Samaritans and Jews was the place where God was to be worshiped. Jews worshiped at the Jerusalem temple, the reconstruction of which Samaritans had obstructed (see Ezra 4); the Samaritans worshiped at a temple built on Mount Gerizim, which was illegitimate in Jewish eyes and was destroyed by the Jewish king John Hyrcanus in about 129 BC. For their part, Jewish readers of Scripture would have regarded Samaritan worship as contaminated by paganism. According to 2 Kings 17, the Assyrians brought in five foreign peoples to resettle the Samaritan region (17:24), and each group brought their gods (17:29–34).
John 4 is one of several indications in the New Testament of a mutual openness between the Samaritans and the first Christians (Luke 17:16; Acts 8:4–25).
Martin, F., & Wright, W. M., IV. (2015). The Gospel of John (P. S. Williamson & M. Healy, Eds.; p. 82). Baker Academic.