Last week, we listened in on a philosophical conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, and here, we see its message lived out in practice. In fact, over the next few weeks of the lectionary, we are going to watch as Jesus reveals himself to people on the margins, experiencing some sort of separation.
Against the backdrop of separation between people groups, the Samaritans and the Jews, we see Jesus lovingly reveal himself as God to the Samaritan woman, we watch as she comes to faith and shares her belief with our community, and witness how her community, who listens to her, comes to believe for themselves. The Spirit of God has chosen to blow through the city of Sychar, hallelujah!
There are multiple levels of restoration in answer to the separations happening in this story. There is what happens in the life of the Samaritan woman herself, there is her interaction with her community, there is the mystery of Jesus’s purposes and strength that the disciples witness, and there is the grander arc of unity and reconciliation on which this story is set.
Most of us are familiar with the disdain held for the Samaritans by the Jews of Jesus’s time. Even though they share an ancestor, Jacob, there was a dividing line drawn between their people groups all the way to their personal interactions. Jesus is described as “tired out by the journey” (many translations say “his journey” but the gender of the Greek genitive is feminine, matching the word for journey). He is “tired” in the perfect tense: this tiredness is going to have some lasting consequences. I cannot help but wonder if what Jesus is tired of is the dividing line keeping the Samaritans and Jews from worshipping together in spirit and in truth, because the consequence of what Jesus does in his “tiredness” is something that he repeats throughout his ministry, culminating in his death which tears down every dividing wall to the presence of God and allows all to worship him in spirit and in truth.
Here at their ancestor Jacob’s well, Jesus tears down the hostility between a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman. He asks her for water. Then, as God, Jesus opens up to her the future that is to come and welcomes her to join it. He tells her that it will no longer be about where one worships (and by proxy who you are because of where you are allowed to be), but it will be—no, already is—about what and how one worships (verse 23). More than it is about our human identities formed by our birth of the flesh, it is about what comes from being born from above, worshipping the Father in the Spirit of truth.
The Samaritan woman does not disagree with Jesus, but she knows that it is going to take a miraculous work of God to make it so. She tells Jesus that she knows the Messiah is coming to make this possible and Jesus proclaims to her that she is with that Messiah in this very moment.
And just as that bombshell drops, the disciples return and the woman leaves. The woman leaves the literal water at the well, leaving her jar in order to carry back with her the water “from above” which she has now been baptized in (epitomizing the point from last week that we don’t really know how this being born from the Spirit above happens). Jesus did not verbally commission her to make disciples, but the internal work of the Spirit is blowing and she shares her experience with her neighbours.
Given that this woman has had a number of husbands (no matter the reason why), it is fair to assume that she is facing at least some ostracism and tension within her community. And yet, she boldly tells them of the hope that has been made real to her, inviting them to encounter it for themselves. And they go, truly a work of the Spirit!
After the little interlude between the disciples and Jesus ends, in verses 39-42 members of the community come to believe, first because of the woman’s faith, but then for themselves. They chose to believe her, and by accepting her invitation (i.e., the Spirit’s invitation through her), they hear for themselves and choose to continue to believe. They have become united by the Spirit in the truth. Hallelujah!
Jesus describes all of this as a harvest just waiting to be reaped. He invites the disciples to enter into and take up the work that the Spirit is accomplishing—if they just open their eyes and look around at these Samaritans around them. The Holy Spirit reaper is already rejoicing at the unity being formed as people come together to worship God, and the disciples are to support that work, the gathering of all God’s people so that they might all rejoice together. When we worship and share the faith and honour the coming to belief of people who are different than us and worship together in Spirit and in truth, we are entering into the very loving labour of God. It is no longer “your people” and “my people,” we are God’s people, together the body of Jesus Christ.
In verses 20 the Samaritan woman tells Jesus that “You say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” She doesn’t mean Jesus as an individual, but the Jewish people as a whole (“you” is in plural in the Greek). Likewise, Jesus answers her with the second person plural, “You will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…” It is not just this woman who will worship, but all who are like her. This fits in the larger theme of the pericope: we have more in common with one another than we know—if we seek the unity that is founded on worshipping the Triune God.
When the church is worshipping in spirit and truth, it is meant to be a picture of the dividing lines torn down. All that could (and does) separate us, race and ethnicity, gender, social class or financial status, even denominational identity (or clinging to the lack thereof), speaks to the unifying power of the Spirit through worship. So why does Sunday continue to be the most segregated hour? In Christ, by the Spirit, for the Father, don’t we have more in common than we are apt to admit?
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 12, 2023
John 4:5-42 Commentary