When Jesus Knows All
John 4: 5-42
The Rev. K. Dean Myers
I begin this morning by taking care of two tasks: first, to thank Fr. Peter for inviting me to preach; and second, to introduce myself briefly to you. Both to answer the question most of you are no doubt asking: Who is this other tall guy, and why is he in front of us now?
I am an ordained, but happily retired Presbyterian minister. Yes, I am a little nervous, but not because my Scot Presbyterian spiritual ancestors and your Church of England spiritual ancestors experienced some unhappy moments a couple of centuries ago. We are pretty much over all that, but I am still confused by all the titles bestowed upon your clerics and your lay leaders, and more than a little in awe of everything that transpires up here during worship. Someday I may get a chanted Psalm right!
I am a product of small-town, rural Iowa, a baptized-in-infancy Presbyterian, a graduate of Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and of San Francisco Theological Seminary. Since my ordination in 1968, I have served churches from the west coast to the east, picking up a Doctor of Ministry Degree from Pittsburgh Seminary along the way. I have been retiring in stages for five or six years.
My wife, Maxine, is a Pittsburgh native and unrepentant Steelers fan. We've been married for over 40 years, and have two daughters. Elizabeth, her husband, and their two elementary school daughters live in Oneonta, NY. Rebecca lives in Philadelphia, PA.
Our family moved to Northeast Ohio in 1989 so I could accept the call of the Church of the Western Reserve (CWR) in Pepper Pike to serve as its pastor. Maxine and I live in Orange Village. In 2003, I left CWR and then served as Interim Pastor in four churches, leaving the last one in 2012. Since full retirement, I preach when invited, serve in our Presbytery, and just enjoy being retired.
I write. I’ve tried my hand at short stories, personal essays, creative nonfiction, and political commentaries that often make their way to a blog I have. Music, particularly classical, is a great passion of mine. Maxine and I like to travel, and have been to every corner of this country and to several overseas lands as well. We enjoy being outdoors, both in our small garden and in what's left of the more natural world. We both like to sing, she in the Western Reserve Chorale (with Sara Schiller), me in the Singers' Club of Cleveland, and both of us in the choir of Christ Episcopal Church.
Singing is what brought us to Christ Church in the first place. We have known Jeanette Davis Ostrander and her family since before William was born. For several years, Jeanette was the Church of the Western Reserve's organist and director. Technically, I was her “boss,” but working with her was more like sharing than bossing. When Maxine and I learned that Jeanette was serving here, we knew that Christ Church's music program was in great hands. Since “here” wasn't too far from “there” in Orange Village, we visited one Sunday last spring. We've pretty much been here ever since, joining the choir in the fall.
Christ Church has welcomed us in a way no other church we've visited has. The choir quickly counted us as one of its own, and we've begun to know other members and friends of this congregation as well. We value and look forward to nurturing our relationship with this congregation, where meaningful worship, challenging preaching, good music, significant outreach, and warm relationships abound.
Now you've noticed I have successfully used up a good chunk of my allotted time. I notice it, too. Maybe I've done that because today's texts are so overwhelming, so rich, and so full of preaching possibilities, that it's easier to do almost anything other than speak to and about them.
Introducing myself to you resonates in me with the way Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well encountered and learned about one another.
Their dialogue begins at a very simple level (“Give me a drink,” Jesus asks), and quickly transitions to more complexity. The text transitions to more personal and probing levels of knowing one another, substantial and upsetting pushes and pulls as they explore each other's religious traditions, culminating in Jesus suggesting that true religion goes well beyond both traditions. The Samaritan woman successfully testifies about Jesus to her fellow Samaritans.
These stories parallel how the best of relationships develop in churches such as Christ Church. We start at sharing basic information, then explore more profound needs and hopes, telling others just how good it is to be part of this community!
The starting point for most thinking about this passage emphasizes two great walls between people that this dialogue wants to overcome: A wall between men and women, and a wall between Jews and Samaritans.
In a male-dominated culture, a man talking with a woman in public was troubling, but I don't need to explore that in much detail today. Other, often more subtle, but equally irrelevant manifestations of male hierarchy and privilege persist in our time and place.
There were also high walls between Jews (Jesus) and Samaritans (this unnamed woman). How do we tell the reasons simply and somewhat accurately? It's pretty murky at best, as such histories often are.
Samaritans were the descendants of the people of Israel who'd been left home during the exile to Babylon (587 B.C. and later). After sacking Jerusalem, the Babylonians hauled most of the population to their homeland, including Israel’s best and brightest, among them religious leaders, whom the Babylonians apparently felt would be useful. The Samaritan woman's ancestors had been among those left behind, without the established leadership. They intermarried with other peoples in the area, and mixed some of the local, non-Israelite, religious practices with Israel's traditional religious practices. When the exiles, who felt they'd kept the historic faith pure, returned home a half-century or so later, they were appalled by how those who'd stayed behind had corrupted the purity of the nation and of its religion. A huge, forbidding wall was raised between the two groups.
The division between Jews and Samaritans was deep and wide because it was constructed from distrust and disdain between members of one family. It was one thing to have to deal with, say, Romans whose religion was all wrong because they never were Jews in the first place. Lamentable, but understandable. It was quite another thing to have to deal with Samaritans, who had been raised in the same household and should have known better. “How can my brother, my sister, so dishonor our parents? You cannot expect me to understand or to forgive that, can you?”
Against all rules, Jesus (the Jew) asks a Samaritan woman to give him a drink, and that request sets in motion a conversation of twists and turns and uncharted layers of meaning. For example, when Jesus starts talking about “living water,” the woman doesn't get it. Lest we be tempted to attribute her denseness to her being a Samaritan woman, you may recall that last Sunday, good male Jew Nicodemus didn't get it when Jesus started talking about being “born again” or “born anew.” They suffered equally from terminal literalism. “You mean I have to re-enter my mother's womb?” Nicodemus asked.
“Sir, give me this (living) water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water,” the woman demands of Jesus.
Amazingly, Jesus pushes through the misunderstanding to significant issues of religious faith and practice. We could spend far more time than we have exploring what to make of the five husbands Jesus claims to know the woman has had, not to mention the man he says she is living with who is not her husband. How does he know all that? Some hear the number five as symbolic, but that interpretation is controversial. What’s symbolic and what’s literal? What does Jesus mean by worshipping the Father in spirit and truth?
Whatever is happening with this dialogue, we are stopped short and can only stand amazed when this woman (probably not formally educated and a second class citizen of a despised minority) suddenly takes a leap of faith toward the truth: “I know the Messiah is coming,” she offers, as if testing the (living) water. We wonder if she is actually thinking that this man who is talking with her might be the Messiah, the coming savior for both Jews and Samaritans. She dares not say it. Jesus, however, is not at all reticent: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
She knows who he is because he has told her! It's a wonderful, wall-shattering moment of meeting, acknowledgement, recognition, breaking down and breaking through - until Jesus' disciples arrived, astonished that he was speaking with a woman. They didn't voice their astonishment, but it is so obvious that it drove the woman away. Leaving her water jar, she returned to the city and said to her Samaritan neighbors: “Come see this guy. He told me everything (five husbands, etc.) I have ever done. Could he be the Messiah?”
She saves the nearly-lost moment with her witness, testimony and her search for the truth about Jesus. The Samaritans then leave their city and go to find Jesus themselves. She who has left her water jar entices them to leave their city!
The story that began with a single Samaritan woman concludes with “many Samaritans” believing in Jesus because of her testimony. They even ask Jesus to stay with them, and he does - for two whole days! More Samaritans believe because “we have heard for ourselves, and... know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
Savior of the world God so loved, and loves still. These Samaritans are recorded in John as the first community to realize that Jesus is who he is for the world. Review the previous chapters of John: only John the Baptist seems clear about who Jesus is for. Of all people, the hated, loathed Samaritans, understand, because Jesus knew a woman better than anyone else before knew her. Jesus welcomed her to trust, believe in, and follow him anyway!
If Jesus came for Samaritans, he surely was on the scene for the world. If he could allow himself to know and to be known by those alienated, blaspheming, and loathed brothers and sisters of God's supposed chosen people, he could choose anybody.
Despite knowing everything about us and our communities and cultures, Jesus has chosen us all to follow him. He has chosen to love and use us for holy purposes. He also chooses that person, that outsider, despite all you and I may think we know about them and their community and culture, to follow him with us. He loves and chooses us all, flawed in body and spirit as deeply as we are. As Paul wrote to the Church in Rome long ago, “…while we were sinners Christ died for us”…out of love, out of desire for us, he died.
That is very good news for this world and all of us Samaritans…for all who share life on our little home planet.
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