February 24, 2008
The Rev. Robert C. Granfeldt
|667 Mount Road, Aston, PA 19014 610-459-2013
|Small Parish - Big Heart - Inclusive
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I love today’s Gospel! Not because it has anything particularly important to say – which it
has; and not because it says anything particularly profound – which it does!
I love it just because of what it is, and what it involves! To study this little section of Saint
John’s Gospel, to come fully to understand all of the story and all of its references, is to
begin to understand the depth and the breadth, the challenge and even the excitement of
really studying the Bible. Your study would only begin with the basics – with who all the
characters involved were, and how they are related to the Scriptures and to many, at least,
of the great stories and themes of Scripture; but then, on you would go on to learn about
the People of the Book, from their origins in northern Mesopotamia all the way to Jesus;
then on to the importance of the Holy Land and its location between the great, foundational
civilizations of Mesopotamia and the oh-so-incredibly-ancient nation of Egypt; and your
study would then touch, at least, on the languages of the Middle East and Europe, and
would continue to lead you on a trek that would take you into studies of history, geography
and archeology before you were done!
What a little gem. And what an antidote it is, all by itself, to what has come to be
misunderstood as “Bible Study,” today: that is, a bunch of people sitting around in a circle,
reading a short passage of Scripture, and then talking endlessly about, “what these verses
say to me,” or, even worse, “what Jesus is saying to me in these verses,” – in a
conversation that seldom moves beyond the purely personal, the emotional, and (at worst)
the sentimental, while never really getting around to the greatness of the document it
purports to study!
The story that comprises our Gospel reading, today, is told near the beginning of John’s
Gospel – in only the 4th of his 20 Chapters! John’s tale began up in the region called Galilee,
near the northern end of the Jordan River, at the southern end of the big lake known as the
Sea of Galilee with Jesus of Nazareth being Baptized by John the Baptist in the River, and
beginning his ministry by recruiting the first of his followers. After (reluctantly) performing
his first public miracle in Galilee – a little town maybe ten miles from where he was raised –
Jesus has made a trip up to Jerusalem for the Passover; no easy thing, seeing as Jerusalem
is a walk (no cars, trains or busses, you know) … a walk of about 120 miles from the Galilee
And that, immediately, is one of the interesting differences between John’s Gospel and the
three Synoptics: that is, Jesus travels more! Where the Synoptics have the whole of Jesus’
ministry taking place over the course of one year, mostly in one area, and ending after
Jesus’ only trip to Jerusalem, John’s story covers more than two years, and the crucifixion
takes place on his third visit to that city that Jesus obviously knew very well!
Now, as today’s reading begins, Jesus is traveling back north toward the Galilee, but even
this he does differently than most Jews of his day would do: he travels up through the heart
of the region called Samaria – an area that most Jews had avoided for centuries as
uncomfortable to travel through, at least, and possibly even dangerous!
The problem reached back a thousand years, by then, in a story I’ve touched on, before.
The twelve tribes of Israel – descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – having settled in a
loose confederation in the land called Palestine, were united for the first time under King
Saul around 1030 or 1020 BCE. Saul, gone mad, was replaced 10 years or so, later, by David
who, after his own checkered career, was succeeded by his son, Solomon! Known through
the ages as a good and wise king, those who actually read the Bible know that Solomon was
really neither good nor wise, and that at his death the kingdom broke apart! The Northern
tribes rebelled against being ruled by Solomon’s son (too much like his father!), and the
three-generation-old United Kingdom was no more: divided, by 920 BCE, into a Northern and
a Southern Kingdom – the Kingdom of Judah, in the South, with it’s capital and Center of
worship the City of David, Jerusalem; and the Kingdom of Israel in the North, with it’s
Capital, first, in the City of Shechem (where Abraham had built an altar when he and his
family first arrived in the Land of Canaan) and then in the nearby City of Samaria, and with it’
s center of worship not in Jerusalem but atop nearby Mount Gerazim.
But after a couple of centuries of rivalry and frequent war – both kingdoms forming frequent
alliances with the great nations of the Fertile Crescent, against one another – the northern
Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in about 720 BCE.
The southern Kingdom of Judah lasted almost 140 years longer – until it was finally taken by
the Babylonians, and its leading classes deported, in 586 BCE. Neither kingdom would ever
again be truly independent, but regardless of their political situations, the hatred of the two
peoples – who would come, eventually, to be called the Jews and the Samaritans – was
historic and long lasting!
Related they were, but separated historically, religiously and politically. Where the Jews and
their religion grew in their devotion to a growing body of sacred writings – what we now
consider our Old Testament – the Samaritans held fast only to the first five books (the
Pentateuch): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
And the open hostility went on through the Centuries, right to the time of Jesus.
Now the whole region was under the rule of Rome! But still, the Jews in the area – who by
now had spread far to the north of Jerusalem through the area known as the Galilee –
carefully avoided contact with the hated Samaritans, and would go to great pains not to
travel through their lands!
But Jesus did travel there. Jesus did! Here, he is traveling “home” after spending the
Passover in Jerusalem, and traveling, not only in Samaria, but through it’s very heart! So
when we read, “Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar,” we need to understand that
“Sychar” was the contemporary name for that same town that had once been called
Shechem – the original capital of Samaria – located at the very foot of Mount Gerazim: the
historic center of Samaritan worship!
So there Jesus sits, resting by himself, in the heart of the territory of the historic, despised
enemies of the Jews, and at the place called Jacob’s Well, the very site where began the
whole sacred history of God’s Chosen People in the land promised to them by God! Thus
John begins the story of Jesus’ ministry at the heart of the Biblical story!
And, in John’s Gospel, Jesus starts out breaking – if not the Laws – both the norms and
rules of First Century Jewish life.
And then, immediately, he breaks the laws, as well. He speaks to a Samaritan Woman! A
Samaritan (unheard of), and a woman (NOT PERMITTED!).
And then, equally unthinkably, he begins to teach her – but not only to teach her: to reveal
himself to her! He begins to speak cryptically, seeming to mix his language so that when he
seems to be speaking about “spring water” as opposed to cistern water – one of the
possible meanings of the words translated here as “living water,” but in Jesus terms
meaning “the water of life!”
When she challenges him, saying that her people worship God on their holy mountain, but
Jesus’ people worship God in Jerusalem, Jesus confirms that while salvation does, indeed,
come from the Jews (he, of course, being a Jew), the time has come when where one
worships doesn’t matter any longer, but that worship is to be from the heart “in spirit and in
And when the woman responds by trying to impress on him that, though she is a woman she’
s not completely ignorant, and “Know(s) that Messiah is coming,” he uses a term for the first
time that is one of the key terms in John’s Gospel. In our translation he says, in response to
her mention of the Messiah, “I am he.” But that translation is simply to clarify his response,
in this context: what he really said is, in John’s original Greek: ego emi; which really means,
simply, “I am.”
And that’s when the woman runs back to the city to tell them about this amazing man!
You see, the Samaritans did not study and treasure the Prophets and the Wisdom Literature
that the Jews loved, but they did hold the Pentateuch sacred. And it’s in the Pentateuch that
God, speaking from the burning bush, first reveals his name to Moses, saying, YHWH: which
means, “I Am!” And Jesus said – as no Commandment–obeying, God fearing Jew would ever
say – “I am,” which this woman would recognize, in any language, as identifying himself with
the Holy Name of the Living God!
John began his Gospel declaring “in the beginning was the Word, and the word was with
God, and the word was God.” Then he described how Jesus started his work by enlisting his
student followers, the Disciples, to help him – performing, seemingly incidentally, his first
miracle before he was ready, simply to please his mother).
And now John moves us, in his barratifve, to the next stage of his life: beginning his
Ministry – his Mission – by revealing to this OUTSIDER, revealing to this NON-BELONGER,
revealing to this INFERIOR WOMAN – his identity! His REAL identity! His identification with
the very living God!
What an amazing story! How incredible! Ands how beautifully presented by John!
That’s why I love it! Wow.
And of course, that’s why I said, at the outset, that what this story tells us is not only
important, but profound. And like what Jesus, himself, was doing and saying, it violates all
the norms and breaks all the rules.
Jesus spoke to outsiders (he stayed with the Samaritans for two days!), and he shared with
them the TRUTH he’d come to proclaim. But nowhere does John tell us that he asked these
apostates to become Christians (there were no such things, at the time, of course) nor even
Jews (which is what HE was). He just revealed to them the TRUTH – and left them to work out
what that must mean for them, must mean in their lives; to work out how they must best
respond to God’s truth revealed in their lives.
Jesus charged his people – us – to bring the Gospel to all people: to be spreaders of the
Good News (which is what it means to be Evangelists); and he showed us by his example,
right here, how that’s done!
That is, he shared with people he met – whoever they might be, however low on the social
scale they might be, however unworthy they might seem – shared with them the simple
truth, as he knew it; opened to them his own heart and mind; let them know, in his
conversation and by his example, where he was coming from and where he was headed.
In these meetings he didn’t preach to them. He didn’t call on them to “repent and be saved.”
He just showed them the way, the truth and the life: showed them himself!
To be an Evangelist, we need only be true to what we believe in Jesus Christ: to live the
truth we know and to open ourselves, our lives and our beliefs to those who need to hear
us – no more; to let them do the rest – and the Spirit working in them; and to believe that if
we do our part just letting ourselves BE the persons God has helped us to become and
made us to be, that God can, and will, do the rest.
And all that is in this amazing little story right at the beginning of the Gospel according to
Such a treasure, given to us as a gift, in the Name of the one who has already shown us and
taught us what he would have us do – Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.