I’ll be preaching on the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan Woman in John 4:1-42, and I have to gather my thoughts and settle on a core message.
I believe that a sermon is not simply an intellectual exercise, or an entertaining presentation; it’s about feeding Christians so that they are stronger and better equipped to deal with life, with all its joys and tragedies. So, I’m now I need to force myself to think about what “food” I am going to serve up. What is more, I will have to limit myself to what is important, rather than those things that I have found of particular interest to me. I’ll have to kill most of my babies, so to speak.
What’s the message that they will take with them? Here’s my first cut of the final edition.
The Importance of Being Ordinary.
The Australian language has done a great disservice to the word ordinary. If you were to ask me, How was your week?, and I replied Pretty ordinary, we would both know that what I meant was that my week had been pretty crap. In the local lingo, ordinary is a synonym for crap.
The dictionary definition of ordinary is quite different, meaning with no special or distinctive features, normal, commonplace, standard.
Most of us are ordinary. The Samaritan Woman was ordinary. Like her, most of us are not spiritual super-heroes. What makes us special, or valuable, or worthwhile human beings is neither our ordinariness nor our extra-ordinariness, but the presence of Christ in our lives.
That’s not to say that we should not attempt the extraordinary. We rejoice in the many heroes of faith who have done extraordinary things; John Wycliffe, William Wilberforce, and Mother Teresa, to name a few. There is a danger in focusing on super-heroes, though, which is that we can begin to evaluate our lives in terms of achievements, commitment, or work-rate. We can find ourselves inadvertently headed towards works-based justification, even if our official statements of faith and doctrine deny it. Do we really believe in a Gospel of Grace? If we do, should we not celebrate and rejoice in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary? What do we want our Christianity to be about?
Another danger in hero-worship is that it breeds elitism. This plainly runs against our creeds, in which we say We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church(1). What we mean by catholic is all-embracing. In other words our church embraces the ordinary people with the extraordinary, so it should celebrate and welcome the ordinary person together with the extraordinary.
This all sounds quite mystical, theological, religious and philosophical, so I’ll explain it in the way that the Bible explains it’s theology – through story. In this case, it’s the story of the Samaritan Woman.
The story of the Samaritan Woman
Several weeks ago, I started off looking at context and history, which I found absolutely fascinating. From this I developed a “work in progress” hermeneutic for reading John’s Gospel. Both of these lines of inquiry have brought much detail to light, and they have challenged my preconceptions of this story.
• The Samaritan Woman is a simple rustic, who can’t see beyond the drudgery of her chores.
• She brings up the subject of the Temple to deflect the conversation away from the issue of her men.
• She is stunned into believing by Jesus’ miraculous knowledge of her circumstances.
However, if we apply these misconceptions to the encounter, what we get is;
• Neither Jesus nor the woman, actually engage in each other’s concerns; the conversation is disjointed and they talk over each other’s heads.
• Her strategy for deflecting Jesus actually pays out
• Bad evangelism, which attempts to stun people into believing
Rebooting the way we read John’s Gospel
We need a reboot in the way that we read John’s Gospel. I believe that what we need to do is;
• Start with the presumption that everything that John writes is deliberate and carefully considered; everything is there for a reason.
• So, pay attention to the details, especially the incidental details
• Because all this apparent detail points to, or illustrates, an underlying truth.
• The ultimate underlying truth is Jesus Christ himself – the Divine Logos from whom all things come into being, or become visible – see the prologue to John’s Gospel in John 1:1-18
The challenge in reading John’s Gospel, then, is to try to understand the meaning behind what John shows us. John sees various incidental details but he writes them down because they point to an underlying truth that he wants us to understand. Here are some examples;
• Jacob's well was there...(John 4:6) Jacob’s Well is both a thing and a metaphor. The Samaritans based their religion on the Books of Moses. Metaphorically, they drew their religion from Jacob’s well, from which they watered their sons and flocks (4:12). They thought the Jews were apostates, so when the woman states that Jesus has nothing to draw from the well (4:11), she is criticizing his Jewish religion as being too shallow. The problem, of which they were both well aware, was that her well no longer yielded living water.(2)
• It was about noon...(John 4:6) The woman was drawing her water at the wrong time of day. Most likely, she is avoiding the other women in her community. She was shunned, a social outcast. The reason her neighbors shunned her was her faithless relationships with the men in her life.
• I have no husband...(John 4:17) The statement sums up the woman’s existence, but it also points to the legendary faithlessness of the Samaritan nation. The Samaritans had flirted with one God after another, and what they were left with was a loose, unreliable relationship that was nothing like the covenantal life-long bond of a marriage that God binds himself to his people with
• …this mountain...(John 4:20) The mountain in question is undoubtedly Mount Gerizim, on which the Samaritans had built a Temple to rival the one in Jerusalem. The Jews, under John Hyrcanus, one of the Maccabbeean Kings of Judah, had razed it to the ground in 128 BC. The Samaritans and Jews found good reason in their shared history to hate each other.
• …you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem(John 4:20) She is expecting Jesus to try to convert her to Judaism, which would give her access to the Jerusalem Temple, and hence to God. This is the big agenda item of the day. She can’t get into the temple in Jerusalem because, to put it bluntly, she is the wrong sort of person. She is beyond God’s reach (or so the Jews implied). She implies that she is not interested in going to his party.
• …Christ is coming…(John 4:25) She, like all the Samaritans, is looking forward to someone who will resolve the issues and problems that have precipitated from her religion. In response, Jesus states, “I am” (4:26). The end-goal of her religion, and that of the Jewish religion is not a Temple, but God Himself, and here he was, presenting Himself to her in the person of Jesus Christ.
• …leaving her water jar…(John 4:28) She leaves the symbol of her empty life at the feet of Jesus and goes into the community that shunned her. Having been pointed in the direction of Jesus by the woman, her neighbors embrace Jesus for themselves.
The fruit of the reboot
So, what do we get from this reboot?
• The Samaritan woman is not ignorant of her circumstances, but is acutely aware of her situation, and the situation of her community. She uses the banality of her workaday life to explain and illustrate the situation. She and Jesus engage directly in each other’s concerns. Perhaps this is the first time that anyone has actually done this to her; the first time that someone has openly acknowledged her actual circumstances and taken her seriously. However, though she accurately sums up the situation, she cannot see a way out and she has no way of releasing herself from her bondage
• Turning the conversation to the Temple is not a successful attempt to deflect Jesus (3). This issue is at the heart of the conflict between Jew and Samaritan, and it is the root cause of the problems in her life. Jesus’ response is well worth pondering – he does not attempt to recruit her from one Temple to another, but rather he holds himself up as the end-goal of all the Temples in the world. Effectively, he says to her All you are looking for in a temple is truly found in me (4)
• Good evangelism. The woman’s conversion is aided by Jesus’ miraculous knowledge of her feckless men, but it is underpinned by her conscious understanding of Jesus. Basically, she trusted him because he knew everything about her, and he didn’t abuse the privilege. (Jesus does not sermonize on her questionable morality, probably because she already knew her sins). The New Testament (and Old) is full of evangelism that’s based on argument and reason, not emotional ambush, and it fully engages with the concerns that ordinary people actually have. I’m not saying that we need to be dry, heartless automatons with no emotional sense of value or worth; rather, I think we need to steer clear of the kind of emotional manipulation that has no reference to reason or truth.
An ordinary story…
The Samaritan Woman is very ordinary. The paradox of this story is that the most ordinary, least important outcast from the community becomes its first apostle. Her faith in Christ spreads to her neighbors, and they embrace him too. Remarkably, the Samaritans of this town end up doing something they had not been doing for some time; they talk to each other. Christ brings salvation to the individual, and reconciles the community to itself.
Quite how Christ does this is a bit of a mystery, but I think there’s a big clue in his description of himself.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.(Matt 11:29). I think humility is the Christian’s greatest weapon in his or her fight against the Evil One (5), and that’s why we need to create a culture of humility in the church.
Is this what people see in our church? Do they find a place of rest here, or do they uncover a message that says, in effect, You have to work harder to jump through all these hoops, and you have to obliterate your culture and self-identity before we will let you into our temple. You must become clones of us, because we are the right sort of people, and you’re not.
… for ordinary people
The woman’s story is remarkable because she is ordinary. She does not shine as a super-hero, but we remember her. She is special because Christ came to her; he came into her dead world and brought it to life. My point is this; if Christ only concerned himself with super-heroes, what hope is there for the rest of us?
If you think I’m stretching it consider what James has to say;
Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower.(James 1:9-10).
If you find yourself in ordinary circumstances, thank God for putting you there. Your mission is to transform those circumstances by bringing Christ into them. He is the Lord of all creation; the humdrum and the ordinary, not just the spectacular.
Don’t try and get God’s attention by trying to be a super-hero. Christ comes to you in the circumstances that you find yourself, whether you think you deserve it or not. It is his presence that transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary, and he will change both you and your circumstances. This is what the Gospel of Grace is all about, and that is why I believe it.
Occasionally, we come across Christian super-heroes and high achievers, and we thank God for them. They are beautiful, and they stand out, like the wild flower that you might chance upon on your travels. But, they will go the way of the rest of us.
If you are ordinary, thank God. He sent His Son for you as much as for the high-achieving super-heroes. He is the God of the ordinary, as well as the extraordinary, and you are the living proof.
That is why, in being ordinary, you are important.
(1) See the Nicene Creed
(2) Incidentally, neither did the “well” of the Jews, as Jesus’ previous encounter, with the Jewish Nicodemus, demonstrates, though the problem and its solution are described using different metaphors.
(3) The Jesus of the Gospels is never deflected from his mission. See Jesus' determination in Luke 9:51; the Greek emphasizes his resolve on the matter and, of course, he succeeds.
(4) See Revelation 21:22
(5) Because, to put it as simply as possible, he is the antithesis of humble