John 4: 5-21; 39-42
Around 1986, after I was Pastor here for about a year, I learned tha two women in the church regularly made trips to Cassadaga. Have you heard of Cassadaga? There is such a cluster of psychics and mediums, using either tarot cards, or a crystal ball, or holding seances, that Wikipedia now calls it “The Psychic Capital of the World!” Some of you may be thinking, “Make a note to ask the Pastor where that is; I’d like to try that!” So these good Christian women in 1986, card-carrying Presbyterians, would head west from here about 20 miles to that little community and have their palms read, to ask psychics questions about their lives, or to talk with their dead mother. One, a widow, even go to ask if there was a new special fella in her future!. In my mind I wondered how people could possibly put all their trust in God while also making life choices by paying a psychic? What I suspect is that they went to God for some things and to psychics for other things. Unless it is just for recreation, such activities can cast serious doubt on the abilities of a Savior we have never seen in the flesh to be the answers to our prayers. It could make people doubt the ability of Jesus to truly be our life’s guide. But today in the book of John, that same Jesus had the most personal and sensitive insights into a woman of Samaria, so much so that it astounded her, and it astounds readers to this day. He knew all about her past marriages! Let’s explore this side of our wonderful Savior.
A little background. Jesus was quite a daredevil in his day. Not like a high wire act; it’s just that he questioned norms; he crossed boundaries, and he worked to help and love outsiders with a certain defiance toward established rule keepers. As I said last week, if anyone knew the inside stories of Jesus, it was his close friend John. Only in John’s Gospel did he tell us about this astounding encounter. Think of all the pejorative words you would say about some other group of people if that is possible; group that perhaps you detest for some reason? Whatever you are thinking, that could be what Jews thought of Samaritan: Dirty, unclean, untouchables, lower-class, wretches. What did Jesus do with that? Well you know one thing he did with that kind of unmitigated prejudice: he made a Samaritan a hero! There was NO such thing as a good Samaritan in Jesus’ day … that is, until Jesus told about a good Samaritan in Luke chapter 10! Jesus rattled the norms of his day. And he had a direct line to his Heavenly Father to find out who needed to be blessed, and who needed to be prodded. Could it be that his Heavenly Father, the God also the Samaritans, sent his son to cross the border for this encounter at Jacob’s well? What, you might ask, did Samaritans do to make themselves so loathed by Jews? 1) They worshipped God on the “wrong” mountain. They had a Temple on Mount Gerizim that had been a holy mountain for ages. But it was David, King of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, who claimed Jerusalem was the only mount where the true worship of God could occur. As with most decisions, his decision was both political and financial. He wanted there to be no other place where Jews would travel for the Holy season of Passover; and he wanted Jerusalem to get all the money that the people brought with them. 2) Samaritans married people who were not Jews, so that made them face condemnation too. Even today, there is as much Jewish disgust with people who live near Mount Gerizim as there was then. Here is why: Gerizim is Arabic, it is not Hebrew, and the mount is located in the West Bank just south of Nablus near Shechem. That is Palestinian territory today, where both Christians and Muslims live. But to Jews, that is no man’s land even today. It is poor, it is forgotten, it is desolate, and it receives no help from Israel. They hope to cut off all commerce so they will cease to exist. That’s the way things were when Jesus crossed the line and went to the well. Our Holy Land tour had leaders who were both Palestinian and Jew, and they were a team. That allowed us to tour Nablus and to visit Jacob’s well. Jesus is always seeking the hurting and the lost.
In our text today, Samaria was a place Jesus deliberately chose to go, and he happened on (or deliberately found?) a woman at a well at the noon hour. Who goes to a well at noon in heat of the Middle East? Women were the ones to draw water in that day, and most women did it early in the day, not only because it was cooler, but because they got to visit with one another as they collected their jars. A woman drawing water at noon: 1) either ran out of water; or 2) did it as a self-imposed penance; or 3) hoped she would not meet any other women. Likely all factors came into play. Imagine her surprise when she meets a man there; she can tell he’s a Jew; and, he knows so much about her! Did she wonder if he was from Cassadaga?:
Jesus seems to know the cardinal rule for attorneys: never ask a a question of a witness if you do not already know the answer. Jesus, in that “Samaritan courtroom” by a well, even “leads the witness,” saying “Go call your husband and come back.” He knows the answer to his request. But he wants her to say it: “I have no husband.” She doesn’t say, as we might hear someone say today, “He’s just my roommate” or “He’s the man who lives with me.” But Jesus has set her up, albeit for a loving purpose. He says: “You are right saying ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” Before we jump to the conclusion that this was a loose woman, 21st century America is not 1st Century Samaria. If a wife was unfaithful, a man had the right to divorce her by simply saying before a rabbi, “I divorce, you, I divorce you, I divorce you” and they were divorced; he could even ask for her life. But if the woman, who was often younger than her husband, had a first older husband die, and a second, and even a third die, well you can see she could have had five husbands. What is striking is that the fact that she had five husbands does not seem to disturb Jesus. His point is to show his power and God’s glory. Would relationship issues be why she did not want to meet other women at the well? Perhaps there were issues in her life. Don’t we all have issues that we might not want uncovered in public? But Jesus just drills down to the facts; the truth. There is not a drop of shame directed at her. He had another agenda it seems, perhaps like the man who was possessed by demons on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, the man called the Gerasene demoniac. The people from his town originally shunned him too. He acted insane. But when Jesus healed him, Jesus told him to go back to his town and show himself to them. They asked: “Who did this for you?” they asked, and he told them “Jesus.” Likewise, the woman at the well went back into her town, feeling something for the first time or at least for a very long time: accepted and valued. Here’s how John described it: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of that woman’s testimony.” This woman at the well became one of Jesus’ evangelists; like the women who visited Jesus tomb; like the man who was possessed by demons. Many unexpected people have told others about Jesus, perhaps even you. Jesus chooses unlikely to persons to tell others about him; he chooses you, and you, and you, and he chooses me. He must be thinking- some of you run into friends at the market; or friends at work or at school; or friends online. Some of you know others who are searching, and still others know people who are sick or broken. Jesus says to us: “YOU tell them what you have seen in me and learned from me!” You tell them to come and see what kind of power I have!” Did you notice that Jesus had no credibility in the land of Samaria, and the woman was forced to draw her water at noon because of the hostility of others; and that Jesus had no credibility in the Gentile land of the Gadarenes where the demonic was forced to leave in a graveyard because of the hostility of others? Jesus needed those two persons to carry out a task, and if they did it—as they both did—they would get a reclaimed status in their own community and bring credibility to Jesus who had power and personal knowledge about them. They became evangelists; that agreement that Jesus made with those two persons changed their lives.
You don’t need to go to a psychic, or even to a therapist, to deal with any shame, or brokenness, or issues you may have. You can ask Jesus to come to you—and he will—and you can look into his piercing eyes; you can hear his authoritative voice; and you can listen to his guidance. Jesus uses people to carry out special tasks; this is why the church is called “the Body of Christ.” Today we heard about a mission called the “Self Development of People.” Doing that work is exactly what Jesus was doing in Samaria: returning dignity to human beings and giving them new purpose. That’s what Jesus was doing for the woman drawing water in the sweltering sun. And that’s what Jesus can do for you.
Let us pray:
Dear Jesus, what do you see in us that you can use? What do you see in us that you can heal? Come alongside of us, even in this time of health crisis, and give us the comfort of your presence. Hear our prayer, O Lord. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner March 15, 2020