Good Samaritan Day
John 4: 5-41
Robert Kelly is a highly respected author and associate professor of international relations who is fluent in seven languages and is regarded as an expert in South Korean politics. He is also a father of two children – four year old Marion and nine-month old James and it’s in this context that you might have come across him over the past week in what was an absolutely golden moment of television –
Isn’t that just perfect?! The joy of Marion’s strut, then James comes bouncing in and finally, the panic of the nanny as she rushes in, swoops up the children, exits and surreptitiously closes that door! Except – of course – that wasn’t the nanny but their mother and Robert’s wife Kim Jung-A. The clip, then, is a hilarious family blooper video but, in the widespread assumption that the Korean woman looking after the children, was the nanny, not the wife – it also reveals the everyday and often inaccurate or unfair judgments that we can make.
Sadly, of course, Kim Jung-A is no one-off. History is littered with examples of nameless women who have unfair assumptions projected on to them because of their appearance, gender or interpreted actions. Step forward the Samaritan woman at the well – or, as Calvinist Baptist preacher John Piper knows her;
“[The] worldly, sensually-minded, unspiritual harlot from Samaria – the whore.”
All around the world today, many preachers – most of them male – will be expounding Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman as the story of a sinner saved; the tale of an unclean woman being washed clean by the living waters of Christ. They will point to her multiple marriages and her present condition of living in sin to support their view; they might explain how she had to collect water on her own at noon because the other women didn’t want her with them at the usual morning water collection; they might even suggest that she was hanging around the well at midday in the hope of picking up customers, that – as Piper declares – she is a prostitute and thus her gender, appearance and actions are used as evidence to conclude that she is a woman of ill repute.
Perhaps, of course, she was. Perhaps this poor, uneducated woman had suffered greatly and had no power and little choice in the brutal, patriarchal society of first century Palestine, that to survive she had to dehumanize herself and sell her body. And if that was the case – as it scandalously still is for thousands of women around the world today – then the shame isn’t to be cast on to the woman – herself a victim of inequality and injustice – but on the powers and systems which enable such sexual violence to exist.
But more than this, it is possible to read the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman without casting aspersions on the woman’s character or profession. Firstly, having five marriages does not make her a sinner. It’s perfectly possible that she had been widowed five times. Due to famine, disease and warfare, life expectancy wasn’t long in first century Palestine and outliving five husbands would have been unusual but by no means unique. And when widowed, a woman would become a beggar, a prostitute, or another man’s wife – and so perhaps our Samaritan woman had walked down the more favourable path.
What of her fetching water at the sixth hour – some might say – doesn’t that make her look a little sketchy? No one went collecting water in the heat of the midday sun so she must have been an outcast, morally questionable woman, right? Well, there’s a lot of conjecture in that reading, not to mention the debate over whether the sixth hour actually meant noon or not.
Okay then Phil, what about the woman’s sin in living with a man who isn’t her husband? Can’t we at least assign that sin to her? Well, perhaps. But we must remember once again that the woman had little control over her marital status whilst some scholars have pointed out that she could be in a Levirate marriage where a childless woman is married to her deceased husband’s brother in order to produce an heir but was not always publicly considered to be the brother’s wife. And it’s only right to point out that the text itself says nothing of any sin she has committed, neither does Jesus forgive her or tell her to sin no more.
Perhaps you think we’re getting distracted by detail here. And perhaps the Samaritan woman really was an outcast woman with a scandalous reputation. But less than a fortnight after International Women’s Day and a week after our Intercultural Celebration weekend, I think it’s only right for us to try to avoid the temptation to prejudge and denounce this nameless woman for to do so would be ignorant, unfair and counter to the very nature of Jesus’ attitude towards her. For whatever this woman’s history, whatever her status, religion or reputation Jesus treats her with compassion, not condemnation.
From his opening line to her – which can sound a little harsh to our ears but was the first century equivalent of an invitation to dialogue – to his revelation that he is the Messiah and more – Jesus gives the woman time, generosity, honesty and love. Might we do the same with the strangers we meet? Might we meet them with generosity and love; might we be as Christ to them?
But let’s not fall into the trap of giving all the significance and praise to the man in the story – albeit the divine-man – let us also see the Samaritan woman as a model to inspire us for she is thoughtful and clever and questioning. We know, all too well that Jesus could be a little…shall we say…enigmatic, challenging even when it came to his teaching. Often, when one came to him with a seemingly straightforward request – to whom should I pay taxes, should my brother share the inheritance, is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife – Jesus would often be found responding to a question with a question, asking over 300 of his own along the way so it’s unusual, refreshing perhaps to see someone respond to Jesus with a question or two of their own.
‘Give me a drink’. Jesus opens.
‘Should you – a Jewish man – really be talking to me, a Samaritan woman?’ She responds and so the longest single dialogue in all four gospels begins.
“If you knew the generosity of God,” Jesus says, “and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water.”
“But the well is deep,” the woman notes, “and you’ve got nothing to draw the water with so how are you going to get this living water? And what’s more, are you saying that you’re greater than Jacob, who gave us this well?”
And so she continues, asking Jesus questions both practical and spiritual until he finally reveals that he is the Messiah she has been waiting for, the saviour who gives living water to those who thirst. The woman’s spiritual curiosity, her theological wrestling and honest questioning of someone that her society would say she shouldn’t speak to let alone question, leads to this breathtaking revelation. She could have shrugged the stranger’s initial request away. She could have avoided asking questions for fear of looking rude or stupid. But instead she listens and learns, she queries and questions until the world-shaking truth is given. No wonder the Eastern Orthodox Church have named the woman Photine – the enlightened one!
And her questions and theological gymnastics don’t end at the well but continue when back in her village as she tells everyone of her experience, freely wonders about the messiah and invites others to come and see for themselves. If ever there was a model for the questioning disciple – if ever there was an encouragement for us to be honest about our questions, to be theologically curious, open, brave – it was not to be found amongst the Temple leaders, the politically powerful or the religious zealots but is witnessed here in the woman from Samaria – nameless to society, precious to God.
And all of this began with the simple request for a drink. This encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman invites us to be compassionate, questioning, and invitational. Throughout the passage, from Jesus’ first request to his being asked to stay longer, there is repeated emphasis on invitation. Shall we drink and chat together? Will you share with me your story? Will you share with me this living water? Come and see; stay and talk…time and time again, Jesus invites or is invited by others to spend time, to eat and drink, talk and listen. Later this morning, we’re once again invited to eat Christ’s bread and share Christ’s cup. We’re invited to bring our questions and stories – our hopes and dreams, our worries and burdens, to Christ’s table as we listen to his story too. The story of love and death and resurrection. The story of compassion and invitation and wild hope.
And I wonder, perhaps, whether this week we might share such an invitation too. Don’t panic – I’m not going to challenge us to hand out tracts, stand on street corners or knock on doors but…well, I wonder whether this week we might learn from the examples of our sisters and brothers in Mexico.
You see, this Friday, in Oaxaca, Mexico, it’s Dia de la Samaritana or Good Samaritan’s Day. This isn’t, as one might think, a day focused on the story we know as the Good Samaritan but one that focuses on another good person from Samaria – a woman who shared a drink and a life-changing conversation with Jesus.
So to remember and commemorate this meeting, on Friday, free drinks will be handed out to all who are thirsty on Oaxaca’s High Street. And I wonder whether we might do something similar. I wonder whether this Friday – or any day this week for that matter – we too might offer a drink to someone; whether we might make a cuppa, buy a fruit juice or share a beer with someone we meet – be they an old friend or stranger. You don’t have to say why you’re doing it, though you could. Either way, could you, this week, think of Jesus and his encounter with the much-maligned yet inspirational, invitational Samaritan woman? Could you offer simply offer someone a drink? Who knows, maybe it will lead to a great conversation. Maybe you’ll simply cause someone to smile. Maybe you’ll meet with Christ. Amen.