She also reminded us that the Pharisees understood interpretation of scripture as an ongoing process of revelation, which is likely why Nicodemus would have sought Jesus out. He was curious about Jesus’ understanding of scripture. Given the tensions that existed between Jesus and some of the Pharisees regarding how the law should be applied, Nicodemus chose to approach him under the cover of night.
In their conversation, Jesus made a profound claim about the meaning of his life and ministry in scripture’s most well known verse - John 3:16: “‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’”
In her sermon, Molly reflected, “This verse…has sometimes been interpreted from an exclusive rather than inclusive perspective. Rather than emphasizing God’s love for the world… and God’s act to lead the world into abundant and eternal life, some focus on belief in Jesus as an absolute prerequisite for salvation, as if the text said ‘God gave his Son so that ONLY those who believe in him may have eternal life.’”
I believe our tradition interprets this verse from an inclusive perspective. That Jesus is telling Nicodemus the meaning of his life and ministry is to lead the entire world into abundant and eternal life. What we would call God’s dream, that we try to embody every week in the Eucharist, when here at James and Andrew, we proclaim: This is God’s table, and all are welcome here; no exceptions.
All of this is important background information as we turn to today’s gospel lesson. Here Jesus transitions from proclaiming with his words that he has come for the entire world, to embodying that message in his actions.
Jesus and his disciples had left Judea and were traveling towards Galilee. This was typically a six day journey, as Jewish travelers would add a three day detour in order to avoid the region of Samaria. That was how contentious things were between the Jewish and Samaritan communities. These tensions had existed for centuries, in spite of the fact that the Jewish and Samaritan communities shared so much in common. They shared the Torah; they shared a common history; and they even shared much of the same bloodlines.*
Yet when the Assyrians invaded the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 720 BCE, most of the Israelites were carried off to a distant land as slaves, never to see their home again.* While some were left behind, marrying people from other cultures and beliefs systems; eventually becoming known as Samaritans. You can imagine the resentment that might bubble up between a community torn apart, each going through their own intense challenges.
Yet John’s gospel tells us that Jesus “...had to go through Samaria.” (4:4) There was no pressing appointment that caused him to take this shortcut, and culturally, it wouldn’t have made sense for him to go through Samaria. Unless, there was a theological reason.** Which we know there was from Jesus’ exchange with Nicodemus. “‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’” The reason Jesus had to go through Samaria, was to embody this message.
When Jesus and his disciples arrived outside a Samaritan city, Jesus took rest by a well, while the disciples went in search of food. In the heat of midday, a woman came to the well by herself, long after the other women had come and gone. Due to her complicated history with marriage, she was considered an outcast by her own community. As she drew water, she would have ignored Jesus, and expected him to do the same.
Yet an astonishing thing happens. Jesus begins a conversation with her. It is Jesus’ longest recorded conversation in scripture.* With each exchange, their relationship deepens.
It begins when he breaks social norms, and instructs her to give him water.
She is taken aback by his directness, and asks:
“How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?”***
In response, he provokes her curiosity:
“If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water.”***
Yet this quick witted woman pushes back:
“Sir, you don’t even have a bucket to draw with, and this well is deep. So how are you going to get this ‘living water’? ***
He assures her anyone who drinks the living water will never thirst, and with sarcasm, she responds, give me some of that water so I never have to come back here!
He tells her, go and get your husband; she acknowledges, she has no husband. They are circling in on a truth, and they both know it.
He then mentions her five husbands, and the man she lives with now. Not to shame her, the way we often hear this story interpreted, but to convey Jesus is a prophet, someone with God-given insight.
He knows her, as God knows her.
Feeling uncomfortably seen, she pushes back.
If you're such a prophet, surely you have some answers about the differences between my community’s beliefs and yours.
To which Jesus tells her, none of that matters; and she concedes, when the Messiah comes, he’ll explain things.
Then he tells her, I am he - the Messiah.
This is the first time in John’s gospel that Jesus identifies as I am, as God incarnate.
The woman abandons her bucket, and races back to the city, saying to people: “Come see a man who knew all about the things I did, who knows me inside and out. Do you think this could be the Messiah?”***
The people left the city to go and find out for themselves.
Theologian Karoline Lewis speaks of how this passage embodies Jesus’ words to Nicodemus. These words were meant to remind the disciples, Samaritans, and each of us that God’s blessing was, and is, meant for the whole world.** She emphasizes how this passage is about the belonging that we find in the relationship we nurture with God and Jesus. A relationship that is offered to each and every person in this world. Not just those who choose it. She goes on to say, something that I think we would be wise to hold onto as we make our ways towards Holy Week.
“Salvation is not located in the event of the cross, but in the larger reality of God’s’ invitation to relationship through Jesus.”
Jesus told Nicodemus - I am here to bring God’s blessing to the whole world. He embodies that in his exchange with the Samaritan woman. She then passes on that blessing of God’s love with her community, even though they do not act in love or kindness towards her.
If God’s blessing is meant for the whole world, that means it is meant for those who have hurt us, those who get under our skin, those we cannot seem to understand. We live in a time of increasing division. A division that is devastating, maddening, and deeply terrifying. What if today’s passage is an invitation for us to join Jesus in the work of reconciliation? Reconciliation is what Jesus modeled for the disciples and the Samaritan community in today’s story, and it is something profoundly needed in our world.
The Catechism within The Book of Common Prayer, asks the question:
What is the ministry of the laity?
The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ's work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.
Like the Samaritan woman, we are each called to bear witness to Christ in our context - our families, our work, our social network, according to the unique gifts we have been blessed with, in order to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world. We know the vision of God’s dream, and we each have an opportunity to help bring about that dream in our small little corner of God’s world. Part of communicating that vision of God’s dream, is striving to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world. An impossible task if we try to do it on our own, but completely plausible when we remember we are in this together as a universal body of Christ.
As we make our way towards Holy Week, I would invite us each to do some reflecting:
* Lindsay Hardin Freeman, Bible Women: All their words and why they matter, pg 419.
** This idea was unpacked and explored in great detail by Karoline Lewis in the WorkingPreacher podcast for 3 Lent.
*** The Message John 4
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