Wednesday, November 19, 2008

John 4:16-26

16 He told her, "Go, call your husband and come back."

17 "I have no husband," she replied.

Jesus said to her, "You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true."

19 "Sir," the woman said, "I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem."

21 "Woman," Jesus replied, "believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth."

25 The woman said, "I know that Messiah" (called Christ) "is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us."

26 Then Jesus declared, "I, the one speaking to you—I am he."

Dig Deeper

Many years back I spent a couple of summers directing a teen camp for a local branch of the YMCA. On one particularly hot day we took all of the campers to a nature preserve to go on a hike. The hike was going to be several hours long and through some fairly difficult terrain, at least it was difficult for this area. Normally I came quite prepared for whatever we were going to do that day, but this was a Monday after a particularly busy weekend. I had my lunch prepared as normal but I hadn't thought about my water bottle. I hurried off to the YMCA and got in the van with the kids, ready to take off. Once we got there and got ready to leave, I realized that the only water bottle that I had with me was one that had sat open in the hot van all weekend. It wasn't much, but it was all I had so I grabbed it. There was no water where we began the hike, but there was a water pump, according to the map, several miles in. All I could really think about as we progressed on our hike was getting to that water because the water I had was stagnant, warm, and it tasted funny (and drinking out of the kid's bottles wasn't much of an option in my mind either). It really didn't refresh anything, but like I said, it was all I had. Once we finally got to the water pump, I realized that in order to fill my bottle up with the new, clean, cold water, I had to dump out the old water. Once I saw that cold water, though, it really wasn't any sort of a difficult choice at all.

Human beings can be like the stagnant, bad-tasting water in that water bottle. In fact, the water inside of us can become a whole lot worse than the water in that water bottle. That's certainly the case for the Samaritan woman that was confronted by Jesus at the well. Her life had become stagnant and downright repugnant, but here Jesus is offering her living water that will bubble up from inside of her from a source that will never end or run out. The reality that she is about to find out though, is that if you want that fresh, living water you have to get rid of that old water. Every bit of it has to be dumped out before you can be filled up.

John is telling us the story of the new creation that has broken into the world through the life of Jesus Christ, an event that will culminate with his death, burial, and resurrection. During his ministry, however, pieces of that new life, the new world that God was bringing about begin to break through in almost every action that Jesus takes. This account is no different. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul says, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!" That's the funny thing about the new creation, we can only enter into it in as much as the old is let go of. As we see in this scene that's not always the easiest of things to do. Throughout this conversation, in fact, the Samaritan woman will try to deflect what Jesus is saying and shut the conversation on no less than three separate occasions.

Jesus asks her to call her husband, to which she replies, I have no husband. Her answer is terse and uninformative, almost to the point of being misleading. Clearly she doesn't want to talk about her personal situation. That only makes sense with a woman who has come to the well in the middle of the day to intentionally avoid human contact. The new creation is necessarily confrontational with the old though. Jesus responds, like he did with Nathanael, giving her information that he simply should not have known, details that perhaps no one else other than her knew. Jesus' response that she has had five husbands, is open to interpretation. The word aner, can mean either" husband", or simply "man." It seems to actually fit the conversation a bit better, if Jesus is saying that she has lived with five men, and even the man she is now living with is not her husband. Either way she would have been an outcast because Jewish, and quite likely Samaritan traditions at the time, didn't permit more than three marriages for any reason. The point that Jesus was probably making, however, was that she was a serial fornicator. He confronted her with her sin and she knew he was right.

In fact, she quickly tries to shut down that line of conversation and changes the subject quickly. Prophets were thought of, at the time, as people with great insight into the nature of others, so she can see that he is a prophet. But she still changes the subject with an age-old technique. She brings up a religious argument in order to divert the conversation away from the uncomfortable. The Jews accepted the entire cannon of what we call the Old Testament and worshiped in the Temple built in Jerusalem. The Samaritans only accepted the first five books of the Old Testament (the Torah) and worshiped in a Temple that they had built on Mt. Gerizim. They had been fighting over those issues for hundreds of years. Perhaps if she can bring up a topic like that, she'll distract the prophet from directing the conversation at her. Jesus, though, doesn't take the bait. Oh, he takes up the subject of worship but not in the way that she expected. He continues to confront her with the new creation as he says that, in short, the Samaritans don't understand what they are worshiping, they don't have the full story. Salvation, the new creation, is coming through the Jews, but the clock is ticking on even the Jewish way of worship, for a time is coming and has now come when people will be able to worship God beyond the limitations of a certain place or Temple. God is spirit, Jesus says, which means that in the new creation, worship is spiritual but also emanates from knowing the complete truth. It is not connected with a certain location or bits of knowledge about God.

In the ancient pagan world, it was believed that a god could only be worshiped in the land in which he was revered. It was thought that his power was limited to that region, with other gods having the power in other regions. 2 Kings 5 tells of a story that happened in this same region of Samaria about 800 years earlier. The mighty warrior Naaman had leprosy and went to see the Jewish prophet Elisha, as nothing else had helped him. When Elisha finally did help, he had an incredible breakthrough, realizing that there was no God in all the world except in Israel. Yet, he still didn't get it all, as he asked Elisha for the earth that two donkeys could carry so that he could worship God properly when he returned to his homeland. Naaman thought that worship was strictly connected to the land on which one stood. So here in the same region, eight hundred years later, we have another instance of someone struggling with and coming to terms with the location of worshiping the one, true God.

In a sense, the Samaritan woman was locked in that old way of thinking. Jesus, however, doesn't spend too much time discussing what of that is true or not true, beyond intimating that the Samaritans certainly don't have all the information they need. His basic point is that something new is here, the new creation, which brings it all back around to her. If she wants part of this new living water, she is going to have to get rid of the old.

The beleaguered Samaritan woman is feisty, though, and will give one more shot at turning the conversation away from an uncomfortable direction. Maybe there are all of these confusing issues regarding worship, location, God's people, and on and on and on. But, she says, it doesn't really matter. She didn't have to worry about those things or try to figure them out because when the Messiah comes, he will explain everything to us. The Samaritans did believe in a Messiah, based on their reading of the Torah, but their vision of the Messiah was more of a teaching figure than the political savior that the Jews envisioned. We've all probably heard conversation enders like the ones that the Samaritan woman has used. First, she tried to give vague answers, then she tried to engage in a religious argument and take Jesus off track. When that didn't work she uses the old tried and true, "well, I guess you have your thoughts and I have mind and we'll never really know who's right until some point down the road when I'm far away from you." In saying that the Messiah will explain everything when he comes, she has basically stated the conversation is over because they were speaking of unknowable things.

She thought the conversation was over. And in fact it would have been, except for one small detail. That mysterious Messiah that she believes will come one day, is standing right in front of her. He says, the one speaking to you—I am he. Despite what some modern commentators claim, Jesus knew that he was the Messiah, but it was risky to proclaim that in the presence of the Jews with all of their political and kingly expectations. The role had to be redefined before they could grasp it properly. In the presence of this woman, though, there was no such danger. In fact, Jesus not only proclaims his Messiaship, but also seems to be claiming more than that as he literally says, "I that speak to you, I am," using the term (I am) that was connected with God's personal name (YHWH) in the Old Testament. The new creation has come, and for yet another person, it is far more than she had bargained for.

Devotional Thought

She didn't know it, but this Samaritan woman was being confronted about her life by God, the very being she desired to worship. Yet, she was quite hesitant to actually have the conversation turn to the truth of her own life. She wanted the worship without too much of the truth. We can do the same thing. When confronts things in your life, whether it's through prayer or through the discerning eye of another Christian, do you try to turn the topic of conversation or focus or do you humbly listen and learn? How can you be like the woman in this passage? What could you gain by truly confronting the areas in your character that need more light shed on them?

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