The First Evangelist

March 23rd, 2014

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn

John 4:5-42

That is a long Gospel and there is a lot going on in it.  (I’m impressed by Hal’s ability to hold that 16 pound Bible for so long).  Today I’d like to spend some time going through it.  There are two particular reasons. First, just historically, as a matter of fact, the Samaritan woman was the first Christian Evangelist.  She was the first person who went out of her way, by her own initiative, to tell how Jesus changed her life.  The second reason I want to work through this story is that the Samaritan woman’s experience may, and often does, reflect our own experience and journey with Jesus.

The story begins with a sense that Jesus is in a hurry.  The clue comes from the fact that he is by himself at a well in Samaria.  Samaria is the land between Galilee to the north and Judaea to the south.  In the ancient days it was the kingdom of Israel, until it was conquered by Assyria in 750 BC.  The Samaritans were to the Hebrews as the Hatfield’s were to the McCoy’s.  At best they ignored each other, at worst they robbed, beat and killed one another.  The most often used route from Judaea to Galilee was down from Jerusalem to Jericho and then up the east bank of the Jordan river to the sea of Galilee.  But that was a much longer route than going through Samaria.

Jesus must have been in a hurry.  Furthermore, he sent his disciples into Sychar to get some food without him.  He sent all of them, which seems the best way to maximize the speed of gathering supplies.  And he didn’t accompany them, probably to avoid the curiosity a travelling Holy Man can attract.  So he stayed by the well, not worried, it seems about being jumped, mugged or hassled.  I guess there is certain self-confidence in being the Son of God.  Or, just as likely, it was a super hot day, and everyone was inside having a siesta (or the Jewish equivalent).

Then along comes the woman to the well.  There are three things to notice here to help us understand what is going on: first that Jesus is even talking to her.  As a Rabbi, in the Jewish tradition, the protocol would insist that he act as if she isn’t even there.  He should completely ignore her to avoid any association with impurity, gossip or potential immoral activity.  But Jesus talks to her anyway.  Second, she is a Samaritan and he is a Jew; repeat the point about the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s.  Jesus talks to her anyway.  And third, she is a woman of ill repute.  Now this conclusion comes by way of a little 1st century anthropological examination.  The clue is that the woman is collecting water at noon.  Women of that era collected water in the morning and in the evening, but not at midday.  It was too hot, and it wasn’t the custom.  So this woman’s presence at noon indicates that she is outside the village’s standard way of doing things.  All of this Jesus knows at a glance, and yet he talks to her anyway.

He asks for a drink. The woman immediately responds by saying: “You broke a Jewish law by talking to me.”  Her words are defensive.   There she was, alone at the well, unprotected.  This strange man might guess that she has been a victim before, and her experience tells her that this increases the likelihood of her being a victim again.  So she throws up a barricade, citing Hebrew law to thwart any ill intentions from this wandering Rabbi.  But Jesus continues, not vexed by her anxiety, saying:  “if you knew the gift of God and who it was asking for water, you’d ask me for a drink of living water.”  Jesus may have been in a hurry, but one thing this story tells us, is that Jesus is always interested, and Jesus always has time.

The woman is intrigued.  She engages him.  “Where do I get this living water?”  Her curiosity is practical.  Living water was the way people described fresh springs.   Living water was thought to be healthier and better for the constitution, and if she knew where to get this living water, it may give her some practical advantage, which would be a welcome change.  That is sometimes why people turn to Jesus, for some practical, personal advantage.  And that is as good a reason as any.

But Jesus takes her deeper.  Jesus begins to speak of living water from a kingdom of God perspective.  He moves from the health of spring water, to the eternity of living water.  He takes her from the practical to the spiritual, from embodied experience to disembodied experience; from physical power to spiritual power; from water that you need to drink over and over again, to an internal spring that gushes up toward eternal life.

Now he has her attention and she asks:  “Sir, give me some of that water!”  But as soon as she does she realizes that it has a cost.  That going from stagnant water to living water has the cost of letting Jesus into all the old dusty, dark corners of our life.  And hers has more than a few dark corners and giant dust bunnies.  Five husbands!  Husbands coming and going kept the village talking and this woman in isolation.  Now this was most likely not her fault at all.  It most likely had to do with the structures of sin, as I spoke about last Sunday, that she was born into.  Nonetheless, her place as an outcast had the effect of multiplying her difficulties and travails.  And, sadly, as is too often the case, she probably took more ownership for her lot in life than she should have.  She probably internalized a lot of shame that was not hers to own in the first place.  That is what structural sin does; it turns victims against themselves.

But Jesus doesn’t let this happen.  Jesus honor’s her story without condemning it.  “What you say is true,” he responds.  With these words he touches her wounds and causes her to flinch as people do when their shame is brought to the surface.  She deflects, in a very common way; she deflects by bringing up religion.  “I was brought up to think that this mountain, here in Samaria, was God’s holy mountain.  But you Jews think God must be worshipped in Jerusalem.”  A bait and switch – let’s argue about religion, to avoid a deep and meaningful conversation.  And then, if we can’t come to a conclusion, maybe we can agree that since we both can’t be right none of this religion stuff is true at all.

This is like arguing over whose church is better, or whose denomination is better, or even whose religion is better; and in the end saying “It’s all bunk,” only to miss the point.  N.T. Wright, retired Bishop of Durham England writes:  “God’s claim is on every human life – and God offers a new kind of life to all who give up their stagnant water and come to him for the living water – this offer is absolute, and can’t be avoided with conversations about church, denomination or religion.” (para. John for Everyone, p. 45)

Jesus came to inform the world that holy mountains don’t matter anymore.  This wasn’t a new insight.  N.T. Wright continues:  “Solomon said as much when he built the Temple in Jerusalem 1000 years earlier.  He was quite clear that heaven could not be confined by human architecture.  Holy buildings and holy mountains and holy institutions are at best signposts that point toward the kingdom of God.”  Anything less is stagnant water.  Jesus is about living water, and he doesn’t engage the Samaritan woman’s debate over where God lives.

So she tries a different religious distraction.  It is the one that argues all religions are really the same.  Her words are:  “One day the Messiah will come, and then we will see what is what.”  To which Jesus replies, “I am he!”  Now this is the moment of truth.  This is the moment of encounter, authentic, open, take it or leave it encounter with Jesus, for her and for us!  This is the moment when she and we know that Jesus knows us, and loves us anyway, and will always take the time to make sure we know how much we are loved and valued by God, even when we are in a hurry.

The Samaritan woman knows this in a flash; and this knowing gives her power where she previously had none.  She is empowered by the spiritual power of God, and this power gives her the courage to tell her true story, in spirit and in truth.

She runs to the village, calling: “come and see!”  Come and see Jesus – not a temple in Jerusalem, not doctrines of Judaism, not a cult, a practice or a mountaintop – but a person, Jesus, from whom the living water flows.  She does this by telling her story:  that Jesus knew her as she really was, and loved her anyway, and gave her living water to drink.  Come and see.  Come and see.

She runs right back into that community that judged her and isolated her and probably abused her, and boldly says, “I have a great gift for you! Come and see!”  Despite all she had been through, despite the pain of her life, she gives to those who had sinned against her the greatest gift she could give:  the story of how the living water changed her life.

And they saw this change.  They saw in her a power, a new power.  They saw a new person and they followed, because they were compelled to follow. They were swept up by this torrent of living water that flowed from her soul, and they followed when she said, “come and see!”

That is evangelism. She was the first Evangelist.  The Good News poured forth from her soul, not from religion, the church, a mountaintop, dogma or doctrine, a preacher, a priest, a program, or a committee; but from the testimony that comes from one who risked letting her life be changed by the living water of Jesus.