This week we’re looking at the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, and what we can learn from him about raising people’s interest in his life-giving message. (You probably want to start with Monday’s short post to get the framework.)
Today, we see how Jesus models witness that crosses social boundaries.
1. Witness that crosses social boundaries
You see, Jesus shouldn’t have been doing what he was doing. Not according to the social conventions of the day, anyway. He was crossing three uncrossable boundaries.
Firstly – Jesus was a Jew, and she was a Samaritan. And as John conveniently reminds us in verse 9, Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans.Why? A quick history of the Samaritans. Back in 722BC, the northern tribes (essentially, everyone but Judah) was conquered and deported to various parts of the Assyrian empire. The land was resettled by migration from other peoples who had been conquered by the Assyrians – along with some of the northern Israelites who had been left behind – and they became known as Samaritans (as the chief city was Samaria). So they were viewed negatively by the more “pure bred” Israelites (Judeans) in the south.They thought the Samaritans had sold out in terms of religion – they intermarried with foreigners and set up their own way of worshipping God. The Samaritans’ only had (their own version of) the first five books of the Old Testament as their Scriptures; they looked for “a prophet like Moses” to come and restore things (Deut 18:18), and set up their own temple on Mount Gerazim (Deut 27:12). These last two beliefs will be significant later in the story.The Jews felt themselves superior to the Samaritans, who did not worship Yahweh correctly, and took it upon themselves to fix the problem. During the second century BC, when for a brief while they had rid themselves of their own foreign oppressors, the Jews decided to attack Samaria, destroy the rival temple, and impose “proper” worship on the people. That was until 63BC when the Romans conquered them both, giving the Samaritans some independence again.
For their part, the Samaritans had outraged the Jews early in Jesus’ lifetime (around 6 or 7 AD). In a scene reminiscent of many a movie involving college fraternity pranks, they snuck into the Jerusalem temple at night during the Passover feast and scattered bones from dead bodies throughout, in order to defile it.
So basically it was a long-running ethnic feud that began as a religious disagreement and was fuelled over the years by the offensive activities of both sides. Hard to think of any modern-day equivalents, I know… But here Jesus is not only passing through Samaria – which the most devout Jews would avoid at all costs – he’s talking to one of them!
The second social convention Jesus broke was the fact that Jesus was a man, and she was a woman who wasn’t a close relative. Talking to her was nothing short of scandalous! (And we’re at a well, don’t forget – a known hotbed of courtship!) Now we have different social conventions today, but still: if you saw me having an intimate candlelit dinner with someone other than my wife – you’d be wondering what’s going on here, then?
But not only was she a woman, she wasn’t exactly a model of virginal purity. We find out later that she’s had numerous husbands in the past and isn’t married to the man she’s with at the moment*. Yet even from the beginning we know something’s up: she’s out at midday, when the usual time to draw water was in the cool of the morning. And she’s by herself: like women today can’t go to the ladies’ room unless they get a posse together, in the ancient world the women of the village would hunt for water in packs. Unless, of course, you were a social outcast – an immoral woman whose own village had shunned her; who was too ashamed to face her community. And yet this is who Jesus chooses to speak with.
A reminder, is it not, that there are no boundaries when it comes to the gospel. No racial boundaries set up by ethnic suspicion and hatred. No status boundaries that have us only associate with people as wealthy or as educated or as cool as we are. And no boundaries that stop the gospel going to the people whose lifestyles show they need it the most.
Sure, churches most naturally reach people who are from similar backgrounds and circumstances – that’s normal, that’s human nature. But if we’re following Jesus’ example, how dare we settle for that!
To think about
Think about your own church. Is the vast majority of people who attend pretty much like you, in terms of background, income, status? Do we go out of our way to seek out people who are different from you? Do we pursue them for the gospel with as much enthusiasm as someone who looks exactly like us?
* An alternative viewpoint of the woman’s status is possible if we look at a more literal reading of verses 17-18, given there was no word for “husband” other than “man” in Greek: “You are right when you say you have no man; the fact is, you have had five men, and the man you now have is not your man.”
So it could simply mean that after her fifth husband died, she now lives with a male relative who is looking after her, rather than being in an immoral relationship. However, even if this were the case, she would have been shamed as an outcast, since the rabbis disapproved of any more than two remarriages, and the misfortune to lose five husbands would call into question what she had done to deserve that, or even hint at demonic activity. Whether her behaviour deserved it or not, this situation would have made her an outcast in first century village life.