Second Sunday of Lent, Year A (19 March 2017)
St Paul’s Anglican Church, Byron Bay
It is not often we can identify the actual location of a Gospel episode, but today’s Gospel reading may be one of those rare times.
Jesus’ conversation with a Samaritan woman in John 4 takes place at Jacob’s Well, the ancient water source for a series of Canaanite and Israelite villages now preserved under the archaeological site of Balata.
The well still exists and has been venerated in a series of Christian churches, built one on top of the other. These days the web is located in a crypt below a large Orthodox Church build only in the last few decades.
The well itself is very ancient, although the structures have been rebuilt and repaired after different phases of destruction over the years. As mentioned, the well is integrated with the nearby archaeological site of Balata, and that gives us increased confidence in the historicity of the well’s location.
In today’s Gospel, the focus is not so much the antiquity of the well as the conversation between Jesus and the anonymous local woman that he meets at the well.
In the biblical tradition, significant encounters often take place at wells. So anyone listening to this story in the ancient world will know immediately that they should expect something special to happen here.
Let’s engage with the story and see what wisdom we may be able to draw from the ancient well of Scripture this morning.
ENGAGING WITH THE TEXT
Where is this story happening?
The story is set in Samaria, a region with a troubled relationship with Jerusalem after centuries of deep religious rivalry between these two factions in the biblical community. The Jewish Jesus in Samaria is rather like a Catholic priest in Ulster.
The location is quite specific, as already mentioned. At the ancient well outside the village of Sychar.
The well is a short distance outside the village, and the women will have come early in the day or late in the afternoon to draw water for their families.
It is around noon.
Only an outsider will come to draw water at that hour.
Who is in this story?
The lead character, of course, is Jesus. He is exhausted by his travels, but that is not the point of the story. Like many a male hero from the biblical narratives, he stops at the well and rests from his journey.
The disciples play a minor role in this story, as Jesus has sent them away to the nearby village looking for supplies. By the time they return, the action is over.
Then there is a woman with a complex personal history. She is a seeker, although not exactly a puritan. She has had a colourful history, but comes across as a feisty woman. This anonymous Samaritan woman is the central figure in our story.
As an aside, let me mention that the later tradition could not leave this amazing woman nameless. She had seen the light, so to speak. She was given the name Photine (or sometimes Photina), which means “the luminous one”, as it is derived from the Greek word for ‘light’, φως (phos).
What is happening in this story?
At the heart of this story we see Jesus crossing boundaries:
- The ethnic/nationalist hostility between Jews and Samaritans.
- The gender divide between male and female in the Jewish world.
- The additional gap between a holy man and a woman with a colourful sexual history.
This story is about scandal, but we have so domesticated it that it now mostly functions as a pale echo of the original dramatic story. The disciples were rightly shocked to find Jesus speaking to such a woman when they returned from the village. We have been taught to think they were lacking in spiritual perception, but perhaps we are the ones who have not been able to see what is happening here.
So let’s now stand back from the story and think about what is happening!
None of this was in the mission plan for Jesus and his disciples as they made their way to Jerusalem. This was not how they usually did things in the Jesus group. Jesus was going off script. His handlers were getting anxious.
- Do we think we are Jesus’ handlers?
- Do we have a monopoly on the Jesus franchise in this place?
- Do we have the only well from which people can draw the living water?
Where are the places in the Bay where we may encounter people who will never be found inside these walls?
- Are we willing to go off script?
- Can we look beyond lifestyle to see the person?
- Can we discern the fragment of the God story in their lives?
- Can we call them on to the better rather than berate them for the past?
- Can we be a safe place for people to explore the future into which God is calling them?