“If you knew…who it is….” [John 4.10]
A Sermon for Lent 3, 19/03/17 by Roberta Berke
We’re all familiar with electronic devices that recognise us. When we make a payment, we insert our bank card, enter our pin number and we’re recognised. Our passports contain not only a photo but also a microchip, which enables airport computers to recognise individual faces. In contrast to our sophisticated technology, in today’s gospel reading the Samaritan woman struggles to recognise who this stranger really is. Only by questioning him, and listening to his replies, does she gradually recognise who Jesus is and why he’s so important. Why doesn’t Jesus simply say, “My name is Jesus, I’ve been on a long journey and I’m thirsty.” Instead he poses a riddle, “If you knew…who it is….” Often Jesus concealed his true divine identity. Sometimes he even ordered his disciples not to reveal who he really is. How does Jesus choose to reveal his identity? How does he reveal himself to us?
Jesus had good reasons to conceal his divine identity. If he’d announced he was the Son of God, the Pharisees would have stoned him to death for blasphemy. If he’d proclaimed he was the Messiah, the Romans would have arrested him as a dangerous rebel leader. Jesus often refused to answer officials’ questions about who he really was. So it’s all the more extraordinary that Jesus reveals that he is the Messiah to a non-Jew, to a Samaritan, to a woman.
“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘give me a drink’, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” Jesus’ words are not like a celebrity’s arrogant, “do you know who I am?” Jesus is not demanding special treatment because he’s important. Notice that Jesus does not reveal he’s the Messiah until this conversation has progressed. By not immediately revealing who he is, Jesus provokes this woman’s curiosity. Then, through her own questions, he gradually leads her to recognise his real identity. She doesn’t recognise Jesus because he’s suddenly surrounded by a blazing halo of light. Only by her questions, and by listening to Jesus’ responses, does she come to realise Jesus might be the Messiah.
This conversation starts badly. Jesus’ request does not produce a cup of water, but a stinging reply. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” She doesn’t ask him directly, “who are you?”. She thinks she knows all about him, and she labels him: “a Jew”. She only recognises this stranger as someone from a different religious group, who despise Samaritan women as unclean. [Neyrey, J.H., The Gospel of John (Cambridge: CUP 2007) p90.] Today, “Samaritan” has a positive connotation, because of the parable of the Good Samaritan. In Jesus’ day, Jews regarded the Samaritans as contemptible heretics.
In her next question the woman again emphasises the differences between them, but she also recognises that they have a shared ancestry. “Are you greater than our ancestor, Jacob?” In other words, “Why do you Jews think you’re so special? We Samaritans are also descended from Jacob.” The name Jacob has wide resonances. Jacob dreamed of a ladder with angels going between heaven and earth. Like Jacob’s dream of a mystical ladder, Jesus is the link between God and humanity. Jesus met this Samaritan woman at the same well where Jacob first met Rachel, his bride to be. Jacob’s well is at a fork in the road: one branch goes west to Samaria and Western Galilee, while the other branch goes north toward the Lake of Gennesaret. Like the two branches of this road, the Jews and Samaritans had gone their separate ways.
When Jesus replies that he will give “living water”, the woman’s attitude changes. “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Now she recognises that this stranger is someone important and she addresses him respectfully as, “sir”. However, like the disciples, she makes the mistake of taking Jesus’ words literally, rather than spiritually. Notice how the power in this situation has been reversed: she is no longer the giver of water, but now she has become the one who is asking to receive water. Jesus, who asked for water, is now offering water.
Jesus’ next command is odd: “Go, call your husband and come back.” Why does Jesus say this? He knows full well that she’s living with a man to whom she’s not married, and that she’s led a rather rackety life. Jesus wants her to acknowledge the reality of her situation. She does so, but only partly, “I have no husband.” Although Jesus knows the whole truth about her life, he does not condemn her. Instead he praises her twice. “You are right…What you have said is true!” Note that when he says, “Go call your husband” he also adds, “and come back”.
When Jesus reveals that he recognises who she really is, then she begins to recognise who he really is. “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.” She understood prophecy in the limited sense of being able to see the truth behind peoples’ façades, evasions and lies. “He told me everything I have ever done.” A prophet is also someone who reveals God’s will. So once again, this woman mentions a disagreement between Jews and Samaritans. Jews worship in Jerusalem, Samaritans worship on Mount Gerizim. Where does God want to be worshiped? Jesus’ answer is that God transcends the limits of geography and any preferences of particular groups. “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.” Notice that Jesus uses the word, “Father”, to emphasise that both Jews and Samaritans are the children of one Father.
Now the woman moves toward a more profound recognition of Jesus. “I know that Messiah is coming…when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Following her confidence that the Messiah will come, at last Jesus reveals his true identity and his destiny. “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
When she recognises that Jesus might be the longed-for Messiah, this woman is so astonished, amazed and excited that she forgets her water jar and she runs back to her city to urge everyone to come and see Jesus. She leaves her literal task of collecting water, and takes up a new spiritual task. She carries the life-giving news of the Messiah. She encourages her people, “Come and see…He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” This news seems almost too good to true. She is not so much expressing doubt, but inviting others to share her belief. At first the people from her city were drawn to meet Jesus because of the woman’s testimony. After they’d asked questions and listened to Jesus, they grew to believe for themselves. “We have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.”
To the Samaritan woman, her daily trek to the well to haul water was an endless chore. I don’t know about you, but I do have to admit that by this stage, Lent seems to me to be rather an endless chore. We’re 19 days in, with 27 more days to go. In order to have a more meaningful Lent, perhaps we should imagine that we’re like the woman at the well who encounters Jesus for the very first time. For a moment, let’s forget everything we think we know about Jesus. Let’s forget the beard and sandals stereotype. Let’s encounter Jesus at if he were a total stranger. Let’s allow ourselves to surprised and puzzled by this stranger. We might even be suspicious of him. How do we address Jesus? Sir? Master? Lord? Saviour? Friend? This stranger knows everything about us, he knows all our deepest secrets. Jesus shows us who we really are. Yet despite all our mistakes and our messy lives, Jesus shows us who he really is by loving us and forgiving us.
Do we dare to ask him questions? Often his words puzzle us. We struggle to understand the profound mysteries of his death and his resurrection. Yet in a moment we’ll receive Holy Communion. Now we can recognise Jesus in his simple act. He breaks the bread. He gives himself to us. Amen.
Copyright © 2017 by Roberta Berke. All rights reserved.