The encounter - John 4:1-30
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In an interview given several years ago, the Hollywood actress Jessica Lange reflected on her early life in this way, she said: The main thing that I sensed back in my childhood was this inescapable yearning that I could never satisfy. Even now at times I experience an inescapable loneliness and isolation.. Oh how I remember that feeling though. Sitting on the front steps on a summer night and hearing a lawn mower in the distance and a screen door shutting somewhere. It would actually make my heart ache. And I would suspect that if we are honest many of us would identify with that feeling. You see, there is within the human psyche an intense longing for something more which cannot be satisfied purely at the human level -we ache. And the fact that the answer to this longing is not to be found in terms of either personal fulfilment or accumulated wealth, is borne out by the testimony of those who do seem to have arrived. We may think. for example, of the affluent businessman who addressed the rich , famous and powerful in San Francisco and who began his after dinner speech with these words: Im at the point in my life where I realise there has to be something more. Like many of my friends here, Ive learned a lesson I wish Id known when I had started out: having it all just isnt enough . Theres a limit to the success worth counting and the toys worth accumulating. Business school never gave me a calculus for assessing the deeper meaning of life. So whether we are a power broker on Wall Street or a beggar in Lahore, we have this emptiness within. And you know Jesus would agree. And in the account we are looking at together this morning we are given an insight as to why that emptiness is there and how it is to be filled. So do turn with me to John chapter 4 and this amazing encounter in Samaria.
The first thing we notice is what can only be called a divine appointment look at vv 1- 9. The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. When the Lord learned of this, he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour( mid day). When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, "Will you give me a drink?" (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) Now you may never have been too keen on geography at school, and the memory of learning the list of all the coal fields in Silessia leaves you cold, but biblical geography is always significant and that is certainly so here, because by the way he has related the geography John is signalling to us why in fact Jesus has come into the world. In chapter 3 Jesus has been in Jerusalem, that is where he had his encounter with the top honcho of the religious establishment, Nicodemus. Then in v3 we are told he left Judea and in verse 4 he had to go through Samaria. Well, the fact of the matter is that Jesus didnt have to go through Samaria at all. Indeed, most Jews would have taken a detour of several miles to go around Samaria rather than go through what was equivalent to Indian country. So there was a divine must about it. And there was, for this is exactly the pattern the Gospel would follow after Pentecost, as we hear the risen Jesus telling his disciples in Acts 1: 8 You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria , and to the ends of the earth. And of course this is the climax to which this story is leading in v 42 with the other Samaritans declaring We know this man really is the Saviour of the world.
And the truth that Jesus is everyones rescuer regardless of their status, background or location is underscored by the contrast deliberately being made between the person Jesus has just been speaking to in chapter 3- Nicodemus, and the person he is addressing in chapter 4, the Samaritan woman. They are literally poles apart arent they? Just think about it. Nicodemus is a man, a Jew, a religious expert, ritually pure, a member of Israels elite inner circle. This is a woman (who remains nameless- she is that insignificant in the worlds eyes), she is a Samaritan, a religious half breed, biblically illiterate, immoral and an outcast. And yet to both Jesus says they need the same fresh start by the Spirit and he is the only one who can give it. Now here is the answer to both those who feel they are too good for Christianity and those who feel they are not good enough: Jesus offers his love to both and he is willing to go to extreme lengths so they can receive it.
And we see that here, how Jesus is willing to flout the social conventions of his day to give this poor soul a chance. Here is Jesus a man, and Jew to boot, asking a Samaritan woman for a drink and so the womans interest is immediately aroused v9 You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink? Two barriers Jesus immediately breaks down. First the Jew/ Samaritan divide. For centuries these people had hated each others guts. But not this Jew. Secondly it was scandalous for a single man to address a single woman in the open. Some Rabbis had even devised a saying : A man should not salute a woman in a public place, not even his own wife. In other words, women were non-people. But not to this man. When we look at people , we see all the distinctives which immediately place a barrier between us and them-they are the wrong class, the wrong colour, having the wrong education or the wrong background, with the wrong accent, we cant possibly relate to them. But God in Jesus simply sees human beings aching with an emptiness he longs to fill. And that is what he goes on to speak about in v 10 - 18 and the desperate need : Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water." Jesus is beginning to challenge the spiritual emptiness within by speaking of the gift of living water which comes from without, literally flowing water, crystal clear and ice cold bubbling up from a spring- that is the picture Jesus is using to depict the new spiritual life he brings. And look at how the woman responds v 11: "Sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? Now this woman isnt stupid, as Nicodemus wasnt stupid. But whereas Nicodemus was being facetious with Jesus when he derisively said How can a man be born again, can he go into his mothers womb a second time?, trying to make Jesus look small, this woman I think, is being playful, maybe replying with feigned indignation: Oh, go on with you. That is big talk coming from you. Fancy teasing a poor working girl like me with promises of running water when you havent even a bucket to draw with. I suppose water from the well of Jacob is not good enough for a Jew like you. Is that it? But Jesus isnt deterred, he presses his point home, v 13 : , "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." Jesus is taking her, and us, back to some of the most wonderful promises God made in the OT through prophets like Isaiah for example- Is .44: 3 I will pour water on a thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground. I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring and my blessing on your descendants. So just as Nicodemus needed the work of the Spirit in his life, the woman needs the same work of the Spirit in her life.
Well, now she is really intrigued, v 15 , "Sir, give me this water so that I won't get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water." Now why say that? Is the woman simply lazy and wants to be spared the hassle of lugging a water pot up and down the hill every day? Is she treating Jesus like some do today, as a sort of divine salesman there to cater for our every need? Not really, there is something deep and serious lurking behind these words, and Jesus knows it that is why he goes on in v 16 to ask her to call her husband. Now what has her marital state got to do with it? Well, everything really: "I have no husband," she replied. Jesus said to her, "You are right when you say you have no husband. 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." Now we can see why she is desperate to be spared coming to this well day after day. Did it cross your mind to ask why in v6 this woman was drawing water all by herself at midday? That would have been the last point in the day you would come. Well, the answer is simple. She was a social outcast. Normally, the women of the village would come together to collect water and have a good old chin wag along the way, it was a great social occasion. They would also come at a time when it would have been cooler, earlier or later in the day-never at noon. But this woman is a social leper. No one wants to be near her, and she doesnt want to be near them for the other women would have scolded her as a shameless hussy, she would have been the object of the piercing look and the cutting remark. You see, even the Samaritans were not this promiscuous , working through five husbands and then living with a man. You can imagine the women thinking, she has already had five husbands and so who is to say that one of their husbands might not be the next on her hit list- talk about the black widow! This is a pathetic situation she is in. She is lonely and she is empty-longing for love and for ever being denied it. And every time she came to draw water from that well she was made painfully aware of that fact. And oh how she longed to escape. If Jesus could find a way whereby she could avoid this agonising social censure, then she would grasp it with both hands.
Now let us pause there for a moment. You know, sometimes as Christians in our zeal to uphold what is right, like say, the sanctity of marriage, we can sometimes be less than understanding as to some of the underlying causes for peoples behaviour, like this womans. Promiscuity is not always the result of a seeking for more and more pleasure. Here the difference between men and women may be significant. As a generalisation, yes, men may engage in such activity out of sheer lust , and no doubt some women do too. But sometimes with women there are more external pressures being brought to bear- the need to be loved ( especially having not been particularly loved at home- so teenage pregnancies), the fear of being rejected- a fear men are apt to play on to get their wicked way. And inspite of what some of the early feminists may have claimed, promiscuity for women does not spell freedom, but a new form of slavery. With his usual perceptiveness, C. S. Lewis made the point well when he wrote: A society in which conjugal infidelity is tolerated must always be in the long run a society adverse to women. Women, whatever a few male songs and satires may say to the contrary, are more naturally monogamous than men: it is a biological necessity. Where promiscuity prevails , they will therefore always be more often the victims than the culprits. Also, domestic happiness is more necessary to them than to us. And the quality by which they most easily hold a man, their beauty, decreases every year after they have come to maturity, but this does not happen to those qualities of personality- women dont really care twopence about our looks-by which we hold women. Thus in the ruthless war of promiscuity women are at a double disadvantage. They play for higher stakes and are also more likely to lose. I have no sympathy with the moralist who frown at the increasing crudity of female provocativeness. These signs of desperate competition fill me with pity. And surely that is right. Now dont start saying Melvin is going soft on morality, he isnt- wrong is wrong. But we must be sensitive to the fact that there are often subtle reasons why people act the way they do. And it would seem that it was precisely pity that was drawn from Jesus as he talked with this lonely woman on this lonely hillside. And that is when she began to see something that made her realise this was no ordinary man, for what he was to say was to have a delivering effect -v 19 ff, "Sir,".. "I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem." As with all the other Samaritans who only had the first five books of the Bible, this woman took Dt 18:15 seriously which promised that God would one day raise up a prophet like Moses. He was known as the Taheb, the Restorer. Just as Moses brought Gods revelation to the Jews and executed Gods rescue from Egypt, then so would this greater prophet accomplish something even more remarkable. Now, she wonders, could this be him- the prophet as it says in the original? If so, then he will have the answer to the greatest question which underlies our deepest need: How can we be rightly related to God? If our sense of emptiness is but a symptom of our essential lostness, cut off from our Maker, then how can we make contact again, in other words, how is God to be worshipped? The Samaritans, they pointed to Mount Gerizim and said this the place you go to. The Jews said , no it is Jerusalem. Who was right?
Well, neither, v21: Jesus declared, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth." Do you see what Jesus is saying? He is saying that we are now on the threshold of a new age when God is no longer approached on the basis of rituals in a certain place, but a relationship through a certain person. Whatever knowledge the woman had of God was at best partial, worshipping what she didnt know and from that standpoint the Jews did have an advantage in that they had the whole of the OT to go on, but now both are on equal standing in that everyone who is to worship God as Father , note, must do so in spirit and truth. It is only by the gift of the Spirit that anyone can know God personally and that can only be received when we come to know the truth in Jesus personally. And this is a word for our own multi-faith age. The fact that someone uses the word god does not mean they worship the true God. In Mein Kampf Hitler claimed to be doing the work of Almighty God that doesnt mean for a moment that he was. Salvation comes from the Jews, in that it is out of the Jewish race that the Christ was to come and be the Saviour of the whole world. This means that the label we attach to ourselves is irrelevant if we do not know Jesus Christ. The Anglican who has not bowed his heart to Jesus is in the same position as the Muslim who has not bowed his heart to Jesus. The religious person like Nicodemus can still be as empty and bereft of saving knowledge as the irreligious Samaritan woman. Both have to come to the same position and the same person to be saved ,and that is precisely where this woman now stands v 25 The woman said, "I know that Messiah" (called Christ) "is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us." Then Jesus declared, "I who speak to you am he." In fact it should read, I who am speaking to you , I am. And those last two words would have sent a shiver down her spine, for this is the self-designation of God in the Old Testament- the great I am. That is the one who has asked her for water! This is the one who offers her eternal life. And the moment those words were uttered, her life and that of the villagers were never to be the same again, as we read in v 28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?" They came out of the town and made their way toward him. v39 -Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I ever did." So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers.
Notice that little detail, Leaving her water jar The symbol of her emptiness and estrangement was left behind. She went to meet the people she had previously so studiously avoided and she wanted to introduce them to Jesus. The result? Many of them believed too. That is the effect knowing God through Jesus makes. And you know, the same is true today. Just listen to these words a client said to her counsellor after she had become a Christian: Before I came here, I was involved in a life of sexual fun and games and in a real sense I felt good. It was exciting. Since I have decided to truly commit myself to Christ , Ive found that life has become a struggle . The worldly life was easier and happier than the Christian life. But I wouldnt go back for anything. Ive tasted reality. Painful though it sometimes is, I want more. Its what life is really all about. For the first time in my life I feel truly alive, Im together. It hurts like blazes but its worth it, because now I am a person.
Now could it be that there is someone here this morning who is in the same position as that Samaritan woman. For all the bravado and appearance of being fine, deep down you are empty. Life is getting to you and you want a new start, you want to become a whole person again. Well, that can happen. And it happens in the same way as it did for this woman. It begins when you come to the Lord Jesus one to one in your heart, acknowledging your need, the need for a restored relationship with God, for your sins to be washed away and to receive Gods cleansing, refreshing Spirit. If that is you, why not bow you head with me now as we pray.
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