Scripture for Sunday: John 4:1-26
Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— 2 although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. 3 So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.
4 Now he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
9 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.)
10 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.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
17 “I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 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.”
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet.20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know;we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
Notes on the Text:
Each of the Gospels has stories about the life and ministry of Jesus that expand the reader’s understanding of the vast reach of the good news. This week’s story which is unique to the Gospel of John serves that purpose very well. Luke tells the story of the parable of the Good Samaritan, while John tells this story of the “other” Samaritan. In both cases, our vision of who is included in God’s love is expanded to include a group of people that would have been considered to be the enemies of the Jews at the time.
The woman comes at noon as a symbol of the fullness of light and faith. Unlike Nicodemus in chapter 3 who comes to Jesus at night, the woman is an example of faith. The way this story has often been interpreted is that the woman was promiscuous and had a shady sexual past and that Jesus forgave and saved her from her immoral ways. Yet, the story itself does not support such interpretation. Recent biblical scholarship (in the last 50 years) has moved away from looking at the Samaritan woman as a prostitute. Instead the focus has been on the radical encounter between a Jewish rabbi and a Samaritan woman. The text does not really support a view of the woman as a prostitute or as someone with a shady past. Jesus does not ask the woman to repent from her past.
The woman’s encounter with Jesus was about life-changing faith. This woman who would have considered Jesus to be an enemy on so many levels received the gift of seeing the presence of God in Jesus. The Samaritans were considered resident aliens in the land and represented to the Jews the accommodation and compromise of the Jews who were in exile and then married foreigners and followed the religions of other nations. There were so many differences and disagreements between the Jews and the Samaritans that Jesus couldn’t have picked a worse enemy of his people to ask water from. In fact, his whole choice of going through the region of the Samaritans was about breaking down boundaries. Most Jews took the longer root between north and south to avoid the Samaritan territory. But not Jesus!
Jesus had compassion for the woman because she had to depend on several men for her existence. Jesus saw through her plight and had compassion. He offered her the gift of the living water of life. What was interesting in their conversation is her question to him about the correct place of worship. According to her people and religion, true worship could only happen on Mount Gerizim, but according to the Jewish teachings the temple in Jerusalem was the place of true worship. But as was his custom, Jesus reframed the whole debate from defending one “right” location for worship to expanding people’s vision of God’s love and presence. Jesus invited her to worship in spirit and truth because the path to the transformation and the healing of our world is through encountering the living God. It is not through doctrines or belonging to the “right” religious group.
Jesus helps us to see that true worship is not about a religious practice or space, instead it is about being in the Spirit of God. Opening one’s heart to the spirit of truth was the key. That was very radical for that time, and to some extent, it is still radical for us. We guard our differences so carefully. We even fall into the trap of worshipping the container (how we worship, what we believe, and what we value) instead of worshipping the living God. Instead of allowing religion to help us transcend our limitations, we make religion another way to control and limit God, life, and others. This would transform so much of our lives and our world because religious differences have been and continue to be used to divide people.
The question for God for this week is why do we have so many religions in the world? This is very relevant to our time. It is estimated that there are at least 19 major religions in the world with over 270 branches of those faiths. But in terms of overall numbers of religions, there are around 4300 religions. And many people believe that only their religion is the true one, while all the others are wrong.
One way to challenge our thinking about different religions to consider them in light of the diversity of languages in the world. There are at least 7000 languages in the world today. Yet, people don’t usually assume that a language makes people their enemies. Generally speaking, no one says, “Because you speak a different language, you must be wrong. Your language is wrong and mine is right.” What if we approached religious pluralism in the same way we approach the diversity of languages in the world? Instead of saying one is better than the other, we instead look at them as part of our specific culture and world and that we could be curious about the languages of others, maybe even become bi or tri lingual? Language is something that human beings develop based on their regions and climates and the point of a language is to help people communicate. One should not get stuck on the superiority of one language over another. Instead the focus on its function. The Jewish mystical teacher Rabbi Rami Shapiro writes: “To me, religions are like languages: no language is true or false; all languages are of human origin; each language reflects and shapes the civilization that speaks it; there are things you can say in one language that you cannot say as well in another; and the more languages you speak, the more nuanced your understanding of life becomes. Judaism is my mother tongue, yet in matters of the spirit I strive to be multilingual.”
I know that one big factor for not saying that other religions are true is that we tend to think in binary ways. If I am right, we think, then you must be wrong. But in language we focus on the function instead of the thing itself. If we focus on the function of a religion, which is to help us open up to the sacred in our lives and to be transformed into more loving people, then we don’t need to get too stuck on having only one way to do that. The best description I heard about religion comes from Richard Rohr who once said that “religion is the container” and not the content. Rohr cautions against spending all our time on the container with all of its doctrines, boundaries, beliefs, and rituals. If religion is to do its job properly, it is about helping us move beyond its limitations to trust the mystery of God in our lives.
What if we followed the example of Jesus about true worship to help us approach our religious affiliation and the religious affiliation of others with love and openness? What if we followed the example of the Samaritan woman at the well who opened her life to a Jew (her people’s enemy) to give her new insights about faith? What if we saw Christianity as contributing unique gifts to the big picture of faith in the world instead of being the only way to relate to God?
In The Rebirthing of God, John Philip Newell writes that, “Too often in the past our approach to truth has been to assume that we have it and others do not. Consequently, we have thought that our role is to tell people what to believe. We are being invited instead into a new humility, to serve the holy wisdom that is already stirring in the hearts of people everywhere, the growing awareness of earth’s interrelatedness and sacredness…we need to find ways of sharing our intimate experiences of the Mystery, for we are one. It is through one another that we will know more of the Life that flows within us all. It is through sharing our fragments of insight that we will come to a fuller picture of the One who is at the heart of each life…Humanity’s great wisdom traditions are given not to compete with each other but to complete each other. We need each other as much as the species of the earth need one another to be whole.”
In her book A New Religious America, Diana Eck, the founder of the Pluralism Project at Harvard, writes that, “Through the years I have found my own faith not threatened, but broadened and deepened by the study of Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Sikh traditions of faith. And I have found that only as a Christian pluralist could I be faithful to the mystery and the presence of the one I call God. Being a Christian pluralist means daring to encounter people of very different faith traditions and defining my faith not by its borders, but by its roots.”
Song/Prayer: Lyrics adapted from Pope Francis’ prayer by Brian McLaren
You are present through the universe
And in the smallest and most fragile creature.
You embrace with tenderness
All things that exist.
Fill us with the power of your love …
Help us to conserve beauty and life.
Help us produce beauty and not filth.
Teach us to discover
The worth of each creation
And be filled with awe and contemplation.
Fill us with your peace that we may live
As brothers and as sisters, harming no one.
Empower us to rescue
The abandoned and forgotten,
Precious in your eyes, God of the poor.
Touch those whose hearts only look for gain,
Careless of the poor and of our planet.
Teach us to discover
How deeply we’re united
As we journey towards your light together.
Thank you for your presence every day.
Give us courage in our daily struggle.
May we work for justice.
May we work for love.
May we all be instruments of peace. Amen.