THE OTHER SAMARITAN
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
3rd Sunday in Lent, Year A;
Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-42
“Many Samaritans from that city believed in [Jesus]
because of the woman’s testimony,
‘He told me everything I have ever done.’”
They say that “Seeing is believing.” If that’s the case, then we’re at something of a disadvantage when it comes to meeting Jesus Christ in the scriptures. We hear the stories of his life by means of our ears. As we listen to the scriptures read, and as we read them on our own, we’ve got to engage our imaginations to picture what those scenes would have looked like.
This is especially valuable for those of us who are “visual learners.” We’re all visual learners to a certain extent — some more than others — which is why our visual imagination is an important tool to bring with us as we study the Bible.
So, as we open up the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, I’m going to enlist some special help from a couple of artists: one contemporary and the other who painted about a century ago. Both these artworks were inspired by the story of the woman at the well. You can see reproductions of their work on our bulletin cover, front and back.
I’d like to begin, today, by pointing out a few things I see in these artworks. Maybe you’ll see something more. Then, we’ll move on to talk about the story itself.
But first, one more word of explanation. Neither one of these is a completely realistic work of art. They’re more than mere illustrations. They go beyond the simple Sunday School teaching-pictures a lot of us remember. Each of these two artists is using his interpretive capabilities, to bring us into the story from a different — even surprising — angle of approach. My hope is that one or both of these works of art will enable you to see the meeting of Jesus and the Samaritan woman with new eyes.
Let’s start with the picture on the back cover: “Christ and the Samaritan Woman” by the modern Polish artist, Jacek Malczewski. I believe the date of this particular painting is 1909. It was one of several the artist did, based on that same story.
Now, you’ll notice right away that the picture is anachronistic: the two figures in the painting look like early 20th century Polish people. The face of Jesus is actually a self-portrait of the artist: Malczewski was fond of painting himself into his pictures. Here he’s wearing an artist’s smock and carrying an umbrella and a straw hat. As for the Samaritan woman, she looks much like a Polish peasant, dressed as she might be going to the well to draw water.
There’s one thing unusual about those two people. Look at the way Jesus is facing. He’s turned away from the Samaritan woman. She appears to be taking the initiative in talking with him, and he appears to be listening: but they’re not making eye contact.
This reflects an important detail of the story. Culturally speaking, these two people are different as different can be. You can see this difference in a line from the story that the woman speaks to Jesus as soon as they meet. Jesus has just asked the woman to give him a drink of water, and she responds with astonishment: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
John provides a helpful little footnote, as he explains: “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”
That’s actually a bit of an understatement. Jews and Samaritans didn’t like each other at all. Ostensibly, the two nations worshiped the same God, but apart from that, they were from two completely different tribes.
There’s a better-known story of a Samaritan you’ve probably heard about: Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan. An essential detail of that story, as with this one — the story of the other Samaritan — is the historic hatred between these two peoples.
Well, who were the Samaritans, and where did they come from? They’re actually the remnant of the former Northern Kingdom of Israel.
In the days after the united kingdom of David and his son, Solomon, the nation split into two, under two different kings. The Northern Kingdom was called Israel, and the Southern Kingdom was called Judah. A few generations later, the Assyrians invaded and destroyed the Northern Kingdom: defeating its armies, sacking its principal cities and hauling the nation’s leaders off into exile. They set up a puppet kingdom, a colony, and made the people who lived there pay heavy taxes — tribute — to the Assyrian King.
The Southern Kingdom managed to fend the Assyrians off, but they failed to come to the aid of their cousins in the north. You can only imagine what resentment that caused. It planted seeds of hatred that continued to bear fruit in Jesus’ day.
A few generations after the fall of Samaria, of course, it was the Judeans’ turn to suffer. A new empire, Babylon, defeated the Assyrians, occupied the former Northern Kingdom of Israel, and invaded the Southern Kingdom of Judah. This time the Judeans went down to defeat. Their national leaders were carted off to exile in Babylon, much as happened to the leaders of the Northern Kingdom several generations earlier.
Well, the Babylonian Empire was eventually defeated by the Persians. After that happened, the Persian King Cyrus allowed the exiles in Babylon to return home.
They came back to a ruined nation. Their new King, Ezra, set out to rebuild the Temple, and restore Judah’s ancient worship practices.
By this time, the religion of the Samaritans had evolved in a very different direction. The Temple in Jerusalem, rebuilt or not, held no attraction for them. They worshiped God on the top of Mount Gerizim. That’s what the woman is referring to when she speaks this line: “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” She’s emphasizing the differences between them.
But back to the painting. The two are communicating, just not face-to-face. It’s a rather awkward encounter, because of the great cultural differences between them.
Of the two, Jesus seems to be the most hesitant. There’s an expression of warm interest on the woman’s face. It’s Jesus who’s a bit standoffish.
That’s actually true to the biblical story. True, Jesus speaks first, in asking her to give him a drink, but after that, it’s the woman who takes the initiative with the conversation. This is so very different from another encounter Jesus had, that John’s just finished telling us about in chapter 3. That’s the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus, the man to whom he famously says, “You must be born from above” (sometimes translated, “born again”).
In that story, it’s pretty much a one-sided exchange: Nicodemus seeks Jesus out, asks him a question or two, and then Jesus does most of the talking. The greater part of Chapter 3 is a long discourse Jesus gives, in response to Nicodemus’ questions. In fact, John never does wrap up the story: he gets all caught up in reporting that long speech, and the next thing we know, Jesus is on his way to Samaria, where he meets the woman at the well.
John’s placement of the two stories, right next to each other, is deliberate. He wants us to hold the two up against each other to compare them. On the one hand is an encounter between Jesus and a learned leader of the Jewish people. On the other is an encounter between him and a woman, a foreigner, a nobody.
The exchange between this woman and Jesus is entirely different from the way he talks to the Pharisee. There’s a real give-and-take between them: a fully-developed conversation rather than a one-sided speech. It speaks of the high regard Jesus has for this woman: he’s more than happy to give her the time of day, even though she’s both a foreigner and a woman (social convention of the day saw it as improper for a man to address a woman in public who was not a relative). In fact, you can see that at the end of the story, when John tells us how Jesus’ disciples were “astonished that he was speaking with a woman.”
One of the things I like about this painting is that it debunks a certain doubtful interpretation of the Samaritan woman, that portrays her as a woman of low virtue. There’s that one detail Jesus tells the woman, about herself: “…you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” He miraculously knows this about her, even though the two have only just met.
It’s been fashionable for certain preachers and teachers to take this detail about the woman’s marital status and blow it all out of proportion. They take this fact and pair it up with another: the fact that she comes to the well in the middle of the day — when the sun’s blazing hot and few other villagers would be there. They conclude, from these two facts — irregular marital history, fetching water in the heat of the day — that the woman is some sort of social outcast, shunned by her people because of her unorthodox living arrangement. They accuse her, to put it rather bluntly, of being the village slut.
There’s no factual basis for such a judgment. In fact, at the end of the story, it’s clear she has plenty of friends to whom she can run and give her testimony. She’s not a social outcast, living in shame, as some have concluded.
This is so typical of generations of male students of the Bible, seeking to prop up the dominance of men in church leadership! They do it by tearing down the reputation of any woman who shows up, in the Bible, in any sort of leadership capacity whatsoever. They pretty much trashed the reputation of one of Jesus’ most important disciples, Mary Magdalene: coming up with a wholly fictional legend that she was a prostitute before coming to the faith. There’s not a shred of biblical evidence for that.
At the end of the letter to the Romans — chapter 16, verse 7 — Paul commends the faith of a certain Junia. She was evidently a leader of the Roman church. Paul calls her an apostle. The Greek text of the name is clearly a feminine form, but in later translations — especially in Latin, but also in many other languages, including English — you see the name written as Junias, not Junia. That’s a man’s name. Certain Bible translators actually changed what the Greek said, because they just couldn’t wrap their minds around the fact that a woman could be an apostle!
Malczewski’s painting reflects no such illusion. The woman is curious about Jesus, and seems more than able to engage him in a theological discussion, even a debate. And Jesus, for his part — after being a little standoffish — credits her as an honest spiritual inquirer, and spends a lot more time talking with her than he does with the Pharisee Nicodemus.
In fact, that detail I mentioned earlier — the fact that this meeting happens at high noon — is symbolic of exactly that. The themes of light and darkness are very important to our Gospel-writer John. He portrays Jesus as light pushing back the darkness. In the previous chapter, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. It’s a secret meeting. It’s as though he’s ashamed to be seen talking to Jesus. By stressing that timing, John is pointing out that Pharisees like Nicodemus are in darkness. They must come into the light.
This Samaritan woman, who comes to him in the bright light of midday, is already a person who knows something of the light of God: and Jesus credits her with that. There’s a warmth, a brightness, about this painting, that shows us that anyone who honestly and openly comes to Jesus seeking his truth will receive the light he offers.
If you look at Jesus’ left hand, you’ll see that his fingers are forming themselves into the traditional gesture of blessing. It’s as though he’s about to turn around and offer her a benediction.
One more detail about the Samaritan woman, before we turn to the second work of art. John tells us how — once she fully realizes who Jesus is — she leaves her water-jar by the well and goes off to tell all her friends, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
Remember, this is a Samaritan, and a woman. Her witness to Jesus is far more certain, far more bold, than anything the Pharisee Nicodemus says in the previous chapter. The fact that she leaves her water-jar behind is a powerful symbol. For who is it in the Bible, who leaves the tools of their trade behind to go and preach? It’s apostles who do that: Peter, James and John who leave their nets, Matthew who abandons his tax-collector books, Paul who no longer wears that distinctive hat and robe of the Pharisee. This Samaritan woman is an apostle: and she proclaims Jesus to be the Messiah long before any of his other disciples do!
Now, on to the second work of art. It’s a fountain created by the contemporary English sculptor Stephen Broadbent, in 1994. It’s called “The Water of Life.” He cast it in bronze, for a courtyard in the ancient monastic cloister of Chester Cathedral. The fountain is located on the exact site that, for centuries, served as the monastery well.
Around the bottom of the sculpture are carved these words: “Jesus said ‘the water that I shall give will be an inner spring always welling up for eternal life.” They come, of course, from verse 14 of the very story we’ve been looking at. In exchange for the water the Samaritan woman offers him, the Lord promises her “living water.”
It’s the prospect of living water that draws her on, questioning Jesus further: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Think of this woman’s life, and how hard it was. She’s had five different husbands. We don’t know if she had so many husbands because she was widowed, or because some of the men divorced her. Maybe both those things had happened to her, with those different husbands. Far from being a disreputable person, this woman is strong. She’s a survivor. She’s triumphed over some very difficult circumstances. And if the man she’s now living with is not her husband, Jesus doesn’t seem to judge her for that. He’s far more interested in healing her pain. He seems to trust that, if she can get her heart right, if she can confess him as Lord, she will repent and do the right thing.
You can see it in their eyes, in this sculpture: the way these two look directly at each other. You can also see it in the position of their bodies. Clearly, they are equals. In fact, she’s higher than he is — so, if anything, he’s allowed her to take a superior position.
Between them is a bowl of water: from which — since this sculpture is a working fountain — there gushes a constant stream.
Take a look at the position of the bowl. Both she and Jesus are holding it. Is she offering him a drink of water from the well, or is he offering her the gift of living water? It’s impossible to say for sure. That’s so true-to-life, for us Christians: because the two are so closely tied together. You and I promise to serve Jesus as disciples, and he offers us living water in return. Or, maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe he offers us the living water first, and we serve him in gratitude. It doesn’t matter, because it’s really two sides of the same coin. There’s a constant give-and-take, a flow, between the disciple and the master: between each of us and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The entire sculpture is, in fact, a circle. You can sense this dynamic exchange, this holy giving and receiving, going on forever. In the Celtic tradition, the circle — that’s such a prominent part of every Celtic cross — is a symbol of eternity. When you or I enter into relationship with Jesus Christ, we do so for eternity. It’s that “spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Well, that’s all the time we have. Maybe you’ve seen something in either the painting or the sculpture I haven’t — and if so, I’d love to hear your impressions. One of the things about great art is that we can come back to it, time and time again, and often discover something new.
The same thing’s true of our relationship with God, through Jesus Christ. The living water continues to flow at the heart of that dynamic relationship: refreshing, restoring, reviving.
Maybe you’ve been feeling that your spiritual life’s been a little dry lately. If that’s the case, then I invite you to do as the Samaritan woman did: seek out the living water only the Lord Jesus Christ can give. Offer him, in your outstretched hands, the bowl of your servant heart. And he will supply you, in exchange, with an endless supply of living water!
Let us pray:
God of the fountain, the spring, the healing well:
we come to you parched and thirsty.
We know there is no well so deep
that we can draw from it living water.
Only you can do that.
Only you can refresh our souls.
And so we come to you, bowls in hand:
not knowing if they are offerings of gratitude
(in truth, they are a little of both).
We thank you for the welcome you extend to us:
and for the generosity with which you offer us
all we truly need. Amen.
Copyright © 2017 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.