I grew up in God’s own country…Northern Ireland. It is a country which is stunning in it’s natural beauty, and uniquely rich in the character of its people. It is also a country which was and is profoundly divided along political, territorial, and even religious lines with Roman Catholic and Protestant people famously not being able to see eye to eye. I (and anyone else who grew up in Northern Ireland in the 1980’s) was blessed with the ability to be able to work out within a matter of minutes whether a new person was a Roman Catholic or Protestant. To any reader who is not from Northern Ireland that might seem ridiculous, but it was certainly the case back in the day. I would be able to tell by asking a person’s name, or where they were from (the area in which they lived), or what school they went to or had gone to in their childhood. In a deeply segregated society such as Northern Ireland was at the time, the answers to these simple questions would have given most people’s religious identities away. In such a society and in the volatile and divided times as they were in the 1980’s, when a Protestant met a Roman Catholic (or vice versa) there might often have been an air of suspicion. You see there were lines that were drawn all across our society which traditionally would not have been crossed without some sense of fear and trembling on the part of the one who was crossing them. 18 years after the Good Friday Peace Agreement was signed, Northern Ireland is a completely different place from the place I grew up in, and all that division and segregation that i grew up with is a bit of an embarrassment, but it does not take away from the fact that back then it was real. There were lines that were not very often crossed by people on opposing sides of the divide.
As a result of growing up in a segregated, divided society, this passage from John 4 has always had a special place in my heart because in this passage Jesus crosses many of the cultural barriers that were in place for him, as a Jewish male rabbi, at the time. We have already seen in the previous three chapters of John’s work that little details are often of significant importance in the overall message and this story is no different.
Jesus, a Jew, is passing through Samaria – home of the Samaritan people who the Jewish community regarded as the very worst sort of people.
Jesus, a Jewish male rabbi, is talking with a woman. This would have been a no-no for rabbis in the time that this story was being written. Rabbis would have feared gossip, false accusations, temptation in such a situation. It was simply not the done thing for a Jewish male Rabbi to ever even be alone with a woman, never mind having a conversation with one.
Jesus, a Jewish male rabbi, is talking with a woman who has a questionable reputation. It is midday – the hottest time of the day. The only reason that a woman is approaching the well at this time of day is that she has been rejected by the other women who would gather together earlier in the day in cooler temperatures.
In other words, as N.T. Wright states, everything is wrong with the picture being drawn in John 4. There are several lines which Jesus crosses in communicating with this woman, which he should simply not cross.
But he does cross them.
Because the chosen one of God has come to world with good news for all people.
Because the light of the world has come to shine brightly in every dark corner.
Even the dark corners of hearts of the sinful, the lost, the rejected, and the broken.
In telling this story, John is continuing to show Jesus as the Chosen One of God who has come to do a new thing in the world. No longer is the God of Israel only interested in these chosen people, the the ones who can manage to keep the law and observe the rituals of the old religions. This is a new way, a way open to all people: men and women; Jews and Samaritans; saints and sinners; a way which will cross all the lines of division and segregation which have been put in place.
The Samaritan woman is slow to get what Jesus is saying. When he speaks of the living water he is offering she does not get it. She continues to think that he is speaking of actual water which will quench her physical thirst but this is not the case. The living water that Jesus is talking about is the water of grace; the water of transformation, which can take any life and dramatically turn it around and set it on a new path. As Wright states:
“What Jesus says about this living water makes it clear that he’s talking about something quite different, something for which all the water on earth is just a signpost, a pointer. Not only with the water he’s offering quench your thirst so that you’ll never be thirsty again. It will become a spring bubbling up inside you, refreshing you withy the new life which is coming to the world with Jesus and which is the life of the whole new world God is making.”
Jesus tells her that a time is coming when all the lines of division and separation which exist now will no longer be in place. Geographical location, social status, gender, and religious background will no longer be the determining factors of who is within the family of God and who is without. True worshippers, according to Jesus, will be the ones who worship the Father in spirit and in truth because that is the kind of worshippers the Father is looking for.
When Jesus explains this to the Samaritan, she is left hungry. She wants this living water. She wants this good news. She wants it for herself.
The great news is that she can have it.
That’s why Jesus, the male Jewish Rabbi had this conversation with this Samaritan woman of ill repute – because the good news of living water was good news for all – even her.
And it is good news for you and me too.
This passage is a passage which promises the reconciling, transformative power; the amazingly, exceedingly good news of God’s living water for all people. What are the lines that you have drawn in your life; the lines which you think God’s grace and transformative power cannot cross? What are the reasons for you – social or spiritual – that make you think Jesus might not want to share living water with you?
Whatever they are, my prayer for you is simply this: that you would read this passage and allow the boundary breaking, line crossing Chosen one of God meet you in your place of isolation and separation, have a conversation with you, and offer you the transforming, living water of grace.
Go on. I dare you.