Showbiz and Sport can throw up some unlikely combinations. Showbiz and sport can produce some improbable pairings. For example:
- In showbiz, watching Ainsley Harriott and Jeremy Vine paired with professional dancers in “Strictly Come Dancing” should make some interesting viewing this autumn. (But neither of them will match Ann Widdecombe and Anton Dubeck a couple of years back!).
- And in sport, who would have predicted that little old Bournemouth FC would share the stage in this year’s Premier League with multi-million pound players from Man United, Arsenal and Chelsea.
But none of these unlikely pairings can compare to the pair in this morning’s Bible reading. Because today’s passage describes an encounter between Jesus and a woman of Samaria. A passage in which a woman with ‘skeletons in her closet’ is invited to share a drink with the Son of God.
The opening verses of our passage tell us that Jesus and his disciples were travelling through Palestine - from Judea in the south to Galilee in the north. A journey that took them through the region of Samaria. A journey that left them thirsty, hot and hungry in the heat of the day.
It’s worth remembering that Jesus got just as tired and weary as we do sometimes. When the Word of God became flesh he became subject to the same trials and temptations we all face – he knows what human life is all about. So it is no surprise that while his friends went for some food, Jesus sat down by a well and asked a passer-by for a drink. But what is surprising is who he asked - a Samaritan woman. Not a rich and respectable Jewish man, like Nicodemus last week – but a poor woman from Samaria.
You see, a Jewish teacher like Jesus was not normally expected to address a woman. At that time a woman’s testimony was not even recognised in court. So by speaking to this woman in Sychar, Jesus was challenging cultural conventions and ignoring a widespread social taboo.
Even more shockingly, this woman was a Samaritan. As verse 9 tells us, Jews like Jesus did not normally “associate with Samaritans”. Some Jews believed that to come into contact with a Samaritan made them ritually unclean. Many even avoided Samaria at altogether, and took a long detour along the East Bank of the Jordan to avoid journeying through Samaritan territory.
Samaritans were seen as a race of people to be kept at arms-length. An ungodly nation to be avoided by faithful Jews wherever possible. (Think of the tensions that still exist between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, or between some Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and you get some idea of the situation.) First century Jews and Samaritans viewed each other with suspicion and kept their distance from one another.
- Living water: God’s amazing grace…
But Jesus did not keep this Samaritan woman at a distance. Because in verse 7 he asks her for a drink of water, and then in verse 10, offers her “living water” in return.
I recently went on a Chelmsford diocesan training course for new vicars. A course designed to increase our ‘resilience’ as incumbents - a course to help us manage our time better, adopt a healthier lifestyle and avoid too much stress. (The irony, of course, is that it took a full day out of my working week – thereby increasing my stress in the time that remained!). One valuable thing they did teach us is the importance of drinking water. As you probably know, our bodies are approximately 70% water, and really don’t run well without it. Extreme dehydration can cause dizziness, fatigue and even death. One top tip we were given on our course was to always keep a glass of tap water on our desk, and a bottle of water in our bags. Drinking enough water is an essential ingredient of a healthy life.
But the water that Jesus offered to the Samaritan woman wasn’t liquid water, like we might get from a tap or buy in a bottle. The Samaritan woman makes this mistake in verses 11 and 15. She assumes that Jesus is simply offering her access to a supply of clean water that will make her daily trips to the well unnecessary. A supply of water that would quench her thirst but nothing more.
So Jesus makes it clear that the water he offers her is something even more precious than what comes out of a tap. Something even more essential that H2O. He offers her “living” water that will “well up to eternal life” (v.14).
Incredibly, Jesus is offering salvation to this Samaritan woman. He is offering to cleanse her from sin and give her God’s Spirit - a Holy Spirit who will transform her life forever. Jesus offer of living water is astonishing, infinitely more valuable than a lifetime’s supply of fresh water (or any other form of liquid refreshment you may prefer!) Jesus wasn’t offering this woman her favourite tipple – he was offering her God’s forgiveness and friendship for eternity.
What makes Jesus’ offer even more astonishing is that it was offered to a woman with a difficult past and dubious ethics. A woman who didn’t deserve what was being offered to her. Because in verse 17 the woman admits that she has no husband, and Jesus replies that she has actually had five husbands, and is currently with a man who is not her husband.
This woman clearly had a chequered history, and seems to have been something of social outcast. That may explain why she was collecting water on her own in the heat of the day. It was more common for women to collect water in groups and in the morning or evening, when the temperature was cooler. It seems this woman wanted to avoid meeting other people, perhaps because she was ashamed of herself or unpopular with her peers. This woman’s sinful lifestyle makes it clear that Jesus’s offer of salvation to her was an entirely gracious one - a totally free gift from God.
The wonderful truth of the Christian Gospel is that Jesus makes the same offer of salvation to each and every one of us. Jesus knows every detail of our past failures, he knows every twist and turn of our complicated and messy lives - yet still he offers us God’s grace and mercy. Whether we have succumbed to lust, greed, selfishness or stupidity in the past, or all of the above, we can be forgiven. Whatever our personal circumstances may be, Jesus offers us a future in God’s eternal kingdom. It’s a wonderful offer we would be foolish to refuse.
- A person not a place: We worship God through Christ…
If you follow the news, you will have noticed that so many of the world’s trouble spots come down to a conflict over territory or natural resources. Nations so often come to strife over a disputed landmass or a place. For example Russia, Denmark, Canada and America have all staked a claim on the Arctic. Argentina and the UK went to war over the Falklands, Pakistan and India both think they own Kashmir, while China and Japan both claim the Senkaku islands in the Western Pacific. And of course the Scots and English still squabble over who really has the right to North Sea oil revenues!
Two thousand years ago, a major bone of contention between the Samaritans and the Jews was where to worship God. Where was the right place to praise God? It was this controversy that the Samaritan woman raises with Jesus in verse 20 of our reading. She says “our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place we must worship is in Jerusalem”. She believed Mount Gerizim in Samaria was where God should be worshipped, while the Jews claimed their Temple in Jerusalem was the most holy place.
Jesus’ reply to the woman’s question cuts through this centuries old controversy. Because as well as inviting the woman into a relationship with God, Jesus’ wants her (and us) to understand how she can develop and deepen that relationship too.
“The time has now come”, says Jesus, for God to be worshipped “in spirit and in truth”, not at any specific site or city. Now that Christ has come, God can be approached anywhere through him. To honour and serve God, people don’t need to know the right place, they need to know the right person.
You see, to worship God the Father “in spirit” means to worship him wholeheartedly, sincerely, truly. And only Jesus can make this possible by placing his Holy Spirit within us. A Holy Spirit who helps us to honour and serve God wherever we may be - and whatever our personal circumstances or social status.
In contrast to other religions, Christianity says we don’t need to go to a special place like Jerusalem, Mecca or even Canterbury Cathedral to worship God wholeheartedly. If we come to Jesus, his Spirit will help us honour God wherever we may be – at home, at church, at work.
As well as worshipping God in spirit, Jesus says we need to worship our Father “in truth”. To worship God “in truth” means to serve God with a correct understanding of what he is like and what he wants us to be life. To worship God “in truth” is to live our lives his way, to let our lives be guided by what he has revealed - not by our own spiritual speculations or selfish interests.
And it is in the life and words of Jesus that God’s character and God’s commands are revealed most clearly to us. To trust and obey the Lord Jesus is the way to worship God in truth. To truly know and serve God the Samaritan woman needed to know Christ – and so do we today. Do get to know him better in the words of the Gospels, and build your relationship with him in prayer.
Conclusion: Lessons to learn…
So, as I draw to a close, what are the implications of this passage for us today? What can we learn from Jesus’ surprising conversation with the woman at the well? Here are a few suggestions.
Firstly, we need to accept Jesus as the Christ. During the course of her conversation with Jesus, the Samaritan woman’s eyes were gradually opened to who he really was:
- At first she saw him a simply a tired and thirsty man.
- Then she saw him as an intriguing religious teacher.
- His supernatural knowledge of her past then convinced her that he was a prophet.
- Finally, she came to realise that he was actually the Christ, the God-given saviour of the World!
We too need to recognise Jesus for who he really is: It’s no good to dismiss him as simply an historical figure; It is mistaken to merely call him a moral teacher; and its inadequate to simply give him the status of a prophet. We need to accept that Jesus is the Christ, sent by God the Father to die and rise again for our salvation.
The second lesson today is that, whoever we are, we need to admit our guilt before God. Just as Jesus knew all about the Samaritan woman’s shady past, so he knows all the mistakes and mess-ups we have made in our lives. Like the Samaritan woman, if we are only willing to “come clean” and confess our sin, then God will to forgive us for Jesus’ sake. If we admit our guilt, Christ’s cross can make us clean.
Thirdly, today’s passage tells us to abandon any false religion we practice! The Samaritan woman mistakenly thought that her worship on Mount Gerizim made her right with God. She mistakenly believed that being a descendant of Jacob meant she was part of God’s people. We mustn’t think that our dutiful church attendance, our parents’ faith or our good deeds will make us right with God. The only way the Samaritan woman could receive God’s salvation was as an undeserved gift from Christ. A free gift to be received by faith alone. The same is true today. It’s not religion, but a relationship with Jesus, that makes it possible for us to receive God’s grace and to worship him in spirit and in truth.
Our fourth and final lesson for today is that if we have come to Christ ourselves, we need to tell others about him - we need to announce the good news!
Because if we were to read on a couple of extra verses in our passage, we would see that after meeting Jesus the woman dropped everything and ran to tell her town about him! (v.28-29). Because of her testimony, many in that Samaritan town came to believe in Jesus. Many came to recognise him as the “Saviour of the world” (v.42). This woman’s example should inspire us to tell our friends and our family about Jesus. Let’s be brave and share with them what what Jesus has done for us. Let’s take opportunities to explain the relevance of our faith to our lives, and be courageous enough to invite our friends and neighbours to Sunday services, Christianity Explored courses, and other church events where the good news will be explained.
After meeting with Jesus at a well, just one Samaritan woman was used by God to bring salvation to her whole town. There are dozens of us here this morning. Think what Christ could achieve in Gidea Park through all of us today!