Jacob’s Well, Church of St. Photini, Nablus, Palestinian Authority.
[The Samaritan woman said:] “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Christ; when he comes, he will tell us everything.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking with you.” John 4:25-26.
This is a famous scene, where Jesus meets a Samaritan woman, and they have a lively theological debate perhaps not seen anywhere else in Scripture. So let’s play a little bit of sitz in leben here, a scholarly term to try and get to the setting in which the event took place in order to understand better what was going on. The gospel reading begins immediately telling us that we are in Samaria. This was the area between the Galilee to the north, and Judea to the south, both Jewish areas. Samaria was also Jewish, but…. It was a little bit like areas of Germany today where one has been traditionally Catholic for centuries right next door to a Lutheran area, also centuries old. Both are Christian, but…. Well thankfully Catholics and Lutherans talk and act together in a civilized manner today, but that was not always the case. Jews and Samaritans back then had a hearty dislike of each other. For example, the Samaritan lady stated that her people worship on the mountain nearby, Mount Gerizim, where their temple stood, whereas Jews worship in the temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. That was a point of contention. Further, the Samaritans only accepted the Pentateuch, the first five books of the bible, as the revealed word of God, nothing more, rejecting the prophets, psalms and everything else simply as pious writings. That was worse. Samaritans were also known to marry Gentiles, which might have been the final straw; Jews and Samaritans did not get along together (remember this when you next hear the Good Samaritan parable: it astounded its first Jewish listeners). So the fact that Jesus and the woman were even talking astonished Jesus’ followers when they returned (seen in the longer gospel today). But she was certainly standing up for what she believed, but was clearly attracted to what Jesus was saying. Furthermore, the fact she was on her own, coming to the well near the hottest time of the day also suggested that she had been ostracized by the locals, a truth that Jesus reveals (also seen in the longer gospel); she was still not daunted! However, she was so deeply affected by Jesus’ message that she ran back to her neighbors announcing she had found the Messiah! They clearly heard her and went out to investigate. So this is a dramatic gospel passage of conversion and excitement. Note also that Jesus frequently says to his disciples to tell no-one of the various events which clearly point to him being the Messiah; there was a perfect example last week with the Transfiguration. But here, Jesus actually tells the woman he is the Messiah. He is clearly not the least worried that these Jewish Samaritans would get hold of the wrong end of the stick and hail him as the long-awaited new David who would smash the Romans and re-establish the Kingdom of David. All the Samaritan woman states is that the Messiah will “tell us everything”. So the Samaritans were part of the Chosen People, but followed a different tradition. Jesus corrects this, and says salvation must be from the Jews, the Jews of the Jerusalem tradition, not the Samaritans.
Perhaps this explains the choice of today’s first reading, the moaning and complaints of God’s Chosen People in the wilderness: “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt. Was it just to have us die here of thirst with our children and our livestock?” This hardly shows a rock-solid trust in God! True, as slaves in Egypt they knew where the next scrap of a meal was coming from, that they had a kind of miserable roof over their heads each night, unlike the wandering in the desert. It is said that it was this attitude which convinced God they were not the generation to inherit the Promised Land, hence condemned to wander for a generation (40 years). Today’s psalm declared the kind of trust we should all have in God: “For he is our God,
and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides.” Perhaps Jesus viewed the Samaritans as a lost people, not trusting in the promise that salvation would come from Jerusalem, whither he was bound.
Is there a lesson for us here? Are there Christians who sort of follow the Lord, but not quite fully? Are there among us some who shop around for the bits of gospel teaching which sound OK, but ignore other bits which are too demanding? Are they similar to the sort of moaning Chosen People in the desert, happy to be free of slavery (perhaps) but not happy in what they have to do to achieve the Promised Land? It isn’t easy to be a true Christian, to take in all that Jesus demands and respond positively to it. It takes trust (unlike those in the wilderness) and true belief (unlike the Samaritans). With those two qualities, total trust and belief, total Christianity can be forged in the fire, and a rock-solid basis to life is to be found, against which the gates of hell will not prevail. Alone this is impossible. With the Lord present in sacred word, people (us), loyal priest and Eucharist, it can be so. And so it must be, and Lent is the time to do it.
Christ and Woman of Samaria, Veronese, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.
Reflections on the following Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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