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John 4:1-30; John 4:39-42

Jesus knows just where to find us! This is one of the most exciting passages of the Bible for all real women, because it shows us how Jesus went out of His way to meet the enormous need of one individual woman who had been marginalised by her community. Just one encounter with the living God completely changed how she saw herself: her men, the community, her enemies; her sin and her future. If we take this wonderful example of God’s personal encounter with one woman, we can see how He will go to any lengths to meet with us and change our disasters into His victories.

Samaria and its history

Jesus had been spending time in Judea (in the South of Israel) but had decided to travel back to the Galilee. However, He had also decided to take the most direct route and to travel through the country of Samaria, even though its people were hostile to the Jewish nation, based in Jerusalem. Israel had been divided into two kingdoms after the death of Solomon. Jeroboam had rebelled against David's family and set up the Northern Kingdom with its capital in Samaria. The Southern Kingdom, comprising mostly the tribe of Judah, continued with its capital in Jerusalem. The Northern Kingdom quickly turned to idolatry and began to reject God's rule and guidance. The books of Chronicles in the Bible recognise only the Southern Kingdom (and David's lineage) as being authentically "Israel". The Northern Kingdom lasted about two hundred years and was then conquered by Assyria, with most of its people being deported to their land. Foreigners were brought in to settle the land and help keep the peace. (2 Kings 17:24)

Jerusalem itself was eventually conquered by the Babylonian empire and deported to their country but, by then, a deep-seated enmity had grown up between the two places. The foreigners who had settled in Samaria had intermarried with the remnant of Jewish people there, resulting in a mixed race, regarded as impure by the Jewish remnant in Jerusalem. Earlier, the Northern Kingdom had set up an alternative centre for worship on Mount Gerizim to parallel the temple at Jerusalem and those descended from Judah (the Southern Kingdom) regarded the Samaritans as heretics and outcasts. Despite the fact that the quickest way from Judea to the Galilee was through Samaria, Jewish people did everything they could to avoid travelling that way.

An unexpected encounter

Jesus clearly did not consider Himself bound by such traditions. Being one with His Father, He shared an all-consuming love for people, whatever their history and wherever they happened to be living. Thus, He found Himself in a town called Sychar, near some land that the patriarch Jacob had given to his son, Joseph, and where he had dug a well that was still being used to that day. Jesus arrived there at around mid-day - when the sun was at its hottest. The practice then would have been for women and servants to collect water from the well twice a day: once in the early morning and once in the evening, when it was cooler.

Jesus was tired. He sends the disciples off into the town to buy food but stays beside the well and sits down there. Just then a woman comes along to draw water. What was she doing there at that time? Jesus gets into conversation with her and it soon becomes apparent that she is unconventional. She has had a string of partners and was probably ostracised by the "normal" people in her community, resulting in her coming to draw water at mid-day - perhaps to avoid them. However, she now meets someone else who is highly unconventional. It proves to be quite an amazing encounter. How often we see Jesus in the gospels being led and directed by the Holy Spirit in remarkable ways. Time and again, Jesus turns up at just the right time and place.

This was a meeting that ought not to have taken place at all according to all the normal customs. Jewish men would not normally start a conversation with a woman, let alone an unaccompanied woman and definitely not a Samaritan woman! Moreover, it would have been unthinkable for a Jewish man to consider using something like a stranger's water container. But Jesus sees that this woman is not only unconventional; she is inquisitive, intelligent and has a deep, spiritual need.

The water of life

Jesus opens the conversation by asking the woman for a drink. She immediately recognises him as being Jewish and is surprised - even shocked - that He should ask her for something. Is there perhaps, too, a trace of resentment that this man wants something from her, but is offering nothing in return? Jesus turns it around, though, and suggests that He can indeed offer her something in return: a different kind of water - living water. This sparks the woman's interest, but she recognises that they are starting to talk religion now and may have seen it as a typical attempt by a Jewish man to demean her religious heritage in some way. So she responds by asking if He thinks Himself greater than the patriarch, Jacob.

Jesus doesn't rise to the bait, but changes tack to focus on her deeper, spiritual need. He makes it clear that He is not talking about ordinary water but about water that gives eternal life. The woman is now most definitely interested to know more and asks if she can have some of this water. Interestingly, though, she still seems to be fixated on the water as physical water. She is more interested in not having to come and draw water every day than in the thought that Jesus' water might offer eternal life. We see something similar in Jesus' remarks to people after the feeding of the five thousand when people seem to be more interested in a permanent supply of physical bread than in knowing "the bread of life". (John 6:26-27)

Deep waters

The woman didn't realise that all the water in the world would not satisfy her thirst. Her material problem was not her real need; her desperate need was in her spirit. That was exactly what Jesus was interested in, getting her to see her desperate need and to acknowledge it. She was so taken up with her everyday living she had not considered anything about her spirit or her eternal future. Jesus then tells her to fetch her husband. (This would have been the right and proper thing to do if a man was going to give a gift to a woman; her husband would need to be present.) The woman confesses that she has no husband, but Jesus then shocks her again by revealing that He knows a great deal more about her than she had imagined. He wants to bring her to the point of recognising and owning her sinfulness and is not prepared to give her the "living water" until her sin has been dealt with.

By now, the woman must have been feeling slightly uncomfortable. She recognises that Jesus is someone special with supernatural insight or knowledge but, instinctively, she tries to avoid the crunch question of her own sinfulness. Perhaps using her previous experience of having met with religious people (or simply some natural cunning) she tries to divert the topic of conversation to the age-old dispute between Samaritans and Jews over where God should be worshipped. Jesus did not ignore her question but pointed out that the real question was not where God's people had worshipped Him in the past, but how they would worship Him in the future.

Lessons for today

Some people today still argue about places of worship and historical significance. Jesus says clearly here that God can be worshipped anywhere at any time. (John 4:24) To this we can add that we now have the Holy Spirit’s help in this. He prays for us; (Romans 8:26) He teaches us the words of Christ; (Romans 14:26) and He tells us that we are loved. (Romans 5:5) Jesus took this opportunity to teach the woman about true worship. Despite the mixed messages about religion that she had learned during her life, Jesus could see that her heart was filled with a deep longing to see the Messiah. God continues to look for people who seek Him with their whole hearts and who want to follow Him totally. (Matthew 6:33; Romans 6:11-14)

Jesus was clear that anyone can come to the Father - through Jesus - on two conditions.

Repentance

Firstly we have to acknowledge our sin and wholeheartedly repent (change direction). This is very clearly described in Isaiah: "Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight. Stop doing wrong." (Isaiah 1:16-20) It is not enough to bring sacrifices at the right time, to the right place and say the right kind of prayers: Jesus is looking at our hearts. If we come before Him with acts of worship but unclean lives, what we bring will not be acceptable. We have to "wash and make ourselves clean." We have to take our evil deeds out of His sight and "stop doing wrong". (Isaiah 1:17) More than that, we have to start doing what is right. The apostle, Paul, said: "Put off falsehood and speak truthfully" - "Steal no longer but... work... to share with those in need." (Ephesians 4:25-28). God holds the door open for us and we can receive His forgiveness. He is a forgiving God. This Samaritan woman found this in Jesus Himself. What He doesn't want is just an outward show of worship; He wants a worship that comes from the heart.

Worship

Secondly we must trust in, cling to and rely on Jesus Christ and pour out our hearts in worship to Him alone. Worship is an action word and a matter of the heart. In many churches today, we have become accustomed to think of "worship" as a pantomime in which the "players" are on a stage whilst we - the "audience" - are in our pews, playing our part, not by hissing and booing, but by singing and holding up our hands. We have to ask the question: who is the performer? We need to be clear that the people on the platform (the minister or worship leader, choir or band and any other leaders) are merely the prompters to worship. The real worshippers are those in the congregation. God is our audience. The question we should be asking ourselves on the way home is not: "What did I get out of it?" but, rather, "How did I do?" For, when all the sermons have been preached, all the songs sung, all the worship renewal workshops conducted and all our innovations turned to traditions, worship is all that will have mattered. Did we say, with our whole being: "Worthy is the Lamb!". We are created to worship. We need to have pure hearts in our worship.

I who speak to you am He.”

As Jesus declared, openly and directly, that He was the Messiah, the woman has nothing more to say. She understands that Jesus is more than simply a prophet; He is the "anointed one", God's chosen servant who will redeem His people - all people, both Jews and Samaritans - God's "Messiah". She leaves her water jar at the well (forgetting her earlier concern about having to fetch water every day) and goes to call out her neighbours - those she was previously so keen to avoid - with the all-important message that the Messiah has come!

She was evidently a changed woman and everyone wanted to see this amazing man of whom she spoke. They started by taking her at her word, but then discovered for themselves that what she was talking about was true. (John 4:41) This woman of the world who, previously, had no hope of any change in her life, who certainly had no security and no future, was completely changed - in one day, by one conversation with the one, true, living God. She was used by Him to reach her whole town. The most undervalued member of that community became the most valuable as she showed them the way of eternal life. How do we judge our own value?


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