The hour is coming, says Jesus.
“The hour is coming when you will worship [God] neither in this mountain nor In Jerusalem.”
“The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship [God] in spirit and truth.”
Whenever we hear prophecy, whenever we hear pronouncements such as this, I think we hear it a little like a promise and a little like a threat. Something is happening, something is coming. And that “something” is a good something. But that “something” will also mess with my world and require me to change, force me to wonder “what will happen to me?”.
And this is how it is with the Reign of God. Throughout the gospel, Jesus tells us of the Kingdom of God, the Reign of God… wielding it as both a promise and a threat.
Because Jesus is usually reminding us that the world we have created – the rules and dividing lines, the hatred and the oppression and the injustice – this world that we have created is not of God. But Jesus is also telling us that God will always rectify those inequities. God will always save us from ourselves. Which is good. But it’s also going to require some effort on our part.
In the story of the Samaritan Woman is, essentially, a story about tribalism or racism. A story about rules and judgment and boundaries. It’s a rich story, full of symbolism and metaphor In order for us to read this symbolism, it helps to know the context of John’s Gospel. So, here’s a brief recap of the long history of Israel.
- A group of tribes came together – over many, many centuries for mutual protection and opportunity and formed a nation which they named Israel (which means “one who wrestles with God”).
- Israel eventually named a king and the nation gained some power in the region.
- They built the Temple in the city of Jerusalem – Solomon’s Temple. This Temple was recognized as God’s presence on earth.
- Israel split into two kingdoms – the northern kingdom retained the name Israel and its capital became Samaria. Meanwhile, the southern kingdom became Judah. Jerusalem and the Temple were located in Judah.
- Outside forces invaded both kingdoms – one of them being Babylon. As an act of war, Babylon attempted to eradicate the culture by deporting some people to Babylon, mostly those who were in the capital city of Jerusalem where the power was, and they destroyed the Temple. Those that remained were typically in other regions – like the city of Samaria.
- After about 50 years of war, a new occupying force came – the Persians – who allowed the Jews to return home and encouraged them to build a new Temple in Jerusalem, which they did. After the Persians, the Greeks controlled the area.
- And eventually Rome gained power and territory (which is when Jesus enters the picture) and destroyed the Second Temple. The great diaspora of the Jewish people began as many fled the region.
So, what does this have to do with today’s story? The Samaritans were among the remnants – those who stayed behind when the power base of Jewish leadership in Jerusalem were deported to Babylon.
During their 50 years in exile, the Jews in Babylon had to acquire a sense of themselves, an identity they could maintain while living in a foreign land. They told stories, followed their own religious leadership and developed worship and patterns of life. Some did what they could to maintain racial purity, while others took husbands and wives of Babylonia.
During these same 50 years, the Jews who remained in the land of Israel developed a sense of themselves as the oppressed people of a land invaded by foreigners. They also told stories, followed their religious leaders, and developed appropriate worship practices. And, while some of them attempted to maintain racial purity, others took husbands and wives from the invading force.
When the deported Jews were eventually allowed to return, you would think it would be a glorious and celebratory reunion. And it was, to some degree. But mostly, these peoples had grown apart in their customs and their rituals, and even in their understanding and worship of God.
This happens when people become inwardly focused. They forget the connections they have to one another and they grow distrustful. They don’t want others to join them. They don’t want to be changed.
The people who had stayed came to be known simply as Samaritans, linked to the northern capital. And so we have the false division of the Jews and the Samaritans. Although they were related, they were estranged from one another, each group developed rules and dividing lines. Over generations, they grew to fear and mistrust one another. They came to hate one another.
And so we have Jesus, the Jew, who dares to talk to a Samaritan. And even more scandalous, perhaps, is that he goes to the well, where women gather, and talks to a woman. And his intent is to create in her a follower, a disciple.
His purpose in doing this, in crossing the borders created by generations of people, is to draw everyone’s attention to their own true identity – beloved children of God. So that everyone might see that divisions are useless, the lines we draw in the sand are truly pointless because they are not of God.
Jesus is the one who reminds us that all of creation is God’s.
All the people who drive us crazy.
All the people who we think behave in a way that is inappropriate.
All the people who look different from us and act different from us.
All of us are God’s beloved creation.
And that when we try to take that power away from God, when we try to redefine borders and make rules, when we try to reorganize creation according to our whims and desires and false notions and fears… every time we take our pride to a dangerous place and allow it to become oppression and injustice… we will inevitably fail. And we will fail miserably.
And so Jesus says, “the hour has come.” The hour has come for this false separation to fail. The hour has come for your arbitrary rules and your divisions to fail. The hour has come for reconciliation. You see – it’s a promise and a threat.
And Jesus is the one who reminds us of this. He is the one who continually points to the other, to the person on the other side of the line we’ve drawn and says, “yes. That person too.”
I know I’ve said this before but here is it again: Jesus reminds us, every time we create a boundary between ourselves and an other, he will be on the other side of it. Because mercy is always on the other side of a line we draw, especially when we think we’re right.
In this week’s meeting with Jesus, we imagine ourselves to be in the place of the Samaritan woman. We are this woman who, has got to be one of the crankiest characters in the whole of the Gospel stories:
An older woman who had likely been handed down from one brother to the next as the previous one died, a life devoid of affection but bound to child-bearing for a family.
Having to go to the well in the heat of the middle of the day instead of the cool hours of the morning so that she could avoid the humiliation of being outcast by the other women.
A well-hated woman – pointed to, laughed at, cast aside. Of course she no longer cares about being nice and playing by societal rules. Why would she?
I have a feeling, we all have that part of us that identifies with this crankiness. Tired of the world. Coping with it by being demanding of others or manipulating others in some way:
Refusing to be vulnerable for fear of disappointment.
Hardened and protective. Rigid and challenging.
Or just resigned and disconnected.
And yet, Jesus talks to this cranky woman longer than he talks to anyone else. Meeting each of her challenging questions with direct responses instead of demanding that she play by societal rules which, he knows, are arbitrary anyway.
She’s real with him, not asking for anything from him. As a matter of fact, the whole interaction begins because he asks her for a drink of water.
It seems he enjoys talking to her. Perhaps a refreshing change from the fawning, sycophantic, overly-deferential manner in which his disciples treat him. As if to make that point, Jesus brushes them off annoyingly when they find him speaking to her.
This is the promise and the threat of prophecy. People aren’t going to act how we need them to act all of the time. People will push our buttons. And the more we draw lines in the sand, the less we are open to the wideness of God’s mercy acting in us, and flowing through us to be there for one another.
Because, here’s the most important part: most assuredly, someone else always sees us as the cranky Samaritan woman. And here’s your question: Is that cranky person inside of us willing to listen to Jesus and be changed?
In this interaction, we are called to recognize that Jesus is here talking to each one of us. At some length. This isn’t about fixing the Samaritan woman we see out there. This is about accepting that we all have a cranky Samaritan woman that we carry inside each of us. And then learning to stop drawing lines in the sand because we are all in need of mercy. We are all standing in the need of prayer.
Because Jesus is always going to be on the other side saying, “yes, this one also belongs to me.”
“The hour is coming, and is now here.”
For this is what we celebrate together each and every Sunday. This is what Eucharist is about. This is what that Table is about. It is about Jesus calling us back to God. It is about Jesus calling all of us, every single one of us back to God.
The Table is first and foremost about reconciliation – the living water from today’s Gospel story.
The promise and the threat of prophecy requires that we do what we can to stop ourselves from drawing lines and creating borders between one another. To call us out to something better, something bigger than the small worlds we create when we cut off one another off. That requires us to forgive – both the other person and ourselves – and then, to go one step further, and offer our hand in reconciliation, even welcome. All are welcome at God’s Table.
Jesus goes to the well and creates a disciple out of a Samaritan woman. In one scandalous act, Jesus reconciles centuries of fear, hatred, mistrust, and shame. Because reconciliation is the living water he was talking about. That is what it means to worship God in spirit and truth.
The hour is coming, and is now here. And God is calling us back to the Table again where we are all welcome. Let us welcome one another.