Lent 3 • 19 March 2017

Exodus 17:1-7
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

Rev. Chris Udy

A few years ago,
when we were reading the book of Ruth,
we looked at a part of Israel’s history
that provides the context
for the story of the woman at the well. *
It’s very well known
that Jewish people didn’t like Samaritans.
There was animosity between them,
as deep and dividing
as anything we see today in the Middle East.

the region around Jerusalem in the south,
or from Galilee in the north,
would take great pains,
and go considerably out of their way
to avoid crossing Samaria in the middle.
Samaritans were considered ‘unclean’.
They didn’t observe the purity codes,
so contact with them
was considered - by Jewish people -
to be ‘contaminating’;
the more intimate and personal the contact
the greater the contamination.
So if a Samaritan shadow
fell across a Jewish lunch,
the lunch would be thrown away.
Sharing anything that had touched Samaritan lips -
a cup or a bowl, for instance -
was simply and strictly forbidden,
and as for marrying a Samaritan woman -
for a Jewish man of Jesus’ generation,
that couldn’t be imagined.

But in fact, it was in marriage
that the deep divisions
between Jews and Samaritans began,
and all this animosity and discord and hatred
has very little to do
with difference and strangeness.
The roots of this terrible feud
are about family, and faithfulness.

So we need a little history. *

David and Solomon united and expanded Israel
into its golden age,
but when Solomon died around 920BC,
the kingdom divided in two. *
The northern kingdom of Israel
with its capital in the city of Samaria,
lasted for 200 years,
and ended with Assyrian occupation in 722BC.~
Just over a century later, in 586BC,
the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar
conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the temple,
bringing an end to the southern kingdom of Judah.~
Nebuchadnezzar had already forced 10,000 people;
members of prominent, wealthy families,
most of the artisans and craftsmen,
and therefore almost all skilled and educated people
into exile in Babylon 10 years before.
The final exile numbered about 1500,
and they left Jerusalem and Judah
almost devoid of its leaders and teachers.

50 years later, in 538BC,~
when the Persian Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon,
and decreed that all Jews were permitted
to return to their ancestral lands,
some 40,000 Jews flooded back
to Judah, and Samaria, and Galilee.*
While they were in exile
their faith and culture
had been fiercely maintained and defended,
and what they most keenly grieved and longed for
was worship in a rebuilt Jerusalem Temple.
So when one leader - Ezra - returned to Jerusalem
with gifts and treasures intended for the Temple,
he was horrified and appalled
to discover that many of those
who had not been taken into Exile
had intermarried with Assyrians and Moabites,
Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites,
Jebusites, Ammonites,
and all the other racial and religious groupings
that have always been part of the mix in Palestine.
They still worshipped Yahweh;
they still kept Torah -
the first 5 books of the Old Testament,
although they had a slightly different version -
but they were no longer committed
to worship in the Temple,
because for nearly 50 years
they’d had no Temple to worship in.

So when Ezra finally arrived in Jerusalem,
he went to pray in the recently rebuilt Temple,
and after his prayers he shamed and bullied
those who heard him
into a tragic promise:
he said that those
who had married non-Jewish women
had broken their covenant with Yahweh,
and he forced them to vow
that they would divorce and send away
all the non-Jewish women they had married
and all the children that had been born to them.
In the south, in Jerusalem and Judah
many men complied with Ezra’s insistence -
and we can only imagine
the heartbreak and hardship that caused;
but the people of Samaria in the north refused.
They said that there was no conflict
between their covenant with God,
and their covenants of marriage;
they insisted that they were worshipping
in the places their ancestors
Abraham and Isaac and Jacob had worshipped,
and that was every bit as good
as worship in Jerusalem’s Temple;
and they maintained
that their understanding of the Law -
their commitment to the covenant in Torah -
didn’t need all the strictures and complications
of the purity codes.

So when Jesus sat down
beside Jacob’s well
and asked a Samaritan woman for a drink,
all that history and heartbreak
was looming over them.
By asking for a drink,
Jesus was challenging divisions
that had lasted for 500 years,
and in their conversation
he pushed deeper and deeper,
breaking through
the 4 forms of prejudice
that have brought more misery
and oppression to human life than any other cause:
racism, sexism, sectarianism and social class.

Like Nicodemus last week,
the Samaritan woman’s conversation with Jesus
was often confusing and strange,
but when it was finished
Jesus had established a relationship with her
that was as liberating and sustaining
as a spring of water within her,
gushing up to eternal life.

It began with Jesus’ request: “Give me a drink” -
and immediately the woman understood
that something ground-breaking had happened:
“How is it that you, a Jewish man,
ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”.
She clearly knew the boundaries:
Jews don’t speak to Samaritans;
men don’t speak to women;
good, respectable people don’t speak to outcasts;
holy men don’t speak to heretics;
and God doesn’t have conversations
with anyone but his own.
Jesus was apparently ignoring covenants:
traditions and understandings,
cultural agreements, roles and relationships,
that went back hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Fathers taught their sons,
and mothers their daughters,
how to behave and believe,
and what to think and to say.
Sometimes those attitudes and behaviours
were written down and codified into law -
but much more often
they were left informal, unwritten,
sometimes even unspoken,
but powerfully enforced through shaming,
and social isolation, and violence.
Those who could keep the rules
and accept their station
were usually protected by their covenants;
those who couldn’t, or didn’t,
very quickly suffered reprisals.

It looks like the Samaritan woman
knew what breaking covenants could bring.
She was already disempowered
by being a woman, and a heretic Samaritan,
but coming alone to the well
in the heat of the middle of the day
meant she was probably also outside
the covenant of protection
that women gave each other
by walking and working together.
That suggests she’d been shunned,
and that other women saw her
as a threat to their security or social standing.
It’s not absolutely clear,
and there are symbolic layers in this conversation,
but it looks like the Samaritan woman
may have been forced to take
whatever she could get
to keep body and soul together.
Jesus says she’s had five husbands,
and the man she’s with now
she’s not married to -
so it looks like she’s entirely alone
and vulnerable to predators:
a person without alliances or connections,
with nobody she can rely on
to come to her aid.

Covenants define relationships.
They celebrate connections,
set out expectations, secure rights,
describe boundaries and prescribe sanctions.
Contracts might do similar things,
but they’re impersonal and formal,
and they begin and end with the written form.
Covenants are deeper -
they’re made person to person.
Because they’re personal,
and because people change,
covenants also change over time;
they grow and adjust
as do those who live within them.
They’re open to renegotiation,
they can be repaired and renewed -
and it may even be
that a covenant, once made,
is made forever.

So God makes covenants,
not only with people, the Bible says,
but with everything in creation.
The oldest covenant
is explained to Noah after the flood,
and it affirms that creation has order and purpose.
“While the earth remains,” God says,
Seedtime and harvest, Cold and heat,
winter and summer, and day and night,
shall never cease.”
So creation is orderly and lawful,
and while order can bring security
it also brings consequences
to anyone or anything
that breaks or ignores the rules.
We can’t escape the covenant once made,
and that can sometimes mean
we suffer its sanctions.

After Noah’s covenant comes Abraham’s:
a promise to Abraham and his family
that they would be a great nation,
with a land to call their own,
and in return they were called
to trust and to worship Yahweh.

Next comes the covenant
made between God and Israel through Moses.
Now the relationship is clearer;
promises and punishments
are clearly defined in the Law,
and law itself begins to develop and grow.

Finally, at least for the woman at the well,
Yahweh made a covenant with David,
giving him and his descendants
the anointed authority
to rule as Kings over Israel
promising him strength and victory -
in return for David’s trust and faithfulness,
and promising Israel that when their need was great,
one of David’s line would redeem and save them.

Despite what others might think,
the Samaritan woman still saw herself
as defined by these covenants -
even if she was defined by her exclusion.
The laws and rules and conventions of her culture
were still telling her who she was -
but instead of giving her guidance and protection,
now they had condemned her
to loneliness and danger,
and the covenants that should have been a blessing,
had been turned into a curse.
But one thing she held onto:
the promise that, one day,
someone of David’s line -
a just and compassionate ruler - Messiah -
would return to put her world to rights.

Amazingly, the woman at the well
doesn’t seem defeated
by the judgement and exclusion of her neighbours.
She’s open and spirited and engaged.
She’s the one who initiates
the conversation with Jesus,
and she’s the one who leads it from theme to theme.
She obviously understands her heritage and tradition,
and she describes and defends what she believes
with humour and intelligence and pride.
And in response, from Jesus,
she receives open, respectful, thoughtful conversation;
she isn’t dismissed or exploited or devalued,
but she’s treated as a person
fully worthy of his serious, careful attention.

Finally, the Samaritan woman at the well
draws the conversation to a close.
“I know that Messiah is coming”, she says,
and “when he comes,
he will proclaim all things to us”.
It sounds like she’s looking and hoping for someone
in whom even Samaritans and Jews
might find reconciliation and redemption,
someone in whom
the covenant with God
would bring healing and forgiveness,
not division and conflict and shame.
So when Jesus replies
“I am he, the one who is speaking to you,”
the Samaritan woman
trusts him immediately -
and, leaving her water jar behind,
she ran back to the city
calling her neighbours come and see
the man who knew everything about her,
and yet gave her respect,
and treated her with honour.

We can’t run away
from the covenants that define us.
We will always be people with history,
and when we make relationships,
choose sides, or form alliances,
the effects of those decisions stay with us.
But thankfully we, like the woman at the well,
have also been included and embraced
in a new covenant with God
established in and through the Messiah, Jesus.

This, like all the others,
is a covenant for ever -
a covenant we can’t and won’t escape -
but thankfully again, this is a covenant of grace;
an invitation to healing and redemption,
and a promise of justice and peace.

This is a covenant, and a promise,
not only for Abraham’s family,
or only for men,
or only for saintly people of the right class -
it’s for everyone,
and it offers grace - forgiveness and protection -
to everyone who wants to be included.

All it requires of us in return
is trust -
trust in the God we have met in Jesus;
trust in his promise of love and grace,
and trust that in his spirit,
and in the truth he embodies and lives,
we will find resources for life:
faith and hope and love,
welling up within us
like a spring of living water,
sustaining us into eternal life.