"The places we donít want to go"
March 7, 1999 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon John 4:3-42
"But he had to go through Samaria..." (John 4:4) I suppose the map indicated that the most direct route from point A to point B was through that Godforsaken place, but Iím sure there were other roads he could have taken. So what if the trip would last a bit longer by doing so. There are places you really donít want to go if you donít have to....
No doubt youíve heard of the animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans. Like most family feuds, the roots of it went way back. The majority of folks, though, probably couldnít recall exactly why they hated each other, they just did. Oh, the issues that separated them were real, and very important to their common faith in the God of Abraham and Moses. Itís just that sometimes the gut reactions take over. As we used to say on the school playground, "they hated each otherís guts."
Thatís why the parable Jesus told about a "good Samaritan" was a real shocker back then. A story where the hero is someone you despise is not a place where most folks want to go. But, then, Jesus had a habit of having to go to such places. I donít think he was following a AAA trip tik. His idea of a "scenic" route was a bit different from everyone elseís. Like the time he and his disciples were heading back to Galilee from the countryside of Judea. The road led them through the valley overshadowed by those two mountains the Samaritans so highly revered, Mt. Gerazim and Mt. Ebal. Most Godfearing Jews would almost consider this to be the proverbial valley of the shadow of death, even though that very spot was a part of their heritage as well.
Apparently the disciples of Jesus were trying to protect their teacher from having too much contact with the locals. They wanted to keep him pure, I guess. Jewish law was very strict about that sort of thing. God forbid if Jesus came into contact with a Samaritan woman. Suffice it to say that Samaritan women were considered to be ritually unclean from birth to death. No self-respecting Jew would even think of coming into contact with such a person, especially if they were some kind of holy guy.
Those disciples left their "holy guy" outside of town to go get some food over the noon hour. That should have been a safe time to leave him alone near the town well. After all, most folks went for water when it was cooler, in the morning or evening. Well, as you heard earlier, it just so happened that one particular womanís inner clock was off from most everyone elseís. For some reason she came to the well at lunch time. I suppose it was somehow obvious that Jesus was a Jew, not a Samaritan. Furthermore, he was a man, and she knew better than to get close.
It was, however, Jesus who started it all. A simple request, "give me a drink, would you?" How do you accomplish something like that without somehow touching? I donít mean skin to skin. Whatever that woman touched, according to the law, was unclean. To hand him a cup would be the same as touching him. I know the details sound silly to us in this day and age when we go overboard when it comes to touching, or so it would appear from all the skin visible everywhere. However, there are plenty of things we donít want to touch, places we donít want to go. Weíre not as "modern" as we think we are.
Jesus and that nameless Samaritan woman ended up having a conversation. Actually, in all the gospels, itís the most extensive one-on-one talk. Unlike the story of Nicodemus, which we heard last week, this was actually more of a two-way conversation. Granted, all the elements of Johnís particular storytelling style are present. His tales almost always involve misunderstanding. Last week Nicodemus didnít quite get that bit about being "born again," wondering just how someone can squeeze back into their motherís womb. For the Samaritan woman, the "living water" was a puzzle. She was thinking about the well in front of her, and how its water could be a bit stagnant, similar to cistern water, unlike a flowing fountain or stream which can be so refreshing. How on earth could Jesus draw up such "living water" from this deep well, she wondered, missing the spiritual truth our Lord splashed onto her.
Take it from me that Johnís skill at storytelling is especially evident in this episode. Itís not my job, though, to dissect it for your benefit, as if this were a literature class. No, I am here to invite you into the story, and therein to discover the truth it holds. In order to do so, however, I need to ask you, where are the places that you donít want to go? Iím not necessarily talking geography, folks, as I hope will become clear.
Note that in the story as weíve received it, Jesus invited the woman to go get her husband. "I donít have one," she replied, something which our Lord already knew, just as he knows the truth about each one of us. Jesus then spoke what she didnít, how she had had five husbands, and that the one with whom she was now living was not her husband. Now, before you start going to town with that one, imagining her as some kind of loose woman, letís put on the brakes. She may have been that kind of woman, I guess. One commentator even went so far as to say she was "coming on" to Jesus at the well. Yeah, right! - a manís fantasy.
The text doesnít give such detail, however. Who knows what sort of tragedy had befallen her along the way? Yes, divorce might have been a heavy part of the scene, the ripping apart of relationship. Perhaps, however, this was a levirate marriage, where the brothers of her original husband each took her as wife to fulfill the law, each dying like the first brother without leaving her an offspring to take care of her in her old age. Could be the man she was currently living with was family. That is, she didnít even have her own home and had to stay with a cousin or brother. Why is it weíre always so quick to assume the worst? The most we can really say is that she comes to the well at a time when no one else does - no one but Jesus, that is.
Whatís interesting about their conversation at this point is that, though she was intrigued that Jesus knew her as he did, she then quickly changed the subject. Obviously, this was a place she didnít want to go. And who could blame her? Losing five husbands, however it happened, takes a toll on a person.
Again, where are the places you donít want to go? Last Sunday Sue Ellen asked me how I was doing. Though I ask the same question all the time in the course of my pastoral work, Iím not good at answering it myself. Furthermore, I donít have ready-made humorous comebacks like my brother Lew Breidenbaugh, answers that sort of sidestep the question. I think Sue Ellen had in mind the darkness of the previous week, ministering to a family facing the pending death of a loved one my age. How am I doing? Thatís not the question. Whatís important is how they are doing. To be honest, a part of me was closed when she asked the question. That was territory into which I really didnít want to go, I guess. It took the phone call from a good friend later that day informing me he would soon be moving away, perhaps far away, to open that door - the door to my own grief.
I was talking with Katelyn Hildebrand this week, recalling how she had only recently faced the truth that her Mom was dying. "I donít like it at all," she said, almost matter-of-factly. I had to agree with her. "I donít like it, either. Not one little bit." But, you know, the road goes through this Samaria, through this valley of the shadow of death. We canít take another route. It brings us to this well. Even at a time when it seems like everyone else if off going about their everyday lives as it nothing was different. Here we are at this well. Only, weíre not alone.
That Samaritan well outside Shechem probably had a large rock sitting on it to keep out the dust. Most wells did in that day. Often it took two people to lift it. Jesus was literally sitting on the well when the woman arrived. That is, he was sitting on the rock. Though we didnít act it out, it probably required both of them to lift it. What a fitting image for facing into the places we donít want to go. No matter the details, weíre not alone in lifting the stone. Furthermore, we have a God-given resource along the way of that journey.
Jesus spoke of "living water," "a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." I donít know if the Samaritans used those words, but the Jews did. The Torah, the Law of God, they called "Living Water." The words harken back to that time in the wilderness when the children of Israel were tired of going where they didnít really want to go. They had enough and wanted to go back to Egypt, even if it meant a return to slavery. They were thirsty. "Give us water," was their continual mantra. "What am I supposed to do, God?" Moses pleaded. It wasnít a place youíd want to revisit some day. However, they werenít alone on that not-so-God-forsaken road. The Lord had Moses strike a rock in front of him with his staff. When Moses did, out flowed water. Later, living water would pour out of the tablets of stone as God shared his Word of Life, the Law with his stiff-necked, ornery, but much loved children.
Jesus spoke of "living water," and we hear in his words refreshment along the way. Not just H2O, as vital as this clear liquid is for life. Like the Torah, we hear in this phrase the living words of our Lord: what Jesus taught, what he revealed. We also hear the very presence of God, the Holy Spirit, who is with us, in us, a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. Even in the places we really donít want to go to, the Samarias of our life.
Let me ask again. Where are the places you really donít want to go? Where are your Samarias? Itís been my experience that these are the very places I encounter the One who knows me better than I know myself, the One who freely offers living water to quench my parched spirit, the One who is indeed the Savior of the world. How about you?
Let me end with a brief poem by Andrzej Jawien. This was the pen name of a certain Polish priest who, in 1978, became Pope John Paul II.
It joined us together, the well;
the well led me into you.
No one between us but light
deep in the well, the pupil of the eye
set in an orbit of stones.
Within your eyes, I,
drawn by the well,
(taken from Divine Inspiration: the Life of Jesus in World Poetry, ed. By Robert Atwan et. al., Oxford Press, ©1998, p. 190)
©1999Peter L. Haynes
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