Whether we watch, listen to, or read the news, there are a number of features which appear to be common to every bulletin and newspaper. There are stories of hatred and prejudice. There are stories of misunderstandings. There are stories of people talking at crossed purposes. There are stories which reflect differences in moral standards. There are stories where people are having difficulty facing reality and trying to disguise it by constantly changing the subject. And there are stories of religious differences and all that that entails.
And whilst it’s easy to think, “What a mess! What has the world come to these days? The problems are just too big. And, as individuals, can we really make a difference,” maybe we should ask the question, “Well . . . what can we do about it?”
And the reason I say that is that although life has always been like all those things I’ve mentioned, Jesus has shown us the difference that one person can make. And I’d like to illustrate that from a story in the bible.
B. A SAMARITAN PERSPECTIVE
And the story I’d like to refer to is the story of the meeting of Jesus with a Samaritan woman at a well.
1. Prejudice (5-9)
Because first of all, it’s a story, which has as its basis the problem of hatred and prejudice.
And this was because Jews not only hated Samaritans, but there was no love lost by the Samaritans either. And this bitterness had been continuing between the two groups for over seven hundred years.
In the days of the Assyrian empire, half of the inhabitants of Samaria had been taken captive and deported in large numbers, and in their place were brought other people from around the empire. As a consequence, the Jews believed that the Samaritans were a mixed breed—their blood wasn’t pure. And as a result of the Samaritans mixing with foreigners brought into the land, their version of the Jewish faith had been corrupted too.
And unfortunately, despite Samaritan beliefs becoming more and more orthodox over time, and despite the occasional offer of friendship by the Samaritans, open hostility continued between the two groups. Consequently both Jews and Samaritans tried hard to avoid each other.
Occasionally, however, when a Jew was in a hurry to get from north to south, they took a short cut through Samaria. And that is exactly what Jesus did in this instance. And that was how Jesus’s confrontation with the Samaritan woman began.
And so, at the beginning of the story, when Jesus asked the woman for a drink from the well, her reaction was predictable: “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (9a)
2. Misunderstanding (10-12)
But prejudice is not only thing that is underlying this story. This story also has misunderstanding.
The mind of the woman at the well was set on one thing only: getting water from the well. So when Jesus started talking about needing “living water,” all she could think about was how impossible it was for Jesus to draw water out of the well, when the well was about a hundred feet deep and he had nothing with which to draw it out.
As a consequence, the misunderstanding occurred because she really wasn’t listening to what it was that Jesus was saying.
3. Crossed Purposes (13-15)
However, it’s a story about talking at crossed purposes too.
Indeed, the woman, who had to travel a long way from home to get water from the well, longed for the day when the journey to the well would no longer be necessary. She yearned for a day when there was an endless supply of water on tap—water that she no longer had to fetch and carry, particularly from a well so far from home.
As a consequence, that fact coloured what she heard Jesus saying. She didn’t understand that Jesus was talking to her on a spiritual plane at all.
4. Different Moral Standards (16-18)
Furthermore, the fact that she had to travel some distance to get water, tells us that this is also a story of a clash of moral standards.
Now the Jews believed that a person could be divorced twice, three times at most, and the Samaritan’s probably held similar beliefs. However this woman had been married five times, and she was now living with someone who was not her husband at all.
And it is at this point that we get a true inkling of who this woman really is. This wasn’t just any Samaritan woman at the well, this was a woman with a very bad reputation, even amongst her own people. And this explains why she chose to use a well so far away from home, well away from her own local well. It also explains why she was getting water at noon, rather than the more usual sunset.
This woman was not even acceptable to the majority of her own people, her morals were so low. And, therefore, she had chosen the time and the place deliberately to avoid other women of her own town and even of her own race.
5. Changing the Subject (19-24)
And yet the story doesn’t even end there. Because this story is also a story of a woman who had trouble facing up to her own shortcomings. Because rather than face the history of her relationships, she deliberately kept trying to change the subject.
She tried to divert the focus away from herself and onto the differences between the Jews and the Samaritans. She began a debate on the things that divided and had caused so much hatred over the centuries between the Jews and the Samaritans.
6. Religious Differences (25-26)
And that brings us to the fact that this story is also a story about ignorance of beliefs.
Because the Samaritan’s were waiting for the Messiah, just like the Jews. But they had no information about him. Their bibles were different. Indeed, the Samaritans only used the first five books of the bible, which said very little about the Messiah. Whereas the Jews, with the advantage of the Psalms, and the Prophets, had much more detailed descriptions of whom to look for.
So, when we watch, or listen to, or read the news, there are a number of common themes that seem to run through every bulletin or newspaper. Themes of hatred and prejudice, themes of misunderstandings and talking at crossed purposes, themes of people having difficulty facing reality, and themes of religious differences. And yet, in this one story from the life of Jesus, we have a story with the lot. But then the woman at the well, wasn’t just an ordinary Samaritan.
C. FROM JESUS’S PERSPECTIVE
Now, of course, from the perspective of Jesus, he had recently faced a very different encounter. He had been talking with Nicodemus, an eminent representative of Orthodox Judaism—a class who whole-heartedly despised Samaritans. As a consequence, his meeting with a Samaritan could not have been of any greater contrast.
Yet Jesus showed no hatred or prejudice, despite the common practice of other Jews. He had no difficulty in talking to the woman, even though, culturally, women were considered inferior to men. And he didn’t hold back from asking the woman for a drink, even though the mere holding of the jar of water would have made him ceremonially unclean.
Consequently, what we can see in Jesus is a determination to cut through the seven hundred odd years of hatred and prejudice; to cut through all the religious and cultural differences; to cut through all misunderstandings and the woman’s resistance to face reality; and to show the woman that there really was another way.
Yes, she may have been a woman who was despised by her own people and Jews alike. She may even have made many attempts to avoid the issues. But regardless of that, Jesus tried again and again to show that there was another way. And that he wasn’t going to be put off by all the barriers that the Jews had put up, that the Samaritans had put up, and that she was putting up. He cared for her too much for that. So he persisted; he brought her back time and time again, letting her know that there were alternatives to her current existence. He showed her that he cared.
It’s an impressive story. It’s an impressive story of prejudice, misunderstandings, and hatred. But it’s also an impressive story of how Jesus broke down all those barriers. So, when we reflect on our world and the mess it’s in today, it’s also a story we would do well to pay heed.
1. Hatred and Prejudice
Regarding hatred and prejudice . . . Jesus lived amongst other Jews with seven hundred plus years of prejudice up their sleeves. And yet he was having none of it. Consequently, he was able to treat the woman at the well as somebody that he cared for. And that is the challenge for us today too.
Now prejudice can be found all over the place. There’s prejudice with colour, race, sex, culture, religion, and basically everything in life. But like Jesus, we are called on to put all that aside, so that we can tell people about the alternatives in life; to show the depth of our faith in the way we care.
Of course that may go against the grain of the people who live around us. Nevertheless mixing with others—those we may not normally associate ourselves with and, perhaps, don’t even agree with—is an important part of our call.
Regarding misunderstanding . . . Jesus broke through the barriers of misunderstanding. And he did so by persisting with the discussion until she understood. The woman had her mind only on drawing water to drink, but Jesus continued the discussion until it was clear what needing “living water” meant.
Now misunderstandings happen all the time. But they usually happen because someone says or does something and the matter is not followed up. Consequently when misunderstandings occur there is no real attempt to either correct a person’s misunderstanding or to fix up the damage. But that was not a situation that Jesus was prepared to accept. And so he continued the discussion with the aim of correcting those misunderstandings.
Now today there are some really strange ideas about and many of them result from misunderstandings. Consequently to help clarify what is meant, to cut through the misunderstandings, is a very important aspect of our role as believers.
3. Crossed Purposes
Regarding talking at crossed purposes . . . The hidden agenda the woman had at the well was that she was waiting for a time when she wouldn’t have to travel so far to get water. Indeed it so consumed her thinking that it coloured what Jesus was saying. But Jesus was persistent and he retold his message in various different ways until his message finally got through.
Being persistent, then, and finding different ways to uncover the truth, is a vital part of our mission. We need to retell the truth in a variety of ways until it finally gets through.
4. Different Moral Standards
Regarding different moral standards . . . Interestingly, Jesus, didn’t point the finger at the woman at the well. Rather, he got the woman to re-evaluate her own life and left it up to her to make any appropriate changes.
Now, it’s very easy in this world to judge others by their morals. That’s what some people do all the time. But the only way that people are likely to change is if they want to—if they can accept the need to raise their standards themselves. And that’s the principal that Jesus used in this story. And the one that we need to adopt too.
5. Changing the Subject
Regarding changing the subject . . . The woman constantly changed the subject. She tried to avoid the real issues by throwing in anything that would take the focus of herself. So Jesus’s approach was to constantly return her to the subject in hand. Jesus was clear what the real issues were and, consequently, he tried his best not to get waylaid onto something else.
When we face the situation of talking to others about resolving issues, then, it’s amazing how people get uncomfortable and often try to change the topic. It’s like it’s all too hard or all too embarrassing. However, like Jesus, we need to be constantly on our toes and keep steering the conversation back to the issue at hand.
6. Religious Differences
And, regarding differences in religious beliefs . . . Even when the woman and Jesus were talking about the same Jewish religion, Jesus was keen to correct her understanding of the faith and return her to the true way. Now this is probably the most important part of the story, because all that Jesus had said and done hinges on this idea. Because without a true faith, none of the other things are truly possible at all.
Now today there are a variety of understandings of the Christian Faith which are commonly understood even in our own culture. And even amongst people who irregularly and even regularly attend church there are differences amongst their core beliefs. And yet to try to bring peace to the world without including faith in the true gospel . . . Well, we would be just wasting our time. For there can only be real peace when a restored relationship with God is at the heart.
Consequently, like Jesus we would be failing in our duty as believers if we fail to include a challenge of faith. A challenge that should try to correct those misunderstandings too.
Six clues, then, that we can apply to our own world and to our own situations. Now, obviously, not every effort of ours will be successful, not every effort will work. But then Jesus’s approach with the woman at the well was not guaranteed to work either.
However, in Jesus’s case it did work, and it worked spectacularly. Jesus not only made a huge difference to the Samaritan woman, but when she returned to her Samaritan village, it had a flow on effect to many people in that Samaritan village too.
Consequently Jesus’s example should encourage us to believe that, despite all the obstacles, we can make a big difference too.
So whether we watch, listen to, or read the news, there are a number of features which appear to be common to every bulletin and newspaper. There are stories of hatred and prejudice. There are stories of misunderstandings. There are stories of people talking at crossed purposes. There are stories which reflect a difference in moral standards. There are stories where people are having difficulty facing reality and trying to disguise it by constantly changing the subject. And there are stories of religious differences and all that that entails.
Indeed, the same six issues that we saw in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.
But Jesus did make a difference in that story. He told her about the Messiah, and he showed her that he cared. The challenge is: It is now our turn to use those principles and to do exactly the same.
Posted: 9th May 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis