"This Truly Is the Saviour of the World"

Lent 3A

John 4: 5 42

Introduction

This reading comes at the middle of the time of prayer and fasting in preparation for the great Easter celebrations. Although it is the Year of Matthew, we suspend our methodical walk through that Gospel account until after the celebration of Pentecost. Most of the readings until then will be from the Gospel according to St John.

The text for our meditation is about the encounter between our Lord and a Samaritan woman at the spot known from ancient times as Jacob's Well. It follows on from the account of John the Baptist's disciples who had come to him saying:

"Rabbi, he who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you bore witness, here he is, baptizing, and all are going to him."

John the Baptist's reply is one of the most beautiful passages in all Scripture. It signals a change in the flow of events, which is noted by the critics of John who shift their focus to Jesus.

The following preamble to our text takes us to the opening scene.

John spared no one in his rebukes. The Pharisees had felt his stinging words, and now Herod Antipas, prince of Galilee and Perea. Antipas imprisoned him immediately in his fortress at Machaerus, east of the Dead Sea. With John out of the way, the Pharisees could now concentrate their attacks on Jesus. So he decided to leave hostile Judea, and make Galilee the scene of his ministry; there he will labour for the next eighteen months. Possibly to avoid trouble from Antipas' Police, who had just arrested John further up the Jordan, Jesus returned to Galilee through the Samaritan hill country to the west. It was now a month after the paschal feast (Passover), and so the Samaritans would not be on the lookout for Jewish pilgrims; moreover, a small party coming up from the Jordan would not attract attention. This route was also more pleasant and cooler than the Jordan in May.

(The Gospel Story by R. Cox.)

Some Notes On the Text

We draw significantly from:

  • "The Gospel Story" by R. Cox (1950)
  • Jerome Commentary (1968)
  • Other sources

Verses 5 and 6

Jesus came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph, and in which Joseph's bones were later laid (Joshua 24: 32). Being wearied from his journey, Jesus "was sitting thus by the well", around midday.

The venerable evangelist and scholar St John Chrysostom (4 th century) adds something to note:

"Not on a throne, not on a cushion, but simply, and as he was, on the ground."

Cox also helps us with setting the scene:

Our Lord was tired after the morning walk from the Jordan; it would be about twelve miles, and uphill all the way. How many disciples were with him? He was left alone at the well; hardly more than two or three would be required to buy food. John, who tells the story, was one of them; Peter probably another, and James maybe the third. Jacob's well, about 100 feet deep, was almost 2,000 years old; it was only a few hundred yards from Sichar (Sichem, where Abraham had first settled in the Promised Land).

Act One

Verses 7 and 8

A Samaritan woman comes to draw water, and Jesus asks her for a drink. He is alone as his disciples have gone into the village to buy some food. The woman is dismayed that a Jew would talk to a woman, even more surprising, to a Samaritan woman. But this is not a problem for Jesus: women held an honoured and prominent place in His discipleship throughout His ministry. That this was a Samaritan was a little bit more of an issue but not insurpassable as Jesus was to demonstrate.

Verses10 and 16

One of the most helpful ways to understand what is really going on in this account is simply to follow the conversation just as it flows. Let's do this now.

Jesus: Would you give me a drink?

Woman: What do you mean. You're a Jew asking me a Samaritan for a drink!

Jesus: And what's wrong with that! If you knew what God's blessings are, and how freely he gives them; and if you knew that it is he who speaks to you that has them all in his power to give you then it would be you asking and he would not refuse you. And it would be living water that he would give you!

Woman: What do you mean by hinting that you can give me running water! This is a very deep well. At this time of the year you don't find running water down there at the bottom of it. And you don't even have a bucket! Are you trying to tell me that you are greater than our Father Jacob who gave us this well? He and his sons and cattle all took water from here to quench their thirst!

Jesus: Yes, you are right. They did drink this very same water. Remember, they became thirsty again and had to drink more.

But whoever drinks the water I shall give, will never be thirsty again!

The water I shall give will become a spring of water within each person, and it will keep on flowing to satisfy that person and keep them alive and well for age upon age, upon age.

Woman: If that water will stop me ever becoming thirsty again, and save me having to come here every day to carry it back to my home, then it's just what I need. Would you give me a drink of that water?

Cox sums up the dialogue so far for us:

The woman came when there would be nobody at the well: the woman of Sichar would draw water morning and evening. Our Lord was most likely resting in the shade of a tree nearby: the woman hoped that he was asleep, and would not notice her. But the Good Shepherd is never too tired to search out the lost sheep. As soon as she drew the water he began his simple instruction based on the present situation: thirst and water. Water is kept in wells and cisterns; there are no running streams in summer, except the Jordan. Jesus' promise of such a stream ('living water') sounded fantastic to the woman when be could not even procure a drink from the well. But he was raising her mind to higher things: the life of sanctifying grace that completely satisfies all the thirsting of human beings for holiness and union with God. The woman had done him a favour in giving him a drink; he would repay he for it with the gift of eternal life.

Act Two

Verses 16 and 25

Our Lord has enjoyed this little banter between them, and even discerned that, being the bright and highly intelligent person she is, she has genuinely listened to him, and, though challenging His strange suggestions, she has grown more respectful with each sentence she uttered. To the best of her ability and limited knowledge, she was trusting Jesus to give to her what she thought He was offering. That is enough for Jesus to decide that He would indeed give her what He was really offering, for that was what she really needed.

However, He must first help her sort out a few things in her life. Jesus therefore, decides, now, to change tack, and so He sparks off a new dialogue.

Jesus: Go and call your husband.

Woman: I don't have one.

Jesus: You're right there: you've had five! You know what that really means the one you are currently living with is not your husband.

Woman: (No comment on the content of our Lord's remarks).

I see, Sir, that you are a prophet. (Implying, it is obvious Jesus knows exactly what her background is and that He is right.)

Did you know our fathers worshipped on this mountain even though you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only correct place to do this! (Hoping a little religious controversy will distract him and throw up a smoke screen. After all, if many wise and educated men disagree over such an important matter as to where the Temple should be, how could an ignorant woman be condemned for following her impulses! This is a very smart lady, and Jesus knows it.)

Jesus: As a matter of fact it will soon be irrelevant which mountain you think you should worship on. What will be important is first that it is not a particular place that you worship in. You will worship God "in spirit", meaning, everywhere. Secondly you will worship God "in truth", i.e. with the perfect homage you should pay through his Messiah. (Hinting that it will no longer be by the shadowy imperfection of the old sacrifices but by the reality and perfection of the new and eternal sacrifice.)

Woman: I'm sure you must be right. I can only remark that I know in my heart that the Messiah, when he comes, will explain everything to us in language like this that we can understand. (Implying that Jesus seems to be speaking, as she would expect of the Messiah. This is as close as she dare approach such a lofty and sacred thought.)

Verse 26

Jesus gratefully accepts her implied yet cautious and provisional designation of Himself as Messiah. She has come a long way in a few minutes. She has engaged in profound conversation which many people then and ever since, would prefer to side step. Jesus, in a rare open and direct manner when she says, "I know that the Messiah is coming," now reveals his true identity:

"I am he, the one who is speaking with you."

Act Three

Verses 27 and 28

Suddenly the disciples return and are surprised that Jesus is talking to a woman. They know him well enough, however, to keep such thoughts to themselves. Immediately, the woman, responding (at last) to our Lord's request for a drink, puts down water jar and hurries back to her village. She is so excited about her meeting that she cannot wait while Jesus drinks. After all, she can collect the water jar later. Then again, with her faith, now that she has come to the source of living water, she has no further need of any other.

Verses 29 and 30

The woman is very insistent to all who are back home. "Come and see a man who has told me everything I ever did. I am so amazed I can only believe deep down that he really is the Messiah we are waiting for!" That was enough to start everyone heading off to Jacob's well!

Verses 31 to 38

Meanwhile, the disciples who have justreturned urge Jesus:

"Rabbi, have something to eat."

Our Lord finds them even slower on the uptake than the Samaritan woman. He walks them through an important lesson.

Cox explains this for us.

Just as our Lord has used his thirst to instruct the woman, he now uses his hunger to teach them the essential of the new life they are beginning to lead. His hunger is for the souls of sinful men; to save a sinful world is 'the task' given him by his Father. This first victory in winning a soul from sin turns his thoughts to the future, and the part to be played by his first followers in converting the world. At the moment they are more concerned with satisfying material hunger; there is plenty of time to make plans for future work.

This attitude of theirs reminds him of a proverb: After sowing it will be four months till harvesting; so one can sit down and rest till then. But how quickly time passes; the fields around them are almost ready for harvesting (white, not golden grain in Palestine).

At this moment the Samaritans are coming out to them, ready for conversion; they must be ready, then, at all times, to abandon all personal interests, even to go hungry, when souls are in need of help. No one can sit back and rest; others have already sown the seed before them (here He is thinking of the prophets of the Old Testament, and John the Baptist).

Our Lord could reveal himself as the Messiah here in Samaria because there was no danger of political revolt, as there would be in Galilee. The Samaritans were outside the general trend of Jewish opinion.

Verses 39 and 40

While Jesus was finishing that short lesson to His disciples, the villagers were approaching the vicinity of Jacob's Well. Many of the townsfolk had believed in Him on the strength of the woman's testimony. They went up to Jesus and begged him to stay with them. He accepted their invitation and stayed there for two more days, teaching those who wanted to listen. Many more came to believe in Him and His message.

Verse 41 and 42

They approached the woman and declared that they no longer believe in Jesus just because of her report, but also because they had heard Him themselves. Indeed, they recognised in Him something even more than the Messiah to which she had witnessed. The event closes with the most unexpected acclamation:

"We know that this truly is the saviour of the world".

More literally, the Samaritans said, "This is the Saviour of the world, the Messiah (Christ)". A more complete declaration of our Lord's office as Saviour of the world" is nowhere to be found in the Gospels. We are privileged, therefore, to know the circumstances in which this august and totally appropriate title is ascribed to Jesus.

Conclusion

This amazing account began with Jesus being recognised as a weary traveller; then a Jew; then a Prophet; then the Messiah; and finally, in an affirmation of widely held conviction, the Saviour of the world! All this from a heart that was open and willing to listen and enter into genuine dialogue as distinct from one of minimul politenesses, or cold formality. As a result, the Lord was able to win many followers.

Jesus worked no wonders or miracles in this great account. Through one who was prepared to let the Lord see into the depths of her soul and put right any disorder there, He was able to convert a whole mass of people. There is surely a lesson here for the Church today. Those who want to worship in Spirit and in Truth are called to follow in this same tradition.

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