Monday, November 1, 2010

Twelve Extraordinary Women Series - The Samaritan Woman

 This week's Extraordinary Woman is simply known as The Samaritan Woman. Her name is not mentioned in the Bible, but when you learn of her story, you will realize that her name bears little importance in comparison to the significance surrounding her life.

 In John Chapter 4 we meet an unnamed Samaritan woman with a rather scandalous background. Jesus met her when she came to get water from a well, and the encounter transformed her whole life.

At first glance, much about the scene seems ordinary and unimportant. Here is an anonymous woman who performed the most mundane of ordinary tasks: drawing her daily ration of water for her household. She came alone, at an hour when she probably expected no one else to be at the well which was probably an indication of her status as an outcast. Jesus was traveling through on His way to Jerusalem and because he had no rope or bucket with which to draw water, He asked the woman to give Him a drink. This certainly does not appear to be a scene that would lead us to expect one of the most profound theological lessons in all the Bible was just ahead, but look closer, and it turns out that many details in this picture are enormously significant.

First of all, the well was spring-fed, so it's water is always fresh, pure, and cold. It is the only well, and the finest water, in the vicinity where stagnant springs seemed to abound. The existence of the well was deemed to be a token of God's grace and goodness upon the Israelites at that time.

In Jesus' era though, this ground was in Samaritan territory and is another surprising and significant detail about the setting. For Jesus to be in Samaria was unusual and possibly even scandalous. The Samaritans were considered unclean by the Israelites because of their pagan ways. Jesus was traveling from Jerusalem to Galilee and a look on any map reveals that the most direct route goes straight through Samaria. But in Jesus' time, any self-respecting Jew would always travel a different way, avoiding Samaria altogether.

Virtually everything about the setting becomes remarkable. It is unusual to find Jesus alone. It is also shocking that Jesus would intentionally seek out and have a conversation with a Samaritan woman like this one. It was astonishing even to her that any Jewish man would speak to her. In those days, it would have been outrageous of  Him to drink  from an unclean pitcher that belonged to an unclean woman.

Jesus simply asked for a drink from the woman. She immediately expressed surprise that He would even speak to her, much less drink after her and replies "How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?". Jesus said, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, 'Give Me a drink,' you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water". She immediately understood that He was making an amazing claim and replied, "Sir, You have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep. Where then do you get that living water?". Jesus answered, "Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life". The woman replied "Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw".

Jesus tells her to "Go, call your husband, and come here". She was suddenly embarrassed. The truth about her life was so scandalous that she could not admit it to Him. He seemed to be assuming she was a typical woman with a respectable home and honorable husband. But she was nothing like that and told him the very short and censored version: "I have no husband". But Jesus knew the full truth already and said to her: "You have well said, 'I have no husband,' for you have had five husbands and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly". Notice he did not call her a liar, he actually commended her for speaking truthfully. She wasn't denying her sin but she obviously was not proud of it either.

At this point a thousand thoughts must have gone through her head. She certainly must have wondered exactly who He was and how He knew so much about her. She then brought up what was to her mind the biggest point of religious conention between Jews and Samaritans: "Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship". I think she genuinely hoped that this man who seemed to know everything could straighten out what seemed to be the fundamental debate of the ages: Who was right? The Jews or the Samaritans? Jesus gave her a brief but very potent answer in John 4:21-24.

"Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth."

First, He let her know that where you worship isn't the issue. True worshipers are defined by whom and how they worship - not where. We seem to get hung up on this even today. Church is not a building, it is a place of fellowship and worship that should be centered on faith and a relationship with Christ.

Second, He made it clear that religious tradition she had grown up in was totally false.  He was straight up about this and let her know exactly which faith had the foundation of truth.

Third, He subtly steered her back to the main subject by telling her that a new age was dawning and the era of the New Covenant was on the horizon.  She replied "I know that Messiah is coming. When He comes, He will tell us all things". And no sooner had she approached the subject of the Messiah, than Jesus said, "I who speak to you am He". The woman's response was typical of new believers who just had the burden of sin and guilt lifted - she wanted to share the good news with others. And notice that the first thing she told the men of her town was that Jesus had told her everything she had ever did....she was no longer hiding her sin. She was basking in the glow of forgiveness, and there is simply no shame in that. The contrast is beautiful. Scripture says that "Many Samaritans believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified." She transformed from being a woman who people avoided and saw as an outcast to a woman of faith and messenger of truth. And her message was simple, she had found the Messiah, He knew everything about her sinful past but received her anyway.

What is staggeringly unexpected about this whole fantastic account is that Jesus chose this time and this place and this woman to be part of the setting where He would, for the first time ever, formally and explicitly unveil His true identity as the Messiah.

The fact that she is unnamed leads me to think that this seemingly lack of detail was purpose driven and also part of God's plan. Perhaps so that we could put our name in her place, as a sinner, as a lost person, and as someone who needs a Saviour. I think we can all somewhat relate to the Samaritan woman. We have all questioned "What is truth?", we all have done things in our past that we are not proud of, and we all are in need of God's saving grace.

Her story has made me all the more thankful for a Saviour who looks at me (and all of us) not simply as a sinner who needs to be avoided and looked down upon but as a person with potential who just needs His truth, love and grace to become someone truly extraordinary.

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