I presume that the childhood game of the passing of cooties from one person to another was not a phenomenon known only in New Jersey where I grew up. Beyond the simple presumption between boys and girls that the opposite gender embodied cootiedom, a more perverse version went something like this: There were always a few kids who for whatever reason were deemed social outcasts and therefore infected with the ultimate disgrace of possessing “cooties” – a sort of mythical disease of dreadful humiliation that could not only be easily caught, but just as easily transmitted by touching someone else and saying, “Now you have Gertrude’s cooties!”
We have all encountered people who possess some social stigma that makes them outcasts. And in today’s passage about the Samaritan woman at the well, we meet the ultimate case of a person with multiple layers of first century Palestinian “cooties.”
Around these parts of Maryland, it is sometimes true that we pick on the state of West Virginia and its inhabitants. Most of this is in the category of good-natured humor. But imagine if it were so nasty that some people from Hagerstown and Maryland despised West Virginians so much that they would not ever talk with them nor even go through the eastern panhandle. Imagine someone like this who needed to drive home to Hagerstown from Winchester, Virginia. Of course, that is a simple straight shot north on 81 through Martinsburg. But imagine the hatred being such that they went east from Winchester to Leesburg, then north on Route 15 across the Potomac to Frederick, and finally west on 70 to get home – all to avoid even touching the soil of West Virginia!
Wow, that’s strong feeling – and that is exactly how it was for many Jews. The three regions (south to north) of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee were comparatively like the areas of Winchester, Martinsburg, and Hagerstown. Jews travelling between Jerusalem and Galilee would often take a circuitous travel route around the east of the Jordan River to be sure to completely avoid Samaria and its dirty inhabitants.
Though Samaritans and Jews had a common ancestry from the time of Solomon and before, Samaritans were a mixed breed descended from interbreeding with Gentile peoples who had taken the ten northern tribes into captivity in the 700 BC era. The Jews retained the pure blood from those who had returned from Babylonian captivity under Ezra and Nehemiah. This is a macro version of the ultimate family feud! And then add to this a theological dissonance, as the Samaritans had an unusual mix of beliefs.
As we turn to John 4, we see that the early ministry of Jesus was occasioned with much success. People were identifying with it to the extent that even more were being baptized by the disciples than by John the Baptist. This came to the hearing of the Pharisees in Jerusalem, and not wanting the ministry to heat up to a confrontation at this early stage, Jesus decides to withdraw north to Galilee.
John 4:1 – Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— 2 although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. 3 So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.
4 Now he had to go through Samaria. (The King James Version said He “must needs” pass through Samaria.)
It says there in verse 4 that he had to go through Samaria. One might read this as saying he was taking the Palestinian version of the quick Interstate 81 route north to Galilee. Rather, it is more appropriate to see this necessity as a lesson in reaching out beyond the immediate ethnic/religious context to demonstrate that he was indeed to be the savior of the world. In the verbiage of our current series, I might call this a demonstration of “Looking Across the Tracks!”
John 4:5 – So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
As the disciples at midday go into the town of Sychar to buy food, Jesus sits by the famous well of Jacob where he encounters a Samaritan woman of whom he requests a drink. The very asking of a question breaks several cultural barriers – the issue of the Jewish/Samaritan divide, her gender as a woman, and her sketchy character as a woman of ill repute.
John 4:9 – The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
Her conversation acknowledges the reality of these divisions. Jesus draws her mind away from the chore of drawing and drinking physical water to that of the spiritual water that quenches the thirst of the soul unto eternal life…
John 4:10 – Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
17 “I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
Though both traditions anticipated a messianic figure to come, there were differing ideas about where worship was to be located. Jesus says that though the Jews were correct in possessing the line through which salvation would come, the issue of place would be rendered inconsequential – that true worship would be in the Spirit. And Jesus plainly identifies himself to this woman as the Christ.
27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”
28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him.
The disciples are surprised by the whole scene upon their return from the town, while the woman (with incredible excitement that she has apparently spoken to the Messiah) forgets her water jar and rushes into town.
You can almost hear the disciples clear their throat as they start talking about food as if nothing had happened. “We picked up some Chik-Fil-A … some Arby’s two-for-one deals … and some classic big macs…”
Nobody wants to broach the awkward subject of who-was-that-chick-you-were-just-talking-to?
With the woman, Jesus spoke of water. With the disciples, Jesus spoke of food. Both were symbols of something greater, and in both cases the audience didn’t get Jesus’ deeper meaning without further explanation.
31 Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”
32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”
33 Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”
So as the crowds are coming out from Sychar to see what the woman has excitedly been talking about, the disciples are merely concerned with Jesus’ physical well-being. He is clearly refreshed; though they are quite sure he has had nothing to eat from any other source. Jesus tells them that he has “food” about which they do not understand – the nourishment and joy of accomplishing the Father’s will and being about his mission on earth.
34 “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36 Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37 Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”
Jesus recites for them what were likely some proverbial agricultural sayings at the time – sort of like how we might say of the weather, “Red at night, sailors’ delight; red in the morning, sailors’ warning” – ‘It’s still four months until harvest’. Jesus tells them to look up and see the significant harvest now available – possibly even gesturing and drawing their attention to the crowds of people moving toward them from the town. (He’s telling them to look beyond themselves – to look “across the tracks.”)
Planting a garden is great; growing seeds and seeing them emerge is fun; but the best part of it all is actually getting to the harvest and picking those red-ripe tomatoes or large green peppers! I’d like gardening a whole lot more if I didn’t have to do any of the planting, weeding, or watering. And the disciples were in that category – the prophets and Christ himself had done the hard work. The season of the great harvest had now come with the advent and work of Jesus, the Christ.
And that harvest was even at that moment going to be witnessed by the disciples, as …
39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41 And because of his words many more became believers.
42 They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”
For two days, Jesus and the disciples stay with these outcast people, and the harvest is great among them as many believe – both based upon the testimony of the woman AND the teaching of the one whom they termed the Savior of the world.
Let’s summarize this …
- There is a natural way of seeing people who are different than ourselves – by race, culture, lifestyle, socio-economics – and that leads to us staring across the tracks at them if we even notice them at all.
- The view of those across the tracks through the eyes of Jesus will cause you to “must needs” go across the tracks and “go through Samaria.”
- The message of the gospel is a winning message – the ultimate common denominator – that can break down the divides and make the tracks irrelevant … because …
The fact of the matter is that we all possess the same “sin cooties” as born sinners with a single human family inheritance of separation from God. But a greater truth is that Jesus was not put off by this … that he reached out to people like the woman at the well and to all others, right on down to each of us today – taking all our sin upon himself and paying the price of redemption through his blood.