I presume that the childhood game of the passing of cooties from one person to another was not a phenomenon known only to 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 be easily caught, but just as easily transmitted by touching someone else and saying, “Now you have Isabella’s cooties!”
I know you are going to be shocked to hear me say that the word does not have a Greek or Hebrew origin. Sorry. I actually did look up its etymology (language roots), and it is rather complicated. But what is not unclear is the experience we have all encountered of people who possess a social stigma that makes them outcasts. And in today’s reading 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 most 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 begin today’s reading in 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.
It says 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.
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. 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.
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.
A lot of people feel that they possess spiritual “cooties” – a sense of separation from God and truth because of sin that could never be forgiven. Others fail to see the gravity of their lost condition due to the curse of sin, believing that they are honestly not that bad and certainly not in a position of needing a spiritual/religious answer. The appropriate balance and fact of the matter is that we all possess “cooties” as born sinners with an 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.
Jesus is the true well – the true source of water for life… for us to drink, for us to share.
Jesus Talks With a Samaritan Woman
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. 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.)
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.)
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.”