Reading: John 4: 5-42
The Samaritans are religious and cultural outsiders for the Jewish people in the New Testament period. Although these two people share the same land, the Samaritans are strangers and outsiders. Although they share faith in the same God and share the same Torah (the first five books of the Bible), the Samaritans are seen as having a different religion. Jesus tries to break down those barriers. The Good Samaritan is not a stranger but is the very best example of a good neighbour (Luke 10: 29-37). Among the Ten Lepers who are healed, only the Samaritan returns to give thanks, and this “foreigner” is praised for his faith (Luke 17: 11-19).
In this story in Saint John’s Gospel, which was the Gospel reading for Sunday last (the Third Sunday in Lent), the Disciples are already doing something unusual: they have gone into the city to buy food; but this is no ordinary city – this is a Samaritan city, and any food they might buy from Samaritans is going to be unclean according to Jewish ritual standards. While the Disciples are in Sychar, Jesus sits down by Jacob’s Well, and begins talking with a Samaritan woman who comes to the well for water. And their conversation becomes a model for how we respond to the stranger in our midst, whether they are foreigners or people of a different religion or culture.
Jesus presents the classical Jewish perception of what Samaritans believe and how they worship. The Samaritans accepted only the first five books of the Bible – the Pentateuch or Torah – as revealed scripture. For their part, Jews of the day pilloried this Samaritan refusal to accept more than the first five books of the Bible by claiming the Samaritans worshipped not one the one God revealed in the five books but five gods. Jesus alludes to this – with a sense of humour – when he says the woman had five husbands.
In other circumstances, a Jewish man would have refused to talk to a Samaritan woman or to accept a drink form her hands; any self-respecting Samaritan woman would have felt she had been slighted by these comments and walked away immediately. Instead, the two continue in their dialogue: they talk openly and humorously with one another, and listen to one another. Jesus gets to know the woman and she gets to know Jesus. All dialogue involves both speaking and listening – speaking with the expectation that we will be heard, and listening honestly to what the other person is saying rather than listening to what our prejudices tell us they ought to say.
When the Disciples arrive back, they are filled with a number of questions but are so shocked by what is happening before them that they remain silent. Their silence reflects their inability to reach out to the stranger. But there are other hints at their failure and their prejudices: the woman gives and receives water as she and Jesus talk, but they fail to return with bread for Jesus to eat and they fail to feed into the conversation about faith and about life. They are still questioning and unable to articulate their faith, but the woman at least recognises Jesus as a Prophet. They made no contact with the people in Sychar, but she rushes back to tell the people there about Jesus. No one in the city was brought to Jesus by the disciples, but many Samaritans listened to what the woman had to say.
Points for discussion:
The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is a model for all our encounters with people we see as different or as strangers.
Am I like the Disciples, and too hesitant to go over and engage in conversation with the stranger who is at the same well, in the same shop, at the same bus stop?
If I am going to enter into conversation with the stranger, am I open to listening to them, to talking openly and honestly with them about where they come from and what they believe?
When the conversation is over, will they remain strangers?
How open am I to new friendships?
This Bible Study was presented in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, on Monday 25 February 2008 as part of a Lenten series using the Bible studies in Chapter 3 of Patrick Comerford’s book, Embracing Difference: The Church of Ireland in a Plural Society (Dublin: Church of Ireland Publishing, 2007, ISBN 978-1-904884-13-2). Embracing Difference is available in the Resource Centre Bookshop, Holy Trinity Church, Church Avenue, Rathmines, Dublin 6 (email) and the Good Book Shop, 61-67 Donegall Street, Belfast BT1 2QH (email).