Meal 5: The Meal that never happened – the meeting with the Samaritan woman (John 4: 1-42)
For our fifth meal today, I have chosen a meal that never really happens in the Fourth Gospel, the meal that should have taken place on the outskirts of the city of Sychar, but of which we have no account.
Jesus and the Disciples have arrived at Sychar, close to Jacob’s well. But this is Samaritan territory. 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 Jews and the Samaritans see each other as having a different religion.
At a social level, they cannot inter-marry, they cannot eat together, they cannot even share water from the same well.
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 by Jesus for his faith (Luke 17: 11-19).
In this story in Saint John’s Gospel, which was the Gospel reading in the Lectionary last year for 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 kosher or ritual standards.
While the Disciples are in Sychar, Jesus sits down by Jacob’s Well, and there he 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, the 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 the one God revealed in the five books but five gods.
Jesus alludes to this – with a sense of humour – when he says with a touch or irony that the woman has 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.
For her part, 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.
A good host, as I said with the story of Mary and Martha, not only feeds the guest but shows full hospitality by engaging in full conversation with the guest.
All dialogue and all true conversation 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 they are so shocked by what is happening in front of 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. And they came to faith. And they welcomed Jesus among them.
Jesus stays among them for two days … in other words, he leaves on the third day … they come to a full Resurrection faith, a full Easter faith, their time in the wilderness is over, their Lent, their time of preparation has been fulfilled.
To failure to bring back food to Jesus reflects the fact that they could find nothing in the city. But the woman returns to the city and finds people who are ready and willing to be called into the Kingdom of God.
Jesus, who is a stranger in Samaria, becomes a guest when the Samaritan woman shares spontaneously but sincerely with him at her well. But the Samaritan woman becomes the guest, and her fellow Samaritans become guests, when Jesus becomes the host and invites them into full citizenship in the Kingdom of God.
Meal 6, The unwelcoming host: the meal with the Pharisee: Luke 7: 36-50
Peter Paul Rubens: The Feast of Simon the Pharisee
My second meal for this session is a story about a meal where Jesus was a guest, but the unwelcome guest at the meal, when he was invited to the house of Simon the Pharisee.
Jesus is accused at different times of eating with publicans and sinners. He knows that his detractors point to him and say: “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7: 34).
But Jesus also eats with Pharisees too. Indeed, he may have had many meals with Pharisees, although the Gospel writers simply make a passing reference to the host without naming him (see Luke 14: 1-24), or perhaps ignore the meals altogether.
However, in our next meal, I want us to imagine an evening when Jesus is found eating with an eminently respectable member of society, a Pharisee, and leading Pharisee at that too.
Jesus is invited to dinner by a leading Pharisee, Simon, although it’s some time before we learn the name of the host that evening. Nor is it clear which city he lives in. Is it Capernaum? Is it Nain? I don’t know, I don’t know that it really matters. What does matter is that the man who should have been the host fails at his task, and the guest at the dinner becomes the true host.
Have you ever been at a dinner where you know some of the guests were invited simply to boost the ego of those who had invited them? You know what I mean by the dinner-party-name-dropping-syndrome?
Some might think Simon was suffering from DPND syndrome when he invited Jesus to dinner. I’m not inclined to think so: after all, just a few verses earlier, Jesus has come in for some severe criticism, and has given a robust response.
Simon may have thought he was doing the decent thing … a Pharisee inviting a visiting rabbi and preacher to dinner would have been common courtesy and a common experience.
Nor is there is nothing unusual, anything offensive, about the behaviour of Jesus at this meal. He takes his allotted or allocated place at the table, and he probably enjoyed the conversation with the people beside him and opposite him.
But then the drama begins.
A woman in the city, a woman known as a sinner, manages to get in. Now, despite popular portrayal and the myths of centuries, it doesn’t necessarily mean that this woman was an open and public sinner, a figure who was known for her sinful ways.
Those who were blind or who were suffering from leprosy or a physical ailment were often treated as sinners. They were seen as having brought their visible scars on themselves, or to be suffering because of the sins of their parents or their ancestors.
Perhaps she wasn’t the easy woman of popular story-telling. Perhaps she was blind, or was disabled physically in some way. We are not told.
And some people ask: how did she get into the house anyway?
But on a balmy summer’s evening in a Mediterranean house, people will normally eat in the inner courtyard that is the part of any house of substance. I just love those long evening dinners in Greece, where you break bread and pour wine for each other at long tables, and as you hand the bread and pour the wine for the person next to you, the natural response is σε ευχαριστώ (seh efcharisto, thank you), the very phrase that gives us the word Eucharist, thanksgiving.
Anyway, as they were sitting around, perhaps in the inner courtyard, giving thanks to each other, this woman slips in, unnoticed. There was no need for her to gate-crash, she probably just slipped in silently and unnoticed.
At first, even Jesus would not have noticed her, for she stands behind him.
What hurt this unnoticeable woman on the margins so much that she cried so profusely? She cries so much that she must have been deeply hurt, thoroughly dejected and rejected.
I think Rubens and the other great painters get it wrong when they show her in front of Jesus, washing and drying his feet. This woman’s very marginalisation is symbolised in four ways:
● No-one noticed her coming in, or if they did, she wasn’t worth going to the bother of throwing out.
● When she is noticed, she is regarded by all present as being a sinner, although Jesus tells us that she has been forgiven … probably long before this incident took place.
● She remains unnamed, anonymous, throughout this story. At the beginning Simon is unnamed, but eventually we get to know who he is. This woman is obviously well-known in her town, but no-one calls her by her name. And in Christian tradition, we have continued to deny her identity, often confusing her with Mary Magdalene and with the woman caught in adultery – two completely different people altogether!
● And by her physical place at the table: she is standing behind Jesus, at the back, perhaps just where the servants would have stood as they waited to bring more dishes, or clear away some empty plates. But she takes the place of the servant at the table … in other words, she is a true deacon.
The woman’s behaviour is embarrassing for Simon. He never went through the normal courtesies and formalities of welcoming a guest into the house, seeing that his shoes were taken from him, his feet washed, his head anointed.
But her alabaster and tears used for anointing and washing Jesus, his head and his feet, also prefigures something else: the women who come to wash the corpse of the Crucified Christ, and to anoint him in his grave (Luke 24: 1-11).
This woman prefigures those women who will be the first witnesses of the Resurrection.
Wanting to eject her is a rejection of the Easter faith.
Simon thinks Jesus should know who this woman really is, failing to realise that Jesus knows what is really going on in Simon’s heart.
Simon is embarrassed, not by what Jesus might know about him, but by the woman.
But Jesus is not embarrassed at all. Instead of confronting the woman, he confronts Simon, and he commends this woman for her faith. He sends her out in peace – the very dismissal that we should experience at the end of the Liturgy every Sunday, week-by-week. She is sent out as a disciple, as an apostle, as a missionary.
And Simon wants to eject her.
Not because of who she is, or because of her reputation, but because she has shown him up to be a poor host.
There is a sharp contrast between the shallow faith of Simon, the pillar of the church, and the woman, who has been pushed to the margins, a sharp contrast between those with apparent faith and no response, and those dismissed for having no faith but who are full in their response to Christ’s presence among us.
Simon fails in offering the proper hospitality to his guest. This woman on the other hand receives the full and generous hospitality of God.
Simon has no place in his house for this woman – and to be honest, no place in his house for Jesus. But God has a place for her in his kingdom.
Topics for discussion and reflection:
The conversations between Jesus and these two women, the Samaritan woman and the woman with the alabaster jar, are models 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?
Am I like Simon, and only willing to count in within my inner circle those who are like me and who behave according to my standards?
If 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?
How often do I think people get what they deserve rather than sympathising with their predicaments?
Do I live up to my weekly commission to go out into the world in peace and in the name of the Risen Christ?
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral. This is the third of four addresses given at the retreat for Bray Church Together in the Priory Retreat Centre, Tallaght, on Saturday 14 March 2009