Breaking with taboo to invite all JOHN 4:5–42
By June Renie
In today’s gospel we encounter Jesus in the Samaritan town of Sychar, sitting at Jacob’s well, tired and hungry from travelling. It is here, at the sixth hour, that we encounter Jesus declaring Himself “I am he” (Jn 4:26), to a Samaritan woman with whom rabbinic law forbade Him to interact.
Jesus and His disciples were travelling from Judea to Galilee. The Pharisees were plotting against Him as they surmised that He was baptising more disciples than John, who by this time was in prison. Jesus had become a threat to them. Just when they thought they had silenced John, here comes Jesus, another radical and a greater vexation to them.
As His time had not yet come, Jesus left Judea with His disciples for Galilee where He could continue His ministry, rather than face persecution. The route chosen was through Samaria, located between Judea in the north and Galilee in the south. Jews seldom used this route to avoid contact with Samaritans whom they despised.
It was Jesus who initiated the conversation. She came to draw water from the well. Sitting there alone and tired He asked her for a drink (Jn 4:6). His disciples had gone into town to buy food. He was therefore free to converse with her. Recognising that He was a Jew, it was natural for her to regard Him suspiciously and though she did not refuse Him, she questioned “You are a Jew and you ask me, a Samaritan, for a drink…” (Jn 4:9).
There are two issues here. First, she was a Samaritan. The relationship between Jews and Samaritans was fraught with conflict and enmity. Jews accused Samaritans of false worship because they rejected Jewish claims that proper worship must be made in the temple at Jerusalem. Instead, Samaritans worshipped in their own temple on Mount Gezarim, in the land of Jacob, home of their ancestors (Jn 4:19–20).
Second, she was a woman. Jewish rabbis considered Samaritan women perpetually unclean, “(menstruants from their cradle)” and by extension, condemned all Samaritan men for associating with them, because their “purity” rules could not be guaranteed.
It seems that in this encounter Jesus is doing much more than asking a stranger for water. He is purposely breaking Jewish taboos, by showing Himself ready to disregard hostile presumptions regarding Samaritan women, for the sake of a more inclusive fellowship.
Jesus responds to her observation that He is a Jew with kindness, “If you only knew what God is offering and who it is that is saying… ‘Give me a drink’, you would have been the one to ask, and he would have given you living water” (Jn 4:10). When she further challenges, “You have no bucket…the well is deep… how can you get this living water” (Jn 4:11). Jesus replied “Whoever drinks this water will thirst again…but the water I shall give…”
In her ignorance she asks for this water not because she understood that it represented eternal life but that she may “never have to come here again to draw water” (Jn 4:15)
Jesus’ intention was conversion, not through arguments about false worship but by showing up her ignorance and immoralities, and her need of a Saviour.
It is an invitation to all who believe in Him, to drink of the living water, the Holy Spirit. In this way He opened the door to salvation beyond Judaic instructions of divine relationship.
It is no longer a question of worshippers seeking God, but of God seeking people who will worship Him in the way God wants, “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:24).
God is Spirit and we worship Him in Spirit, in opposition to the carnal; in our new nature with our graces and in truth i.e. in sincerity and a true heart.
Jesus is thus offering a new relationship that transcends stigmas of geography, sexism and racism. It is here that He declares Himself the Messiah, “I am he” (Jn 4:26). Her expectation of the Messiah was that He will “tell us everything. He will introduce peace, by leading us into all truth, and dispelling the mists of error” (Jn 4:25).
This is a story of revelation, true fellowship and discipleship. Here Jesus makes a powerful statement to His disciples by witnessing to the Samaritan woman. He does not hide His intention to open up God’s salvation to all who will believe.
The gospel meditations for March are by June Renie, a retired law librarian and a graduate of the Catholic Bible Institute. She is an Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist at St Anthony’s parish, Petit Valley.