by Bruce Thompson.
I want to draw some threads from the encounter Jesus had with the Woman at the Well (John 4.5-42):
Firstly the fact that Jesus is well outside what would be considered the norm by his own community.
Jesus is a Jew; for those Christians who think otherwise get over it, he was a Jew. She, the woman, is a Samaritan.
We need to appreciate the significance of these facts. The Samaritan community claimed to have been the descendants of the tribe of Ephraim but had evolved during the Assyrian occupation while Israel was in exile in Babylon. On return from exile a dispute arose regarding the rebuilding of the Temple.
Samaritans and Jews thereafter remained at loggerheads with two competing sites for the worship of God. The Samaritans had built a Temple on Mt Gerizim while Mount Moriah in Jerusalem remained the Temple site for the returning Jews.
When the disciples returned to Jesus at the well they are said to be astonished that he had been talking to this woman.
But the message Jesus seeks to convey is that no one should be seen to be beyond our attention and care.
As Christian disciples we should not limit our sphere of activity to ‘our own’, in ministry we should not exclude those outside that tradition.
The second thread I wish to draw from this passage is that the encounter includes a dialogue not a monologue.
The woman gives as good as she gets.
According to the one who recorded the conversation the woman might later acknowledge that Jesus could be the Messiah, but I can’t overlook the fact that the woman is ministering to Jesus every bit as much as he is to her.
Jesus, you see, is thirsty. But he cannot quench his thirst for he has no bucket.
Along comes the woman; a woman who apparently no self-respecting man from his tradition should be conversing with. But she has a bucket and she is prepared to draw water.
The only chance Jesus has of his physical need being met is by asking her to give him a drink. She, like the disciples later, is astonished that he should ask her.
I cannot count the number of times over the course of my ministry that I have gone to visit someone and instead of me ministering to them have found them to be ministering to me.
The terminally-ill woman who, on my very first visit to a hospice as a 27-year old, fresh out of college, wet-behind-the-ears minister, seemed more concerned about how my wife Karen and I were settling in to our first manse than she was about her impending death; the rabbi who opened up scripture to me like no Christian teacher ever has; the compassion, the care and concern shown toward me by those whom I had been called and appointed by the Church to serve.
It is clear from this mid-day encounter at the well that the one whose spiritual needs were about to be met had first met the physical needs of Jesus.
Therefore as disciples we should not assume that the meeting of need is in one direction only.
The third thread that I wish to tease out of this incident is the view that there is a mutual reward when giver and receiver are open to each other.
We have already mentioned that because Jesus is prepared to engage with a woman from outside his own religious community his physical need is met; but this goes deeper still in my view.
Simply by being prepared to engage with this woman, and to receive from her, Jesus acts as the humble party.
Whatever our 21st century liberal sensibilities may say, this was at the time an extraordinary act of deference. Jesus displayed great respect for this woman, a woman whom many would not pass time of day with. And yet Jesus submitted himself to her.
It is an encounter between two very different people, yet it is one that is packed with profound possibilities.
The encounter broadens the horizons of the woman and establishes her as someone worth listening to. She returns to her city and has news to share. She is clearly heard because many Samaritans come out to see Jesus for themselves. Apparently no one would have listened to her before but now they do and even act upon her words.
The conversation also provides the opportunity for a vision where place is less important for the Presence of God than had thus far been the case.
No longer would there be a need for debate as to where the Temple should be located, Gerizim or Moriah, it no longer matters, because true worshippers will worship in spirit and in truth. In other words God, now, may be found anywhere on this earth, in the city where we live, at the well where we are refreshed, in the conversations we hold, wherever needs are met.
This incident at the well should shatter once and for all the illusion that God only speaks through those who worship on a certain metaphorical mountain, in other words those that uphold only a particular sacred text or follow a certain path to the exclusion of all others.
When the time comes for me to let go of this ministry to which I have been called I would like to think
- that I have engaged in dialogue,
- that I have held conversations profitable to all those who were party to them,
- that I have learnt from, and shared with, those whose faith perspectives have been held as sincerely as I have held mine,
- and that I have been present with, and stood alongside, my neighbour in their hour of need.
If this turns out to be so then I believe that it would constitute having been a humble believer in a world of increasing diversity.