I’d like you all to think back to your grade school days and your years of high school. Of all the things you studied during those years, what was the one subject that you detested more than any other subject? What was the one subject that – in your opinion – was totally useless? When asked these questions, the answer most often heard is “history class.” The majority of students both past and present just do not see the need to study history. They view it as nothing more than a lot of boring names and dates and places and events. The only people who like to study history are nerds.
Nerd alert! I love history. Always have. Since I was a child I have been fascinated with ancient history, especially when ancient history dovetails with Biblical history. So I hope you will indulge my love of history for these next few minutes as we explore – together – the history behind today’s Gospel lesson from John chapter 4.
In these verses, St. John recounts the familiar story of what happens when Jesus stops to rest by a well in Samaria. Jesus has been walking all day and He is thirsty – and when a local woman comes to draw some water by that well, He asks her for a drink. During the conversation that follows we learn that this particular Samaritan woman has a pretty lurid past. She has been married and divorced five times, and now she’s living with a man who is not her husband. We’re looking at some major 6th Commandment issues here – remember that the 6th Commandment is the one that prohibits adultery – and to say that this woman was a blatant and public sinner is definitely a huge understatement. Now since Jesus is the Son of God and God wrote the Commandments, you might think that Jesus could have given her a stern lecture about her sinful life. But breaking the 6th Commandment is not what this account is all about. In fact, although she’s certainly a key player in what takes place, this really isn’t about the Samaritan woman, either.
So Jesus asks her for a drink. This is where we come to our first history lesson, because this seemingly simple request is shocking – it is downright outrageous – for not one but two reasons. First, in the Jewish culture of 2,000 years ago, men did not speak to women who weren’t family members or close friends. No honorable man would ever walk up to a woman and just start talking to her. It wasn’t proper and it just was not done.
Which brings us to our next history lesson. Even more shocking is that Jesus spoke to a woman who was a Samaritan. Here – as far as any God-fearing Jew would see it – Jesus had crossed the line and His behavior was absolutely unacceptable. To put it in its simplest terms, the Jews absolutely detested the Samaritans and the Samaritans detested the Jews. Even though Jews and Samaritans both had Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in their family tree, the Jews considered Samaritans to be inferior and unclean. Samaritans rejected every book of what we call the Old Testament except for the Pentateuch – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – and claimed that the Scriptures used by the Jews had been altered and falsified and corrupted. Samaritans rejected Jerusalem as being the proper place to worship God in His Temple and actually had built their own temple 40 miles north of Jerusalem on Mount Gerizim. Even in Jesus’ time it was not unusual for violent confrontations to take place between Jews and Samaritans.
So here Jesus breaks all kinds of social and theological conventions and asks this Samaritan woman to give him a drink of water. For the reasons I’ve just described, she is surprised – in fact, she is shocked. And she is understandably suspicious. “How is it that you, a Jew,” she says to Jesus, “ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” It’s a fair question, but Jesus doesn’t give her the answer she might expect. He starts talking about living water, and since the only water this woman can see is the water at the bottom of that well, she becomes more and more confused.
According to Jewish traditions, Jacob had dug this well thousands of years ago. It reportedly was the deepest well in all of Israel – today it measures 135 feet deep – and over the centuries it had always provided clean, cool drinking water to local residents as well as travelers along the road. So Jesus’ assertion that He could provide water better than the water that came from Jacob’s well was pretty unbelievable. She challenges Jesus and asks if He is greater than Jacob and she obviously expects him to answer “no.”
Time for another history lesson here – this one about the father of the Jewish nation, Jacob. Jacob was the son of Abraham’s son Isaac and his wife Rebekah. Rebekah had been barren for 20 years, but finally by the grace of God became pregnant. Here’s how the birth is described in Genesis chapter 25: “When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob.”
The name “Jacob” is translated to mean “the heel,” which makes sense since he was holding on to his brother’s heel when they were born. Today when we say that someone is a “heel” we mean that this person is a creep, a jerk, a no-good – someone who doesn’t measure up to our moral standards. And on more than one occasion during his life, Jacob truly was what we would call a “heel.” He took advantage of his brother’s hunger to steal his birthright, and later he tricked his almost-blind father to steal his brother’s blessing. Esau was so furious that Jacob literally had to run for his life. Eventually, of course, Jacob became the father of the 12 tribes of Israel, and in spite of his earlier misdeeds, he was viewed – by the Jews and the Samaritans alike – as a truly great man. So we can understand why this Samaritan woman was so skeptical that Jesus could be greater than Jacob.
Unlike the Samaritan woman, we today have the benefit of knowing that Jesus, the Son of God, truly is greater than Jacob. For us that’s a no-brainer. It is a matter of history and a matter of faith. But if you go back much farther than the lives of Jacob and his father Isaac and his father Abraham, we begin to see one more aspect of this account and we begin to understand why this history of Jesus and the Samaritan woman is so very important.
We go back to one of the very first days of God’s creation – specifically, to the day when Adam and Eve fell victim to Satan’s temptations and the world was forever plunged into sin. We go back to Genesis chapter 3, where God confronts Adam, Eve and the serpent and declares His judgment. We read: “The Lord God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.’”
There’s that word again: “heel.” But we’re not talking about a personality type here – we’re talking about a person. And we’re not talking about Jacob “the heel” – we’re talking about the Messiah. We’re talking about Jesus. The words that God used there in the Garden are a powerful and graphic description of what will take place on a wretched Friday some time after Jesus meets the Samaritan woman. It is a graphic description of what will happen when Jesus – hanging on the cross – fights the ultimate battle with Satan. There, on that day, Satan will symbolically bruise Jesus’ heel, inflicting what seems for a time to be a fatal blow, a perceived victory of death. But there is no real victory. Yes, Jesus was dead, but the wound was not eternally fatal because on the third day Jesus was raised from the dead. He lives, and He continues to live – and reign – for all eternity.
But Satan, the snake in the garden, did receive a fatal blow. The phrase translated as “he shall bruise your head” can also be translated as “he shall beat your head” of “he shall crush your head.” The easiest and most effective way to kill a snake is to stomp its head. Jesus Christ – born of a woman and the descendent of the first woman as well as a descendent of Jacob – will strike the fatal blow to Satan through His death and resurrection.
I mentioned earlier that the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman is not really about the woman. But it is about Jesus. It is about the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God, who truly is far greater than father Jacob. On that hot, dusty day, the Samaritan woman – who rightly and justly deserved to be condemned not for her birth heritage but for her flagrantly sinful life – came face to face with the Son of God. She says, “I know that the Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” And at that point the revelation is complete. “Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am he.’”
Jesus does much more than just reveal Himself as the Messiah; Jesus also reveals exactly what the Messiah has come to do. He offers the living water of eternal life. “Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’”
One seemingly minor but actually massively important footnote to our history lessons: when you go back and re-read the words of today’s Gospel lesson as well as the verses that follow, you realize that Jesus never did get His drink. But Jesus wasn’t really asking for a drink of water. What Jesus thirsted for was for the Samaritan woman to see this tired traveler revealed as the Messiah who would save her and all people – Jews, Gentiles and even Samaritans – from their sins. What Jesus thirsts for is for all people to see Him revealed as our Messiah, as our Savior, who saves all believers from their sins.
As Christians – as believers who have been brought to faith – we have that living water that Jesus describes in our Gospel lesson. It does far, far more than just quench out physical thirst on a hot day. The living water that Jesus so freely gives us refreshes our souls. It washes away our sins. And it truly does – just as the one who is so very much greater than father Jacob promises – give us eternal life. That’s what the Samaritan woman came to know on that day. And today by the grace of God we know it – and believe it – as well.