The Samaritan Theologian

John 4.5–42

God, help me to see others not as my enemies or as ungodly but rather as thirsty people. And give me the courage and compassion to go offer your Living Water, which alone quenches deep thirst.—Henri Nouwen


When we read the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman, we should first remember and retain one thing: it follows straight on from his encounter with Nicodemus.

I was told I was a bit harsh on Nicodemus last week. So let me give you my opinion, rather than the various opinions of scholars; my opinion is that Nicodemus did come into the light by the end of John’s story of Jesus; I think he came in a series of steps through progressively lighter hues of grey. But like so many of us, he took his time. He listened to his fears, like the Israelites in the wilderness story. That’s not the way forward.

Yet here, today, when we meet the Samaritan woman, Nicodemus is still in the darkness. He hasn’t yet walked into the light. So here’s the thing: the Samaritan woman is a total contrast to Nicodemus. Walking from chapter 3 into chapter 4 of John is like stepping into another world.

There are some very obvious ways that we can see this.

Nicodemus was a man, the woman was—well, a woman. That was an almost insurmountable barrier. Men held all the cards in that world.

Nicodemus has a name; he was a man, after all. The woman has no name, like so many women in the Bible. It wasn’t thought to be important for a woman’s name to be known. Oh, dear.

The woman was Samaritan, Nicodemus a Jew. Jews kept themselves quite apart from Samaritans. Another huge barrier.

Nicodemus was important, powerful even. The woman was a nobody.

Nicodemus was educated, the woman most likely  illiterate.

Getting the picture? These two stories are placed next to each other for a reason.

That reason is to make a contrast.

We see the contrast starting in the very first part of the story. When Jesus and the Samaritan woman met, ‘it was about noon.’ It had to be sometime, right? Remember when Nicodemus came? It was night.

Does the time have a deeper meaning? Yes it does, but before we get there we need to talk more about this woman.

She’s had a bad rap over the centuries.

She’s not the only one. How many times have you heard Mary Magdalene was a prostitute? There’s no biblical evidence for that. Just zilch.

In the same way, scholars—mostly men, of course!—have decided that the Samaritan woman was morally loose. Five husbands! And not married to number six! Shocking!

It’s quite likely that she’d been a widow five times.   People often died younger then. And it’s likely that this man was refusing to give her the security of marriage. If she weren’t living with him, she’d most likely be forced into prostitution. We need to have some understanding of her situation, and hold off from judging her.

So she’s at the well in the middle of the day, all alone. She may not have been popular; it doesn’t mean she was immoral.

But John’s not interested in all that. That’s the surface meaning. The deeper meaning is this: unlike Nicodemus, she came when it was as light as possible. Her heart—the heart of an uneducated, despised woman—is open to Jesus.

So Jesus tells her about ‘living water’. Water that flows and keeps on flowing from the heart of someone, anyone, who is born of the Spirit.

And that water flows through her and overflows and all she can do is run! to tell everyone she knows about Jesus.

And once that living water flows from the depths of her being it just keeps on going. Never stops.

The living water still flows today. It is the Spirit teaching us of Jesus Christ and what Jesus is doing in the world today.

Jesus is still meeting with people—often the people we least expect—and drawing them to himself.

Do we see people as Jesus did?

He looked at a Samaritan woman, a nobody, and saw that she was open to the gospel that he was bringing. Do we see the superficial meanings of people, or do we look deeper? Do we even listen?

Do we talk to them in a way they understand, or do we use language that they don’t understand? Jesus and the woman spoke of drinking water from a well, and so Jesus went on to speak of living water.

To talk with people in a way they understand—to really connect with people—we first must listen. We must take them and their concerns seriously, as Jesus did at Jacob’s Well.

I’ve called this sermon ‘The Samaritan Theologian’, not ‘The Samaritan Woman’. Even though she was uneducated, this woman had a sharp mind. She was a theologian. We also need to be theologians to today’s ‘Samaritans’. ‘Samaritan theologians’, in a way.

Jesus needed to be aware of the issues for Samaritans when he spoke with this woman. He needed to have listened. That’s also the case for us today. Can we be theologians who understand today’s Samaritans? And who have listened to them?
The woman at the well was a theologian, and we will meet people outside the church who are also theologians.

We must be Samaritan theologians in the next twenty five years, people who are attuned to the way people outside the church think.

The woman at the well was a theologian, and we will meet people outside the church who are also theologians. We must be Samaritan theologians, people who are attuned to the way people outside the church think.

How could I be a theologian? you may ask. A long time ago, a deacon called Evagrius of Pontus said this:

If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.

That’s where we start. Not with a degree, but with prayer. Evagrius was reflecting on John 4 when he wrote this, specifically where Jesus says to the woman that the God is looking for those who will worship him in spirit and in truth. Can we be among them?

When he spoke to Nicodemus, Jesus spoke of the Spirit like this:

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit

And with the Samaritan Theologian, it’s living water. If you fast-forward to chapter 7 (verses 37b–39a), Jesus says

Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” ’ Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive…

This living water is the Spirit flowing through us. That wind is the Spirit blowing us in the way we should go.

Who are we to be, in our place and time? People who listen for the wind of the Spirit, and who go with the flow of its living water.

We need the living water of the Spirit welling up inside us to help us to listen to the people among whom we live and so speak the right words to them. Then, they will also find living water.

(19 March 2017, Lent 3A)

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Filed under Lent, RCL, sermon

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