In chapter 4 of the Gospel According to John, we read the story of Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. In verse 9, the story is interrupted by a parenthetical statement that appears to have been inserted by the author to clarify the story for the reader.
The Samaritan woman said to him [Jesus], “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) NRSV
Jews and Samaritans share a common heritage. They are both descendants of Israel (Jacob) with the Samaritans being descended from Jacob’s most beloved son, Joseph. This fact alone should explain some of the animosity towards the Samaritans and the rest of Israel’s descendants, but the schism was deepened during the time of the division of God’s people into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, the Assyrian conquest, and the Babylonian captivity. The Jews of the southern kingdom kept themselves monotheistic and otherwise set-apart from their Babylonian captors while in exile. The Samaritans, meanwhile, co-existed with their invaders, intermarried, and adopted some of their gods and religious customs. When the two groups reunited… there was tension, to say the least.
At the time the story related in John takes place, the biggest disagreement between the Jews and Samaritans is where they should worship God… on the mountain in Samaria (where the well is located) or in Jerusalem. (John 4:19) This centuries old conflict meant that Jews may do business with Samaritans (the disciples did go to buy food in the Samaritan town, after all – John 4:8) but they did not speak to them outside of business transactions and they certainly did not drink from the same water pitcher.
And that got me thinking…
“Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”
Like water pitchers.
Or water fountains.
Or lunch counters.
But isn’t that the reason Jesus is talking to this woman? This Samaritan woman? This Samaritan woman? The reason he is asking her for water? Water from her pitcher? Water taken from Jacob’s well? Jacob, ancestor of the Jews. The same Jacob who is the ancestor to the Samaritans. The Jacob who makes them kin.
Why would Jesus do this?
Could it be the same reason why Dr. Martin Luther King marched in Birmingham? Because injustice was there. And because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Could it be the same reason why Desmond Tutu, in his work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, asked blacks and whites to look each other in the eye and say,”You are a God-bearer?” Because we are all made in the image of God and deserve the dignity of that truth.
Could it be because she was seeking him (“I know that Messiah comes, he who is called Christ. When he has come, he will declare to us all things.” – 4:25)? Because Jesus tells us that “he who seeks finds.” (Matthew 7:8)
Jesus’ approaching the Samaritan woman is the incarnation of Isaiah’s prophesy of a reunified Israel:
It shall happen in the latter days, that the mountain of Yahweh’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it.
Many peoples shall go and say,
‘Come let’s go up to the mountain of Yahweh,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
and he will teach us of his ways,
and we will walk in his paths.’
For the law shall go out of Zion,
and Yahweh’s word from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations,
and will decide concerning many peoples.
They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:2-4; emphasis mine)
So my question is this: If Jesus made the concerted effort to demonstrate acceptance of and reunification with the Samaritans (both in this instance and in others, such as the healing of the lepers or the parable of the good Samaritan), then why does the writer of John’s gospel (probably written 70 years, give or take – that’s about three generations) insist on adding the parenthetical? In the present tense? Not “Jews did not share…” but “Jews do not share…”.
*this post is based on a Lectio divina/ Ignatian meditation I completed at this year’s Lenten Retreat at The Episcopal Church of Bethesda-By-The-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida, March 3, 2018; led by Rachel Held Evans