Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, March 19, 2017
Scripture: John 4:5-34
I’ve brought with me this morning a little musical instrument called a mouth harp or a jaw harp. When I was eight years old, my Uncle James Motley on my mother’s side gave me his own mouth harp. This isn’t the one my Uncle James gave me. That one is packed away in some box stuffed into our attic…if you saw our attic you’d appreciate why I wasn’t willing to go looking for it.
When I was eight, my Mom and Dad and sister and I traveled over from Martinsville to Lynchburg to visit my Papa Motley. Papa Motley had suffered a significant stroke, so my Uncle James and his wife had taken in Papa and Granny Motley, to live with them in their little apartment in downtown Lynchburg.
My Uncle James owned a diner there downtown. It was Sunday, so the diner was closed in accordance with the blue laws, but at lunchtime, Uncle James took us down to the diner so he could grill us something to eat.
My sister and I were sitting on stools there at the lunch counter, the adults were all sitting in a booth, and my Uncle James comes and sits on the stool next to me. He takes this little dark gray gizmo out of his shirt pocket and hands it to me, “ya know what this is, don’t you?”
“No,” I said; I’d never seen one before.
He said, “It’s a juice-harp! You play it like this.” Then, Uncle James took the mouth harp back from me, put to his mouth, and started plucking away at the little wire piece, and he played a tune for me. Then, he handed it back to me and told me to give it a try.
He probably knew what to expect; I put it to my lips, gave the little metal piece a twang with my finger and it immediately whacked my front teeth, which was none too pleasant. Uncle James laughed, took the mouth harp back, and proceeded to show me how to avoid doing that and how to breath in and out as the little metal piece vibrated.
Uncle James said, “Me and my buddies used to go drinking; we’d sit at the bar drinking, and after a while I’d pull out my juice-harp, and I’d play a song on the juice-harp and my buddies would sing along…we’d have a great time.”
“Here,” he said, “I don’t need it anymore, so you can have it to play on.” And, with that, he put the mouth-harp back in my hand, and that was that, and he went back to being short-order cook for the family.
Handing over his mouth-harp was more than a simple gift from Uncle James to his nephew. Leaving behind his mouth-harp signified the way of life he’d also left behind. Of course, I didn’t understand that as an eight-year old. To me, it was a simple gizmo to play with; for Uncle James, it was a token of the days and nights he’d lost in an alcoholic haze with his drinking buddies.
I recall this moment with my Uncle James because I believe our Gospel writer, John, is doing something like this in verse 28. John records an action which appears to be of little consequence, but in reality, it was a deeply significant action.
In verse 28, John slips in this note about this Samaritan woman, “Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to town….” On first reading, this would seem equivalent to someone observing the exchange between my Uncle James and me, and then writing, “then, handing his mouth-harp to his nephew, the diner owner went back to the grill.” But, as with my uncle handing over his mouth-harp, the Samaritan woman leaving her water jar by the well marked a significant turning point, a turning point not simply in the telling of the story, but a significant turning point for this woman.
The water jar. This woman goes out beyond her town in the heat of the noonday sun rather than going in the cooler early morning as was the usual way with the other women in her town. She carries a jar to draw the water from the well.
The water jar. It’s a practical necessity for anyone to draw water out of this particular well, a well as deep in its physical depth as it is deep in its heritage. The jar is a practical necessity which the stranger whom she discovers there at the well, tired and thirsty, did not have.
The water jar. The water jar becomes the object through which she and the stranger will begin their conversation that dares cross barriers they both know so well ought not be crossed, barriers of heritage and ethnicity and religion and gender.
This water jar. The woman brings it with her empty. She expects to take it back with her filled with water, a heavy but necessary burden she must bear, day in and day out. But, unexpectedly on this day, she will leave the jar at the well, still empty, and, instead, she will return to her town and to her neighbors herself now filled with the wonder of Jesus, this stranger she meets and with whom she converses.
The jar left behind by Jacob’s well that day. John records this in his Gospel account not as an incidental note; he leaves that jar sitting there in plain view for you and me to see and to contemplate its meaning. “This is an icon,” John is telling us. “It is a graphic symbol full of meaning”. “It signifies what this woman has left behind so that she may take up the life of the Messiah, the Christ, whom she has now met.”
The jar left behind is John’s challenge to us: what must you leave behind, dear reader? what must I leave behind? what thing once so essential to us must we set aside with no further thought because of what we have discovered in Jesus?
With my uncle, that tiny bit of iron and wire he kept in his shirt pocket signified years of drinking himself into drunkenness. The mouth harp reminded him of money lost in bars and in lost work, friends with whom he once shared a way of life from whom he had to separate himself to find a new life of sobriety.
For this Samaritan woman, the jar represented all that she had brought with her that day to Jacob’s well that could have kept her from receiving this new life God had for her through Jesus.
What she brought with her in that noontime hour was a cultural heritage forged in racial hatred and religious dispute. What she brought with her under that blistering sun was her own identity as a woman living in a society with rigorous constraints on her value and her utility to men.
She brought to the well a habit of mind that elevated the inconsequential to the level of the insurmountable. She brought with her a defiant spirit founded not on clinging with integrity to her ideals. Her defiance lay in the deep wounds of personal failure. To put it mildly and politely, her life was complicated.
Jesus and his disciples are on the road again. They’ve left the Jerusalem area, in south-central Palestine. They’re walking north to return to Galilee up in the far north.
We call it Palestine now. What it was to the Jews in the first century was the once glorious but now compromised Promised Land. It was once the proud kingdom of Israel, brought to its fulfillment under the reign of King David. Israel, under the Kingship of David, was the pinnacle in Jewish history, when all the Twelve Tribes–north, central, and south—were united.
But subsequent leaders had squandered the Jews’ rich heritage. Within in a mere two generations, following King David’s death, the nation of Israel has split into two kingdoms, the northern one with a majority of tribes, named Israel. The southern kingdom, with only two of the tribes, was now called Judah. The fortunes of these two nations rose and fell across the centuries, until finally, the Assyrians swept in and destroyed Israel to the north.
The Assyrians forced the essential citizens of Israel into exile. Then, the Assyrians took people they’d conquered from other nations and resettled them in Israel, to mix with the Jews who were left behind to tend the land. It was these people who became the Samaritans.
Stretching across the midriff of Palestine like a bad case of hives lay Samaria. How the Jews hated the Samaritans. The Samaritans were a constant reminder of the Jews’ wasted fortunes. The Samaritans occupied land and holy sites of the Jews’ own religious and national heritage, such as Jacob’s well, and claimed them as their own.
The Samaritans had taken on some of the Jews’ own Scripture, claiming the five Books of the Law as their own religious heritage and then, in the view of most Jews, the Samaritans twisted and distorted that Scripture to justify their existence and their claim to the promises of God.
Last Sunday, Iowa Congressman Steve King made a big splash in the news. He posted this tweet: “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
Later asked by CNN interviewer Chris Cuomo to clarify his comments, King said he “meant exactly what I said.”
“You cannot rebuild your civilization with somebody else’s babies. You’ve got to keep your birth rate up, and…you need to teach your children your values,” King said. “In doing so, you can grow your population, you can strengthen your culture, and you can strengthen your way of life.” 1
Those words of Congressman King could have come straight out of the mouths of first-century Jews to express their disdain for the Samaritans then occupying the middle territory of their once great kingdom ruled by King David a thousand years before.
Which is why this woman is so taken aback, first, to see this Jew sitting at a well in Samaritan territory, and, then, she is incredulous that he would actually acknowledge her presence by speaking to her, and actually asking to drink from a jar that had touched Samaritan lips.
Think back a mere 60 years to our own state and community. Could you imagine a white man asking a black woman if he might step up next to her and take a drink from a water fountain marked “colored only”? You can imagine that woman’s shock and suspicion and fear that this conversation was even happening
All of that animus and mistrust lies deep within the psyche of this woman, as deep as the water that lay at the bottom of Jacob’s well and as ancient as the stones surrounding that well.
But, at that well in Samaria, Jesus sat himself down–tired, hungry, thirsty. Jesus sees this woman approach where he sits, a woman whom his culture has been encouraged him to hate, a woman whom his religion has taught him to despise, a woman whom his people’s leaders have prayed God to send the Messiah who will purge their land of such foreigners, a woman so beneath the dignity of a man to address directly as though an equal, because of her gender and because of her infamy as a sinner.
It is all too much for this woman to take in. This man, this Jew, his simple but wildly inappropriate request for a drink of water…it dares to strip away and expose her life at every level of her being.
So, instead, she fends for herself by retreating behind the most inconsequential minutia of practicality: verse 11, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with…you have no jar..and this is one deep well.”
She seeks to put Jesus in his place by resorting to what in her eyes is so obvious any fool should see it: verse 12, “Do you think you can do better than our founding father, Jacob, who built this well that not only sustained the lives of his family but the lives of generations of families right up to this day?”
She attempts to deflect Jesus into the always tempting digressions of religious discussion: verses 19 and 20, “Sir, you must be a prophet, so let’s talk about the relative merits of where’s the best place to worship God.”
Failing to dissuade Jesus from addressing anything of present significance for her own life, she turns to the what she is sure even he, a Jew, and she, a Samaritan, might agree on: verse 25, “God is working out a divine plan, and when the Messiah finally comes, he’ll explain it all.”
What Messiah might that be whom God will send someday to “show us all things”?
It’s the Messiah who knows in his own flesh and bones what it means to be tired and hungry and thirsty with no means to satisfy those needs. It’s the Messiah who dares sit alone in the territory of the ancient enemies of his people. It’s the Messiah who dares extend to a woman the same deference as he would extend to a man. It’s the Messiah who would risk the taint of a woman with whom her own village women would not associate.
It is this Jesus with whom she has been sparring back and forth, back and forth, who desires only a simple drink of water from her and who in turn, offers her the life and love of God. Verse 26, Jesus says to the Samaritan woman, “I who speak to you am he…I am just the kind of Messiah who would speak with one such as you.”
Just then, the disciples of Jesus show up, and according to verse 27, they are just as appalled to find their Master speaking with a woman and the woman herself was appalled by his speaking with her. Their reasons, of course, are totally from the other side, though. They are appalled as Jews who longed for God to restore the kingdom to Israel, as Jews who dared think this Jesus, this descendent of David, just might be the promised Messiah King. Most of all, they are appalled simply as men to see this Righteous Man violate all norms of propriety and status and authority accorded to men over women.
But, note this about these disciples: as John tells us in verse 27, not a one of them is willing to say out loud to Jesus what they are thinking. They’ve learned, you don’t say such things to their Master unless you want to hear chapter and verse just how wrong they’ve gotten most everything about God and the kingdom of God. They’ve learned to keep their eyes and ears open and their mouths shut.
In the meantime, John tells us in verse 28, “leaving her jar behind, the woman went back to town”; she is filled with wonder that she may have just had an encounter with the Christ.
Have you had an encounter with the Living Christ? The Christ of this Gospel, as told by Matthew and Mark and Luke, and—for us, this Sunday—as told by John?
What inhibits us from embracing this Christ? What necessity do you or I think we must keep on carrying, day in and day out, which an encounter with Christ would supersede and reduce to an afterthought? What encumbers our free and full proclamation of this Good News, that would entice others to come and meet Jesus?
From what wells deep and ancient do we draw what we thinks sustains, while Jesus sits close at hand to offer us living water which quenches what this world cannot satisfy?
What jar must you leave behind?
1 Theodore Schleifer, “King Doubles Down Controversial ‘Babies’ Tweet”, http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/13/politics/steve-king-babies-tweet-cnntv/