THE WOMAN OF SAMARIA
Reading: John ch. 4
There must be very few records of the experiences of the Master which so draw our imagination as the one which we have read together this morning. This record of Jesus and his talk with the woman at the well is surely one which fills us almost with a sense of awe as we reflect upon the beautiful way in which it places before us our duties regarding worship. His beautiful character, his understanding attitude, his tender-ness of approach, and yet at the same time his firmness, are presented in a way which probably appeals to us especially, as most of us are Gentiles according to the flesh.
Like the Samaritan woman, we by nature are outside the operations of God's purpose, brought up in an environment where men and woman worship, as did those Samaritans, they know not what.
When one thinks of the number of times Jesus was in conversation with the leaders of the people, arguing about these matters concerning the Law and the Prophets, in Jerusalem and elsewhere, is it not remarkable that it should be an incident such as this which is set before us to teach us in the simplest and the most beautiful way of the facts concerning this subject of worship? Yet it is almost as much the circumstances of the Master's words as what he said which makes the lesson so powerful for each one of us, and so practical in the way in which we can apply it in our own lives.
Man's conception of his duty in this question of worship is one of the most powerful influences in his way of life and in his attitude to others. So intimate and delicate are his views that today it is considered in polished society out of place to talk of such matters, except to one's closest friends.
In the days of Jesus, of course, things were different. This matter was treated differently because times and circumstances were different. But it still brought, we notice, a division of thought and outlook giving rise to offence, hatred, and sometimes even bloodshed. The statement of Jesus concerning worship in this chapter 4 of John's gospel record is probably one of the best known, not only in the Brotherhood but throughout the religious world. Too often, however, it is taken out of its setting in a way which leads merely to emphasising the need for worship to be genuine. There is, as we know, much more behind it than that, some very deep teaching regarding the Spirit of God, and, in fact, God-manifestation.
But for our purpose this morning we are going to concentrate on a rather more simple approach, but one which we think brings many lessons to us. We wish to reflect on the way in which the conversation between the woman and Jesus developed. We think we shall find, as we think upon it, that there are many lessons as to the way in which we should present the Truth and God's purpose today. After all, Jesus is the perfect example in all things.
Many of the statements which Jesus made, of course, we could not make ourselves because we stand in quite a different position in relation to the Divine purpose. Yet there are aspects of his approach to this woman which we think are instructive to us all.
First of all, then, the fact that Jesus was prepared to enter into conversation with this woman, especially on a subject such as this, was quite contrary to normal procedure in those days. For the Jew, the matter was beyond discussion, and certainly they would not discuss it with a Samaritan. The very route which Jesus followed to Galilee was often avoided by those who were strict Pharisees and Sadducees. Jesus, however, on his way to Galilee from Judea, went through this area, as it is written: "He must needs go through Samaria." Certainly, although it was a hilly journey, it was the quickest route.
He had withdrawn from Judea because, we are told, "the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptised more disiples than John." He did not require the publicity in Judea at this early stage of his ministry. Later on it would be necessary, but for the moment he had to withdraw. They had arrived at this place at the sixth hour of the day, that is, midday by our time. Normally people on this journey would have stopped before this time because the sun then is very hot indeed, but it may be that they were later on their journey than they had expected.
The well itself was well outside the town, and the disciples left Jesus there whilst they went into the city to obtain bread, and, we are told, "being wearied with his journey, he sat thus upon the well." A little touch of sympathy with ourselves straight away, we see, before the conversation ever started. Here is a man who has been touched with the feeling of our infirmities. Not far away from this well lay Mount Gerizim, easily seen, and a place on which the Samaritans used to worship.
Jesus was alone. In the shadow of the well he sat, in this hot midday sun. One would normally have expected him to remain alone, and the arrival of the woman upon the scene was really quite unusual. It was not the time, normally, to approach a well, but maybe it was because of her own background of life that she decided to visit the well whilst the crowds were resting.
Jesus need not have opened a conversation with her. After all, he was weary. He could have ignored her, which would have been quite usual for a Jew in such circumstances. She was a descendant of those people who had been put in the area when the ten tribes were taken into captivity. They had been taught a little of Israel's God, but it was a corrupt, watery conception which was not a true reflection of the Israelitish hope, very much like modern Christianity. This was pure Christianity when it was first taught, but it has been mixed with paganism and philosophy, and the result is something which is not worship, nor religion either.
It was, so far as the Samaritans were concerned, as recorded in the book of Chronicles: "So these nations feared the Lord, and served their graven images, both they, and their children, and their children's children."
So the attitude of mind which would lie in this woman's heart would be, in a way, very similar to the attitude of mind which we have to face in the religious people about us. We have before us a model of preaching the Truth in the most delicate circumstances. Jesus opens the conversation by asking: "Give me to drink." We may feel it was a very natural request in these circumstances, but it was one which, to the woman, would have been quite unexpected, in view of the enmity which existed between Jew and Samaritan. So deep were these enmities that they extended to withholding from one another the normal courtesies of life. Her reaction was therefore one of surprise; as indeed it was to find that there was a man here by the well at midday.
"How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria?" This gives another little insight into the appearance of the Master. It shows that he must have been discernible as a Jew, from his dress, from his features, and perhaps from his speech too. We notice that he does not enter into an argument with the woman on this point, and again he becomes an example to us. It is not always wise in our discussions with interested friends to pursue unprofitable lines of thought. It is so easy to be put off by challenging statements made by them and launch into side issues which neither convince nor convert. It is the message of the Truth itself which we have to learn to put over. If we can get that across to whoever we are talking to, the listener will then be able to wrestle with many of his own difficulties by a comparison of the Truth which we have presented with what he himself believes.
So the Master answered: "If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water." The woman was puzzled at this reply, but we notice she was still obsessed with past controversies which separated Jew and Samaritan. "Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle?"
Again Jesus gently avoids argument on the position of Jacob, but for the third time refers to water, and he links it with himself: "Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall giveMiim shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life." Yes, that water of life which Jesus came to give. She could not, of course, at this moment absorb a statement like that, but it was a statement which had entered into her mind. It was placed there by the Master to be recalled later with profit to herself and many others.
Again we think of our presentation of the Truth, and ask whether we can take a lesson from this approach. Sometimes in the preaching of the Truth we are worried as we feel that our message cannot be understood. It is too deep and too complicated to be absorbed. But this should not discourage us from saying what the message is. We must be careful that in aiming at simplicity of presentation we do not at the same time take away the richness of the teaching of the message. It is when the presentation is complicated by being draped with human knowledge and wisdom that the message becomes confused and the Truth is not prop-erly preached.
This statement of Jesus made to the woman at the well is studied by us today, and probably none of us fully appreciates, even with our knowledge of the Truth and perhaps maturity of years of experience, the depth of the teaching which lies behind it. Yet it was made to a Samaritan woman, not even a Jewess, and one who did not appreciate the purpose of God; and it was the means eventually of moulding her mind to the acceptance of Jesus.
For the moment she was only concerned with the possibility of what Jesus had said reducing her labour at the well, but in the process she was gradually being enlightened as to what the Truth really was. To take that water of life which Jesus was prepared to offer requires submission to God and His law. It requires a confession of sin. Jesus, with his power to discern the heart, now gently proceeds to touch her conscience. We notice that it is not with piercing questions or challenging accusations as to her manner of life. He merely said to her: "Go, call thy husband, and come hither." Her reply exposed her way of life; maybe her dress indicated her way of life too. She answered: "I have no husband." Now was the moment for Jesus, with the power of the Spirit to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart, to gently remind her of her past folly, an acknowledgment and forsaking of which are a necessary preliminary to a true confession of faith.
The exposure by Jesus of her past life was not resented by her: it was taken in humbleness; in fact, it was the means of opening her eyes to the type of man that Jesus was. This is the heart which God is prepared to accept. As Jesus said on another occasion: "I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."
How naturally the subject now turns away from the disagreement between the Samaritans and the Jews to the much higher matter of worship, and worship put in its proper perspective. She now had to confess: "Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet." It shows that gradually faith in Jesus was developing in her mind, although she could not understand all that he had to say. How beautifully and how simply Jesus did it, and yet, at the same time, he made statements which are profound in the extreme.
So her question goes on: "Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship." Again the Master sidesteps a profitless issue and gets down to the root of the matter: not where to worship, but who to worship, and how. "Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father." That was the point. "Worship the Father." "Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews."
A passage like this surely confirms our confidence in the Truth for what it really is. Sometimes questions are raised as to whether we are too fussy in what we require of those who are to be baptized. If the Samaritans had known that salvation was of the Jews they would not have been worshipping they knew not what. To encourage today bap-tism in any, whether they be young or old, who do not fully understand the things concerning the Kingdom and the Name, is to do them a great disservice. What is more, we may find that in later years this gives rise to much heart-searching and anxiety amongst those who are misled in this way. Let us make sure we are careful that in our preaching of the Truth and our instructing of those without, whether they be young or old, we do not make them the victims of ill-prepared instruction.
It is useless to gloss over those important basic truths of the Scriptures which we all have to understand and appreciate, and then to proceed to baptism before they are fully understood.
The beautiful words which follow serve only to emphasise the seri-ousness and the urgency of careful thought by us all in carrying out this duty, for it is not one that is restricted to the serving brethren but all of us have a duty in this matter in our instructing of those who are without, or our own children, to see that the basis is firmly and clearly laid. It is a matter of what God requires.
So we read in verse 23: "But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him." "In spirit and in truth." Not where, but how. Jesus was offering this woman water. It was not Jerusalem, or Gerizim, but at this very well he was offering her that water of salvation, a true knowledge by which a man can gain everlasting life, based on a true understanding of what the Almighty requires.
Worship bears a relationship to the character of the One whom we worship. "God is Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." God is Spirit. He dwells not in temples made with hands. He is not located in any place in the earth. By His Spirit He is everywhere present, as the Psalmist tells us: "If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me." It was a concentration of this Spirit in the Son of God which was able to lay bare the heart and the circumstances of this woman's life; and in that same way, so far as all of us are concerned, if we would come to God. Our worship, therefore, must not be formal, routine, or related merely to a place. It is a matter of heart and affection, realising that the Father whom we worship penetrates right through our closest motives; as we have sung: "Thine eye commands with piercing view, Our rising and our resting hours, Our hearts and minds with all their powers."
How can we therefore come here and worship in deceit, or with a knowledge that we are planning some course of action that is contrary to the commands of our Master? True, we all have weakness and failure, and God has provided for that, as the emblems before us remind us, but it has to be done in spirit and in truth, fully understanding what God's promises are, His will, and the work of His dear Son.
Jesus goes on to say—and let us take the comfort from it—"For the Father seeketh such to worship him." Just think that the great, eternal God should seek such as are of this honest and willing heart to hear, to worship Him. "He seeketh such to worship.him," and no others.
Overcome by the depth of his words, the woman refers to the Messiah: "When he is come, he will tell us all things." Now came that moment to bring home the great truth: "I that speak unto thee am he." The gospel had been preached in its completeness; in fact, we shall find that there are seven stages which the Master used in presenting these wonderful truths. Whether this is coincidence or has some spiritual lesson we do not know, but gradually he opened the heart of this woman to the reception of the purpose of God and true worship.
What did she do? She left her waterpot and went into the city. To the western mind this seems nothing. But for a woman to leave her waterpot at a well is unheard of in the east. This is her life's work, as it were, to fetch water from a well, and to leave it behind with a stranger! But she could forget that now. She had, as it were, sacrificed the water of this life for those living waters which Jesus had given to her. She was prepared to do as the apostles did, to forsake all and follow Jesus, and she went back to that city and said to the men, "Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did."
They followed her, and Jesus continued his work of preaching. Samaritans these all were, but we are told that they besought him to tarry with them. That was a rare experience for our dear Master. Apart from his closest friends, one hardly reads of a case where they desired him to stop with them for a long time. He abode with them two days, and then he went on with his other work.
Now we are around this Table to remember the One who spoke these words of life to this woman. The conditions of worship and the acceptance of the Truth are the same today as they were then. In God's mercy we know the gift of God. We have come to drink of those waters of life. We know that salvation is of the Jews. We know the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and we know the things concerning the Name.
We take once more the emblems of One whose meat and drink was to do the will of his Father. One who gave his body and his blood to provide that water of life which we can freely drink. Therefore as we take this bread and wine to ourselves, and examine ourselves, may the thoughts of his gentleness and his mercy, his piercing gaze, and yet his loving sacrifice, help us to remember him in such a way that we may eventually be permitted, in the fullest sense, to partake of that living water which will spring up into everlasting life; and not only then worship God, but ourselves become part of that Spirit Name, that Yahweh Elohim, which will reflect God's honour and glory throughout the length of the earth:—J. C. Wharton