A ballet company based in Providence, Rhode Island, has been putting on performances of the Christmas classic The Nutcracker for almost 40 years. Last November, however, they experienced a major setback when thieves took more than 50 costumes and headpieces — including the title character’s iconic mask and costume — worth a total of $30,000. In all, 52 items were reportedly stolen from the ballet company.
But there was some good news in this story: after hearing about this, more than a dozen dance companies nationwide offered to lend their own Nutcracker costumes to the Providence production. As the news spread about the theft, the Providence director began fielding phone calls left and right from other dance companies eager to help. As the director explained, “The ballet world is an incredibly tight-knit community and we are so grateful for the outpouring of support that we have already seen from so many ballet companies.”
This story warmed quite a few hearts this holiday season, demonstrating the depth of human kindness as people with similar interests and passions band together to help each other. But Jesus calls us to a deeper level of love – loving those who are not like us, loving the outsider, even loving our enemies. This is the transformative love that Jesus demonstrates in John 4.
John 4 is another story unique to John’s Gospel. It is Christ’s encounter with the woman at the well in Samaria, an outsider in every meaningful way.
Read John 4:1-4
“Now he had to go through Samaria.” Samaria was the territory immediately north of Judea. Geographically, it’s true that the most direct path from Judea to Galilee would lead through Samaria. But pious Jews in Jesus’ day made it a point to avoid Samaria. In fact, they would usually travel around Samaria rather than traveling through. Why? Because the Jews considered the Samaritans to be ethnically and spiritually inferior.
A little OT history as we begin. In 722 BC, Assyria conquered the Northern Kingdom and deported many of its people who belonged to the 10 northern tribes, replacing them with other ethnic groups. These people intermarried with the remaining Jews and their descendants were known as “the Samaritans.” By and large, these descendants were not idolaters, but they acknowledged only the Pentateuch as inspired by God. They also denied Jerusalem as the religious center, instead recognizing Mt. Gerazim as the place of worship. This is why they opposed Nehemiah’s rebuilding of Jerusalem in Nehemiah 2&4.
The Jews of Jesus’ day considered the Samaritans to be “outsiders” in every meaningful way. So when John notes that Jesus had to go through Samaria, he’s speaking of a theological necessity, not a geographic one. Jesus had to go through Samaria because Jesus was on a mission from God.
Read John 4:5-6
Another important detail: the sixth hour was midday. Jesus arrives at this well at high noon. Most people would go to the well to draw water early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid the midday heat. Socially, most people would have every reason to join their neighbors in the ritual of gathering water for the day’s chores. It was a time of talking and laughing, a communal act.
Unless you happened to be an outsider.
Read John 4:7-18
A nameless Samaritan woman arrives to draw her water. She’s alone; no friends accompanying her, no conversations about her husband or children, no sharing in the neighborhood gossip. This woman has avoided the crowded morning and evening routine. She’s come to draw her water when she expects the well to be desolate. But Jesus is waiting for her.
And Jesus initiates a conversation with her, a conversation about water. By now we know that in John’s Gospel, things are rarely as they seem. At one level, yes, the conversation is about H20; after all, Jesus has likely walked a dozen or more miles and he’s legitimately thirsty. But in John’s Gospel, there is always a deeper meaning. This conversation about water is an entrée to a deeper reality, a sign pointing toward the living water from on high.
As modern readers, it is easy for us to overlook the scandalous nature of this interaction. Pious Jewish males didn’t speak to women in public, particularly Jewish rabbis, particularly unmarried Jewish rabbis. In the ancient literature, one Jewish rabbi is considered especially pious because he refused to even speak to his mother in public, going so far as to cross over to the other side rather than shame himself by speaking to her.
But Jesus isn’t beholden to such customs. He initiates a conversation with this Samaritan woman by asking her for a drink…and she is as shocked as anyone by this! She reminds Jesus that Jews and Samaritans do not associate with one another. An alternate translation is, “Jews and Samaritans do not share utensils.” It’s as if she’s saying, “You want to use my Camelbak? Don’t you realize that it’s already contaminated by my cooties?”
But Jesus does something amazing here: by asking her for a drink, Jesus is actually verbalizing the question the Samaritan woman is asking. He asks her for a drink because this woman thirsts deeply, longing for something more than what she’s found so far. They go back and forth talking about water and John winks at us because we’re in the know: our Samaritan woman speaks of water from the ground while Jesus is talking about water from above; she’s talking about H20 while Jesus speaks of a spring of water welling up to eternal life. At this, the woman’s interest is piqued. She replies, Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.
Jesus uncovers the area of her greatest thirst when he says, Go, call your husband and come back. I picture her eyes dropping; she stares at the ground and stammers, I have no husband. And Jesus, as the Word of truth, pierces her heart. He points out the ugly truth of her circumstances: she’s been married five times and she’s not even married to the man she’s living with currently. Every culture has words for a woman like this, and few of them are appropriate for our setting here this morning.
Now we understand why our Samaritan woman comes to draw her water at high noon. Now we understand why she comes to the well alone. We may not know her name from the text, but rest assured, her name was well known in her little village. This is the kind of woman who, when she walked down the street, mothers pulled their daughters close and whispered, “Take a good look, honey. That’s the kind of woman you don’t want to become.” She is an outsider among outsiders. Even among the outsiders of Samaria, she’s an outcast.
In a culture that continues to demean women to this day, Jesus is counter-cultural. Though our culture would judge her by the cut of her hair and the curve of her hip, Jesus sees so much more in our Samaritan woman. Even though she has made plenty of bad choices in her life, Jesus refuses to treat her with anything less than the dignity she deserves as one made in the image of God. In spite of all her baggage, Jesus does not consider her unworthy of redemption.
But our Samaritan woman has another trick up her sleeve. When Jesus pushes on the bruise, uncovering the area of hurt in her heart, she responds with a ninja move, a theological roundhouse: she poses a question about worship!
Read John 4:19-26
Our Samaritan woman knows what we know: discussions about worship can be divisive. She poses a worship question that’s hundreds of years old: Who has it right, the Jews or the Samaritans? Is the proper place of worship Jerusalem or Mt. Gerazim? When things get a little too personal, it’s easy to toss out a question like this in hopes that the ensuing “worship wars” will provide an easy smokescreen, shifting the conversation away from the personal into more abstract territory. And I’ve long believed that’s why the Samaritan woman poses this question to Jesus. It’s a ninja move to get out of the messy conversation about her checkered past and present. But our Samaritan woman doesn’t realize that Jesus is a theological black belt himself.
Jesus swats away the question of “where” and redirects her to the more pressing question, the “who” question. God desires worship conducted in spirit and in truth. With a shrug of the shoulders, our Samaritan woman says, Well, I guess when the Messiah comes, he’ll straighten all of this out for us.
And that’s when Jesus does something He never does: He reveals His identity fully and completely to this Samaritan woman. I who speak to you am he. I’m the Messiah! I’m the One you’ve been looking for! The heart of worship is not a place; it’s a person. It’s Jesus. And this truth – just as it does for all of us – transforms her life.
Read John 4:28-30, 39-42
We could think of John 3 as the Gospel to “insiders.” As we noted last week, Nicodemus is a pious Jewish male, a Bible-believing “religious” person. He’s a respected community leader, a Pharisee. Yet he comes to Jesus under cloak of darkness. He’s something of an admirer of Jesus, but it takes some time for him to come to faith. Nicodemus seeks out Jesus, asking questions, puzzling over the answers Jesus provides. In every meaningful way, Nicodemus is an “insider.”
And in contrast to all of this, we could think of John 4 as the Gospel to “outsiders.” Our Samaritan woman is the antithesis of Nicodemus. He is male; she is female. He is Jewish; she’s a Samaritan. He is known for his piety; her claim to fame is her string of broken relationships and her current live-in boyfriend. Whereas Nicodemus seeks out Jesus at night, Jesus initiates dialogue with the Samaritan woman in broad daylight, at high noon. The name of Nicodemus was well known; he was revered as THE teacher in Israel, but our Samaritan woman isn’t even given a name in the text! In every meaningful way, the Samaritan woman is an “outsider.”
As different as these two figures might be, they are united by a common thread: Jesus. If John 3 is the Gospel to “insiders” and John 4 is the Gospel to “outsiders”, it should come as no surprise to find the most beloved verse in the Bible centrally located between the two. John 3:16, the Gospel to the world.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. As we said last week, this eternal life is a present reality. It is a possibility NOW, just as it was possible for Nicodemus, just as it was possible for the Samaritan woman.
The Good News about Jesus is for both the Nicodemuses and the Samaritan women. The Good News is Good News for both “insiders” and “outsiders” alike. According to the Word of God, it is Good News because it is Good News for the entire world.
The heart of worship is not a place; it is a person. It’s Jesus.
And Jesus welcomes the outsider. Because, let’s be honest…we’re all outsiders. We might clean up well, but we’re all broken by sin. Yet Jesus invites us in, welcomes us, tends to our hearts. Jesus has a word of Good News for both “insiders” and “outsiders” alike. And when we receive this Good News, there are no more “outsiders.” Instead, there are only broken, sinful people saved by the grace of a loving Savior. And this is the heart of worship.
The heart of worship is not a place; it is a person. It’s Jesus.
And this is Good News.