Finding God amongst the outcasts

12 March, 2023 3rd Sunday Lent, Year A

Over the next couple of weeks, we move from the Gospel of Matthew to the Fourth Gospel. Often described as the “spiritual gospel,” this gospel presents Jesus’ teachings in the form of long theologically-charged speeches or his many-levelled interactions with various characters representing key groups within first-century Roman Palestine.


Today’s gospel is no exception. The dialogue between Jesus and a woman from Samaria in this passage is among the most historically interesting and the most theologically profound in the New Testament. To astute readers of the gospels, this story comes as a surprise.


One would not expect the Jewish Jesus to be found in conversation with an unaccompanied woman in public; and, more significantly, a woman from neighbouring Samaria; a territory and people with whom the Jewish community had a hostile relationship.


Samaritans shared with their Jewish neighbours a common ancestry and a common faith in God (YHWH). But they were considered ethnically and religiously tarnished because they had intermarried with foreigners and adopted aspects of pagan worship into their religious practice.


The story reflects something of this history. It indicates the Samaritan woman had ‘many husbands’ prior to her present partner.


Typical of the Fourth Gospel, there are various levels of meaning here. On the one hand, the reference can be understood as an obvious allusion to the dubious ethnicity of the Samaritans. On the other hand, it may be meant literally, indicating that the woman’s irregular relationships had made her an outcast in her own community too.


Jesus breaks several social taboos in first speaking to the woman, and then sharing her drinking vessel. In the eyes of his fellow Jews, Jesus acted shamefully in speaking with the woman alone. And in drinking from the same cup he rendered himself ritually “unclean” – unfit to enter the precincts of the Temple and offer prayer to God. After the conversation, the Samaritan woman becomes a disciple, even though she is neither a Jew nor a “respectable” member of her community. She returns to her town and proclaims the gospel and succeeds in leading others to Jesus.


There are at least two lessons to be learned from this passage. First, there is nothing that we have done in our past or in our present situation that prevents us from finding God in our lives. Second, genuine Christian communities must be open and welcoming. Christianity is meant to be counter-cultural.


It cuts across all conventional boundaries that separate people, communities and nations from each other. But such boundaries do not separate us from God, who loves us and is open to giving us a second chance. There is nothing in our past that should prevent us from proclaiming the gospel, especially to those closest to us: our family, friends and neighbours.


Ian J Elmer

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