Why a Messiah?

February 10, 2008

In our conversations recently we have been talking about issues that cause people to “hit the wall” – issues that stop people dead in their tracks. Now we are moving ahead to think about breaking through that wall and finding ways to move forward. And today we ask a question that might just orient us in the right direction, “Why a Messiah?” The word Messiah (of Hebrew origin) means simply “anointed one” (as does the Greek equivalent, “Christ”) and carried with it, in the days of Jesus, no suggestion of divinity. The Messiah was to be a person – a person anointed by God. Indeed, in 1st-century Israel there were strands within Judaism that were actively looking for a Messiah to come. The anticipation was that the Messiah would liberate the people from the “theological exile” of Roman oppression that prevented the people from living fully in accordance with Torah. Only some of his contemporaries viewed Jesus as Messiah and that seems to be because (i) not everyone was thinking about a Messiah coming anyway, and (ii) the self-understanding of Jesus seems to be quite different from the common understanding of the people when it came to the issue of Messiahship. Jesus seems to have seen his role as:

• Reconstituting “Israel” around himself
• Reestablishing the mission of the covenant people
• Proclaiming that the time had come

We can see this understanding revealed in many ways, e.g.

• Reconstituting Israel around himself; e.g. calling the 12 disciples as representatives of the 12 tribes of Israel.
• Reestablishing the mission of the covenant people, E.g. Luke 4:43 “I must preach the good news of the Kingdom of God …For I was sent for this purpose”.
• Proclaiming that the time had come. E.g. Mark 1:15 “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe the gospel”.

Today we are looking at the narrative of “The Samaritan Woman at the Well” – a narrative that falls into the first of the key areas that Jesus saw as his work: reconstituting Israel around himself. Samaria and Judea had been separated since the days of the exile and the narrative of “The Woman at the Well” is about restoring broken relationships – in other words, it is about overcoming “sin” (as we conceptualized it just last week).

Stories are never told in a vacuum, so here’s a question… Where else in the Biblical narrative do we come across the theme of a man meeting a “woman at the well”?

Let’s look:

Genesis 24:10-61
Who: Rebekah meets Isaac’s proxy (a servant) at a well
Result: Rebekah and Isaac marry

Genesis 29:1-20
Who: Rachel meets Jacob at a well
Result: Rachel and Jacob marry

Exodus 2:16-22
Who: Zipporah meets Moses at a well.
Result: Zipporah and Moses marry.

And now … John 4:1-42
Who: The Samaritan woman meets Jesus at a well
Result: What would you expect the result to be?

In this “type story”, recall how the Gospel author has already set the stage: John 3:27-30 (just before “The Woman at the Well”) – John the Baptist describes Jesus as the “bridegroom”.

But every good story has a crisis that needs resolution and the crisis here is that the woman is a SAMARITAN!!!!!! So, who are the Samaritans? Answer: It depends who you ask!

• The Jews have one answer….
• The Samaritans have another….

The Jews tell us:

• 721 B.C. – The people of the northern kingdom of Israel (the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel”) were conquered and taken away from the region of Samaria by the Assyrians under Sargon

• Ca. 677 B.C. – The Assyrians under Esarhaddon brought people of other nations to settle the land. These non-Israelites became known as “Samaritans”

• You can read all about this in 2 Kings 17: 23b – 24, “So Israel was exiled from their own land to Assyria until this day. And the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the people of Israel; and they took possession of Samaria, and dwelt in its cities”

The Samaritans tell us:

• 721 B.C. – When the people of the northern kingdom of Israel were conquered and taken away from the region of Samaria by the Assyrians under Sargon, some members of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh survived and remained. And so Samaritans are the direct descendants of these original tribes of Israel and hence are authentic “Israelites”

The consequences for Samaria were:

• As these people did not experience the exile, they did not recognize the writings of the prophets as Scripture and held solely to the Torah (the five Books of Moses). Hence, “Samaritan” from “samerim” – keeper of the law
• The Samaritans built their own Temple (perhaps in 388 BC) and the Jews saw this as reprehensible

Now, in the south we see the following happen:

• 587/6 BC – Babylonian exile of the southern kingdom
• 538 BC – Edict of Cyrus allows the return of the exiles
• 520-515 BC – Temple rebuilt in Jerusalem
• Returning Jews refused to allow Samaritans to participate in rebuilding the Temple as they were not “Israelites” (Ezra 4:4-5; 24)

The results: enormous hostility between Jews and Samaritans, some of which is reflected in John’s Gospel:

• John 4:9 – “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans”
• John 8:48-49 – [Religious leaders challenging Jesus] “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” Jesus answered, “I have not a demon; but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me”

And so here is the twist (“the crisis”) in the story:

• Jesus meets a WOMAN (alone)
• Jesus meets a SAMARITAN
• Jesus meets a SAMARITAN WOMAN [You are supposed to gasp in horror about now…. the cultural value of PURITY is at stake!]

Let’s look a few features of this narrative… First:

John 4:3-4 “He left Judea and departed again to Galilee. He had to pass through Samaria”

It might look like John didn’t know his geography very well. You can get from Judea to Galilee and avoid Samaria several ways (go along the coast, or cross the Jordan and walk up the east bank, for example). But in fact, when John used “he had to” language he is not talking about a geographical requirement. He is talking about a theological requirement. For Jesus to reconstitute the people around himself, pronounce that the Kingdom had come (and that the time was NOW), meant reaching out into Samaria as the original covenant people included the Samaritans (at least, according to one understanding of what constitutes a Samaritan).

We read about the woman coming to the well at mid-day: John 4:6 “It was about the sixth hour” (i.e. it was noon). So why noon?

• Traditional answer…later words about “husbands” have been read as indicating that this woman was one of loose morals or at the very least, it was bad luck to be around her, and so she was shunned by the other women who typically went to the well in the cool dawn, not in the hot mid-day.
• Or…see the preceding chapter (John 3:1-21) where Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark of night and goes away without “seeing the light” and compare here where the woman goes in the light of day and leaves enlightened (and see John’s overall theme of light and dark played out).

Next, in John 4:7-15, we find the conversation about “l
iving water” (“living” water meant “running” water in those days):

• Jeremiah 2:13 describes God as “the fountain of living waters”, but as the woman was Samaritan she most likely didn’t know about the writings of the prophets.
• Accordingly, there was confusion on the part of the woman.
• She recognizes Jesus as “a Jew” (John 4:9)

Then there is a conversations about “husbands” in John 4:16-19 which we might think about in light of the background of Hosea (known to Jesus but likely unknown to the woman) where the unfaithfulness of a woman towards her husband is used as the image for the unfaithfulness of Israel towards God:

Hosea 2:16-20 “And in that day, says the LORD … I will betroth me to you forever; I will betroth me to you in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD”

The question then is, “If Jesus is “the bridegroom”, has the woman been unfaithful too long?” Note that 2 Kings 17:30 mentions false gods in Samaria at the time of the Assyrian conquest (5 groups, but 7 gods mentioned) and some have read John 4:16-19 as an allusion to this passage. The problem there is that although there are 5 groups of people mentioned, there are seven gods described and in the present narrative we encounter 5 husbands, not seven. Nevertheless, at the end of this exchange, the woman recognizes Jesus as “a prophet” (John 4:19).

Then we read of the conversation about worship in John 4:20-26:

• The issues at stake is essentially one of “Jerusalem versus Mount Gerizim”
• Jesus, however, does not get sidetracked into this debate (although he clearly has his own opinions on the matter) but says, “.. neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…” (John 4:21-23)
• It is at this point that the woman begins to recognize Jesus as “the Christ” (John 4:25)

In John 4:27-38, we see that the woman departs and the disciples arrive:

• “They marveled that he was talking with a woman” (John 4:27)
• They talk of food but Jesus says, “…lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest” (John 4:35)

Next comes John 4:39-42:

• Woman’s testimony, conversion of other Samaritans
• Indirect testimony from the woman is followed by direct testimony from Jesus
• Samaritans recognize Jesus as “the Savior of the world” (John 4:42)

Throughout the narrative there is a progressive understanding of who Jesus is:

• A Jew
• A prophet
• The Christ
• The Savior of the world

So, back to our original question, “Why a Messiah?” Here we see:

• Jesus reconstitutes the people of God around himself (preparatory to ushering in The Kingdom of God)
• Jesus restores broken relationships (i.e. overcomes “sin”, see last week’s discussion)
• Jesus treats the woman as a person, not an object (i.e. overcomes “sin”, see last week’s discussion)

And if we ask how Jesus did this, we see:

• Jesus goes to the Samaritans; he doesn’t sit in the Temple in Jerusalem and wait for the Samaritans to come to him.
• Jesus does not let the difficult question of Temple worship prevent dialog.
• Jesus breaks societal taboos through cross-cultural and inter-religious dialog across gender lines.
• Jesus (as the bridegroom) invites the people of Samaria into relationship (c.f. the church as the “Bride of Christ”)

What does this mean for us, today, as we think about our own lives as individuals and as the church?

• Where is our Samaria?
• Do we have a choice? Recall – John 4:3-4 “He left Judea and departed again to Galilee. He had to pass through Samaria”
• When should we begin? Recall – John 4:35 “…lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest”
• With whom should we begin? Recall John 4:7-8 “There came a woman of Samaria … Jesus said to her …”

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, a time of reflection, a time of repentance, and a time of action. It seems that we need to reflect on what it means to be the church, repent for our unwillingness to go where Jesus went, and act on what we have learned. When? Well, “…lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest”.

Thanks for visiting!