(A Sermon based on John 4:5-39 and preached at the Church of Ayia Kyriaki Chrysopolitissa, Paphos, Cyprus on, February 1, 1998. Robert Brow, Chaplain of the Anglican Church of Paphos)
All of us have a sense of inferiority compared with others. Prince Charles felt inferior to Diana. She was always the center of attention, photographed by the press, and loved by the public. He was the vague person in the background. Anglican ministers know that others preach better sermons, remember the names of all and sundry, and have a much more charismatic way of conducting the services. And there are many women who remember that in their teens and twenties men wanted to dance with the more attractive girls, but they had to sit out the evening because no one invited them to dance.
The woman in our story certainly have every reason to feel inferior. She was a Samaritan. They were a mongrel race who had been transplanted from other countries to take the place of the people of the Northern Kingdom who had been taken into exile. As a displaced people they lived in what is now called the West Bank. To this day they have never had a country of their own. Their neighbours, the Jews despised them. "The Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.". Similarly many of us feel socially inferior, or educationally inferior. Others feel inferior because they do not have the financial resources to keep up with their friends and affluent relatives.
This woman of Samaria was a mere female in a patriarchal world. She recognized that the man speaking to her was a Rabbi, and she knew that every morning he prayed "Blessed be thou, O God, that thou hast not made me a woman." Her function in life was to wait on men. There was no opportunity to engage in any male profession, and she was not even allowed to read, let alone study God's Word. She had no permanent status or security. At any time the man she was living with could say "I divorce you, I divorce you," and she would be out on the street.
Even more serious was the fact that her private life was in a mess. Jesus knew this. "You are right in saying that you have no husband; for you have had five men, and the one you have now is not your husband" (John 4:17,18). There had been five more or less unsatisfactory relationships, and she was now into adultery with a married man. This made her feel guilty and defiled before God. And in her own community she was an outcast to be avoided. They viewed her as a whore. Usually the women of the town would chat and socialise at the well every morning. But when Jesus met her it was noon, and she had come to draw water all alone in the heat of the day.
How did Jesus deal with her sense of feeling inferior ? Notice he did not attempt to psychologize, or suggest that she was not as bad as she thought, or suggest ways she might improve. Rather he dealt with three questions that needed an answer to give meaning to her life. What ? Where? When ?
WHAT is life all about ? Jesus contrasted her daily round of drawing water at the well with the very water of life. "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up into eternal life." In God's eternal life no one is inferior. God is love, and no one is excluded. He will lovingly help us to change in due course, but meanwhile we are loved and accepted just as we are.
WHERE do we find this eternal life ? We keep looking for a religious denomination located in a particular building. The woman raised the perennial question. "Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem." Similarly we wonder if we must become Roman Catholic or Protestant, Anglicans or Baptists, Greek Orthodox, or join one of the sects. And already we know that all of them are very imperfect, and even the best of them are hypocrites. Jesus does not ask us to change our religion or denomination. "The hour is coming and now is here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:23-24).
The astonishing thing is that, having emptied himself of his divine status (Philippians 2:4-11), the eternal Son of God lived his life in total dependence on the Holy Spirit. He was conceived by the Spirit, and baptized by the Spirit. His preaching was by the Spirit, he healed, told parables, cast out demons, and even went into death trusting the Spirit to resurrect him (Romans 8:11). We too can worship in the Spirit, pray in the Spirit, bring forth fruit by the Spirit, receive gifts of the Spirit, be filled with wisdom, perfected in the love of God, and much else. People who are open to the Holy Spirit in all denominations, or no denomination, can be equally inspired and empowered for the asking. And again there no one who is rejected or in any way inferior in this kind of spiritual life.
At third question is at the back of our minds. WHEN will God step in and do something ?The woman said to Jesus "I know that Messiah is coming." Our problem is that every nation, and every person in every nation, has a different idea of what the Messiah will do. Germans expected Hitler to solve their problems. Russians looked to Lenin and then Stalin. The Jews of Jesus' day expected a Jewish Messiah who would drive out the Romans, and make Jerusalem the spiritual, cultural, and commercial center of the world. The Samaritans also expected a Messiah who would bring in the golden age for their nation. But as long as we are looking to some human Messiah or saviour to solve our social and personal problems we can never look in faith to the Son of God.
To the woman's astonishment she suddenly realized that she was talking to the one who could remove her sense of frustrated inferiority. Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you." We all know times when God has come very personally to our side. When that encounter happens, like Adam and Eve, we can slink away and hide in the trees of our garden. Or we can go along with the Son of God in the way of life that he wants us to enjoy.
The story ends with : "Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony" (John 4:39). The woman, who had viewed herself as totally rejected and inferior, now found that the people of her town viewed her as someone who knew God.