JOURNEY INTO SAMARIA TO JACOB'S WELL
We read in the Johannine Gospel this Sunday that Jesus left Judaea and departed again into Galilee. He had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar” (Jn. 4. 3 – 5). Why did the evangelist emphasise “had to pass through Samaria”. We shall discover that answer in the course of our study.
In biblical times the road from Judah to Samaria was much traversed by prophets, merchants and soldiers. Indeed it was a region ravaged by war and much suffering. When Jesus travelled from Jerusalem to Sychar on his way to Galilee He passed through sites connected with Israel’s history. Travelling north from Jerusalem one would pass the little village of Anathoth, the home of Jeremiah. Some two miles further on is Gibeah, the site of the royal residence of the first king of Israel. Saul is described in I Samuel as “sitting at Gibeah, under the tamarisk tree on the height, with spear in his hand, and all his servants were standing about" (I Sam. 22. 6). Nearby is Gideon where the Gideonites made a pact with Joshua (Jos. 9. 3- 15). Only five miles north of Jerusalem one passed through Ramah, the birthplace of the prophet Samuel, (I Sam. 1. 1). Through this town the chained captives of Jerusalem went weeping, on their journey to distant Babylon; here it was that Jeremiah was freed from his chains and set at liberty (Jer. 40. 1). Mizpah was where Laban overtook Jacob after he and his family finally fled from him and where he looked for household idols Rachel has stole and placed in the her saddle bags. Here Saul was proclaimed king (I Sam. 10. 17). Bethel was where Abram pitched his tent nearby and built an altar (Gen. 12. 8, 13. 3). Jacob had that extraordinary experience of the presence of the Lord and uttered those inspiring words this place is “none other than the house of God, and the gate of heaven (Gen. 28 . 4). It became a holy shrine for Samuel, Elijah and Elisha. Years later Jeroboam, first king of Ephraim set up an abomination and to where the prophet Amos came to denounce idolatry and the vices of the Northern Kingdom (I Kgs 12. 33, Amos 7. 13). After Bethel one arrives at Shiloh, home to the Ark and where the boy Samuel heard the voice of the Lord (I Sam. 3. 15). Probably this famous shrine was destroyed by the Philistines when they captured the ark (Jer. 7. 12). Approaching Samaria the holy mountain of Gerizim rises above the plain of Mukhnah. Here our ancestors worshipped, the Samaritan woman would tell Jesus.
On reaching Samaria the most important place in biblical history is undoubtedly Shechem. Here are some of those events.
* The place is first mentioned when Abram (also Abraham) arrived in what would become the land of Israel. The Lord appeared to him there and promised the land to his descendants. Abram then built an altar here (Genesis 12. 6 - 7).
* Here Jacob returned from Paddan-Aram with Leah and Rachel, after his meeting with Esau, and purchased land from the sons of Hamor (Genesis 33.18 -19).
* Here Joseph's brothers were herding sheep nearby before they sold Joseph to Midianite traders travelling to Egypt (Genesis 37.12).
* In the time of Joshua, the area was allotted to the tribe of Ephraim (Joshua 16.1-10, 17.1-18).
* Here Joseph's remains were laid to rest after being brought out of Egypt during the Exodus (Joshua 24.32).
* Here after the death of Solomon, Rehoboam was made king of Israel (1 Kings 12:1, 2 Chronicles 10:1).
* Here after the Israelites split into two kingdoms, Jeroboam was proclaimed first king of the new northern kingdom of Israel (1 Kings 12:25).
In New Testament time Shechem is probably the town of Sychar, where Jacob’s well was.
To appreciate this Sunday’s Gospel Reading for Cycle A. we should understand something of the history of Samaria. After Solomon’s death the kingdom of Israel split into two kingdoms: Northern Kingdom (Ephraim) and the South (Judah). During the reign of his Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, the kingdom established by David only two generations before fractured under the rebellion of Jeroboam who took with him ten tribes (I Kgs. 11. 26). Amongst those ten tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh (the two sons of Joseph) were very influential, so much so that the Northern Kingdom is often referred to as Ephraim while the hill of Samaria was in the tribal territory of Manasseh.
Yet the city of Samaria, was not significantly inhabited until the time of King Omri (876 – 869 B. C) when he purchased a hill from a man called Shemer. After fortifying this hill some 1454 feet above sea level he made it his capital. For the next 160 years, the city was the capital of the northern kingdom, apparently reaching a size of 150 acres (as large as Jerusalem in Hezekiah's time). With its steep slopes it was able to resist attacks as illustrated in the three years’ siege by the Assyrians before it fell (II Kgs. 17) and years later a one year siege from the Hasmoneans. Omri was followed by his son, Ahab who married a Sidoian Princess, Jezebel. She brought her Baal priests with her, and they introduced the worship of Baal. Such practice brought her into direct conflict with the prophet Elijah who announced that the kingdom would suffer a three year drought as a result. We all know I think of how Elijah challenged these Baal priests on Mt. Carmel and how their god was not able to consume the sacrifice they offered but Elijah’s God was able to perform this. Consequently Elijah had these seventy priests slain. Afterwards the drought broke but it did not stop Jezebel committing further atrocities. Influenced by his wife, Ahab has not a good press biblically but other sources tell us that he was a competent ruler even though during his reign Samaria suffered her first siege from Benadad, King of Damascus. After Ahab’s death he was succeeded by his brother, Joram, who threw down the statue of Baal. A new dynasty came to Samaria when Jehu, anointed by Elijah, became ruler. His first act was to exterminate the last descendants of Ahab, and destroy the temple of Baal in Samaria. Nevertheless idol worship still continued in the city. The northern Kingdom with Samaria as its capital had one brief ray of sunshine after Ahab. This was under Jeroboam II (786 B. C. – 746 B.C.) who restored Israel to its former glory under the Omri dynasty. However when he died the rotten structure of the kingdom collapsed under a succession of kings, mostly assassinated in political plots. That rottenness was confronted by many prophets such as Amos and Hosea. Israel eventually became a vassal to Assyria and was forced to pay heavy tribute as told in II Kings 15. 19. When Pekah became king in 744 B. C. he defied the great Tiglath-Pileser of Assyria by making an alliance with Egypt, the deadly opponent of Assyria. That spelt the beginning of ruin for the Northern Kingdom when the Assyrian king overran it. Many were deported while Hoshea, the leader of the pro-Assyrian party assassinated Pekah and became king. Hoshea was forced to pay tribute to Assyria as a symbol of loyalty, but when Tiglath-Pileser died, he thought this was an opportunity to court favour with Egypt. If he had known that the new king, Shalmaneser V was just as competent as his predecessor, perhaps he may have thought twice about withholding the tribute. Shalmanser’s army was soon marching through Israel and Hoshea was taken prisoner for his treachery. Amazingly the inhabitants resisted for almost three years the siege on their capital, Samaria. Eventually the walls were broken and the city fell in 722 B.C. The rest of the population was deported. Other people from various parts of the Assyrian Empire settled in the land and Samaria was made capital of an Assyrian province.
After its fall to the Assyrians what was the history of this hill city?
With the rise of firstly the Babylonians and then the Persians it continued to be ruled by foreign powers. Years later the great Alexander would come this way and capture it in the fourth century B.C. After the Maccabean revolt, the High Priest, John Hyrcanus, jealous of a rival priesthood, destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim and the city itself. Under the Romans by the proconsul of Syria, Gabinus, rebuilt Samaria between 57 and 55 B. C. after which the city was returned to the Samaritans. Herod the Great eventually received it from Octavius (31 B. C.) after the death of Cleopatra, the previous ruler. He enlarged and embellished it, in the centre built a magnificent temple to Augustus (of which the monumental staircase may still be seen), and called it Sebaste (about 25 B. C.) in honour of the sovereign. He was followed by his son Archelaus and then Herod Agrippa.
What made the Samaritans so hated by Jews?
When the Northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians in 722 B.C. that was its end as many inhabitants were taken into exile to Assyria and other foreigners were brought in to replace the exiled Israelites. As the area was known as Samaria, its people were called Samaritans. Eventually many of the original population returned and intermarried with the aliens. By the time of Jesus, Jews thought that the people who lived in Samaria were not descendants of true Jewish blood, and that their religion was not true Judaism but a mixture of beliefs. When the Jews returned from Babylon and eventually rebuilt their temple in Jerusalem, the Samaritans built theirs on Mt. Gerizim with a rival priesthood that was destroyed by the Maccabean ruler, John Hyrcanus in 128 B. C. Nevertheless they continued to worship on this ancient place of worship. Even today Passover is still celebrated by Samaritans on this mount. The Samaritans recognize only the Pentateuch and are even more scrupulous about observing its ordinances than are Orthodox Jews. The Samaritan language is a variety of Palestinian Aramaic, a Semitic language. The Samaritan manuscripts, although pre-Masoretic, are not believed to be ancient, but they supply some useful variants of biblical passages. After Ezra enforced the reforms after the exile returned to Jerusalem it meant that only those of pure stock could live in Judah. Anyone who had married a foreign wife had to divorce her. This was the beginning of what is known as particularism and reaction to it is undoubtedly reflected in the books of Ruth and Jonah. The Samaritans of course where orthodox Jews were concerned were not of pure stock and thereby were despised. The continual hatred between Jew and Samaritan apparently governed the choice of characters in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Now we come to that beautiful reading for Lent III in Cycle A that most Catholics here as it is the required Gospel when there are catechumens in the parish.
As we read it let us be conscious of some of the dramatic techniques this evangelist used in this wonderful unfolding event. One of these techniques is that our Lord always speaks on one level about a subject and the characters on another. This always leads to misunderstanding before understanding. For example, in this reading Jesus talks about living water meaning that water that gives life, life eternal, while the Samaritan woman thinks that Jesus is talking of flowing water.
Another technique is the stage effect. It is almost like a Shakespearian stage setting with dialogue happening on the main stage with our Lord and in the wings other scenes. For example Jesus talks with the Samaritan woman after the disciples are ushered off central stage to buy food. When they return the Samaritan woman takes to the wings as she hurries back to the village and speaks with its people.
A further technique is that in the Johannine Gospel characters are developed and become real people as this woman does. Its theological message is essentially to understand -one must come and see the Lord and then bring others to Him. THE SCENES The first scene – the woman at the well with Jesus – Jesus has the longest conversation in the bible with her.
Jesus is travelling with his disciples and at Jacob’s well rested as He was tired. After the disciples go off a Samaritan woman comes to the well at noon. Usually water was collected in the morning and evening. Is the reason for her coming so late suggest something about her marital status?
When Jesus asks for a drink, the woman is taken back How can this be? I a Samaritan, He a Jew, she thinks mockingly. Her own prejudice does not let her hear what Jesus is saying. Does He think He is greater than our ancestors who gave us the well? However it opens up the scenario that is true not only for the Samaritan woman but for everyone that she and we must recognize who Jesus is when He speaks, and to ask for “the living water”. When Jesus responds it is not so much to answer her mocking questions but to persevere in her understanding of who He is. This He does with a codicil. If she knew this then she would ask for such living water. What did our Lord specifically mean when He spoke of this “living water”? It is in a sense sacramental as it will lead to eternal life. Just as man needs ordinary flowing water to live naturally, so he needs living water to live eternally. Jesus is speaking spiritually just as he was to Nicodemus when He spoke of being born again. In the O.T. “living water” was symbolic for God’s wisdom that gave life as illustrated in Proverbs, “The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life that a man may avoid the snares of death” (Prov. 13. 14). From the Qumram community and also from Ben Sira we know that “living water referred to the Law (Sir. 24. 23 – 9, CDC 19. 34) Again the woman’s reply is mocking. Note she addresses Jesus as “Sir” but in Greek, Kyrios means both “sir” and “lord”. What we shall see is a gradual progression towards the “lord”. “Are you greater than our ancestor who gave us this mountain?” Obviously she does not realize how ironic her comment is. Furthermore the Lord does not need a bucket to draw any water. In replying Jesus chips away at reaching her inner being for conversion to take place. Even if I had a bucket and drew water from this well I shall be thirsty again, indeed very quickly but the water I give you is not like that. This water will leap up, like jumping, so much so it wants to enter into your soul. The Samaritan now begins to listen rather than offering the previous off handed remark. Water for ever! But at first her ponderings are centred on practicality. Ah, I would not have the toil of carrying my bucket daily. Notice now that Jesus does not answer her directly but rather directs the conversation to another level - a kind of red herring to get to it. Go and fetch your husband. One of the great themes in this gospel is the juxtaposing of truth with lies, light with darkness. She unhesitantly blurted out the truth, “I have no husband.” To this our Lord stated what was the exact marital status for her. The interesting observation of this scene is Jesus does not condemn her but continues to press to convince her of His love for her. He does not say to her something like this, “Come back when you have forsaken this illicit living.” Jesus realises she needs grace now to change. A lesson we can all note. In announcing her actual position she is beginning to perceive that He is no ordinary person, seen in her now addressing Jesus as Lord and calling Him a prophet. Perhaps as a deploy from the real issue she hearkens back to ancient worship. In her mind Mt. Gerizim is the place for Samaritans to worship (Joshua was instructed to set up a shrine on Mt Gerizim, Deut. 18. 15-18) but because Jesus is a Jew she feels He is going to tell her that the proper place for worship is in Jerusalem. What an opening she gives Jesus to pursue what worship really means – it is not something done on Mt. Gerizim or Mt. Zion but from the heart. Indeed the time will come when worship will not take place on either mount. Worship that is of any importance to the Father will be offered “in spirit and truth”. What does Jesus mean by this? I think it means we worship Him and none other. Yet I also think He meant if we were to know Him we must tune the Spirit within us to His Spirit and dialogue. If our religion is simply acts of external habits without thinking about what we do then it is not worshipping God “in spirit and truth”. It is Jesus with His Father who must be worshipped. After all in the Johannine tradition He is “the Truth”. The Spirit enables one to know “the Truth” and in a sense is equivalent to “the living water” in this scene and follows on from the dialogue with Nicodemus in the previous chapter. When Jesus declares that the Father must be worshipped “in Spirit and truth” the woman begins to understand that he is more than a prophet. Perhaps then she ponders, is He the promised Messiah! Jesus confirms that He is. When she is confronted by the truth “I am he” she has to accept in faith or reject. What must she have thought at that moment? Did she comprehend what this really meant? As she ran back to her village her mind was undoubtedly churning over the words she heard from Jesus. Why do I feel my life is turning up side down?
Scene II – The return of the Disciples
The Disciples return – what is their reaction? How could our Master be talking to a Samaritan woman? Doesn’t He know that Jews do not have any dealing with these Samaritans? Obviously the woman did not want to parley with these Jews! Dropping her jar, probably signifying she could not draw this “living water” with it, ran back to the village. But it is also symbolic – to drop the life one has been living to follow life with Christ. Juxtaposed against the stupidity of the disciples, the woman greets her fellow villagers, Could this be true? Could I have found the Messiah? After all I have met up with One who knows everything about me? The villagers were impressed and set out to meet Jesus. Meanwhile the disciples were trying to have Jesus eat some of the food they brought back. Do they understand why He refused their food? No. They obviously thought someone had shared his/her lunch with Him. So they were mystified by His answer, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” Again we have an example of the two levels that always exist in this gospel – disciples thinking of worldly things and their Lord pondering on why He has come to this earth. Note this parallels the misunderstanding in the first scene. As the villagers set out to meet Jesus, He then tries to explain to the disciples what He meant by food just as He did by living water. When we read Jesus’ explanation one is quickly reminded of the harvest imagery in the Synoptic tradition. As Jesus spoke of the harvest being “ripe for harvest” it immediately reminds one of the Lucan saying, “the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few: pray therefore to the Lord of the harvest that he send forth labourers into his harvest” (Lk. 10. 1 -2). Verse 36 seems a commentary on the above – the reaper is already enjoying the fruits of the harvest, so that he and the sower can rejoice together. But when we come to verse 37 there is a distinction between the reaper and sower that is rooted in the O.T such as Deut. 20.6, “and what man is he that planted a vineyard, and has not yet eaten of it?” The Matthean Gospel has an interesting statement, “You are a hard man, you reap where you did not sow” (Matt. xxv. 24). Jesus then uses this sowing and reaping in connection with the dimwitted disciples. Yet in the pre-resurrectional Johannine account there is no account of these being sent out as in the Synoptics. Who are the others? Are these the Samaritans? That would make sense when we read Acts with Philip conversing and preaching to them and later their receiving the Spirit with Peter and John.
Scene III – the fusing of the two scenes that acts as a conclusion.
The villagers come to see Jesus on the basis of what the woman told them. Obviously they were thirsty to know more in order to form their own opinion. So they did the sensible thing and invited Jesus to stay in their village. Jesus did as He always does when someone welcomes Him into his/her heart accepts. It is a shame that there is no record of those two days’ dialoguing, only the fruit of it. The Samaritans saw and heard for themselves that Jesus is indeed Kyrios. They did not have to rely on the woman’s words. We presume the woman also accepted Jesus as Lord and Saviour. That is the understanding I am sure.
OUR JOURNEY INTO SAMARIA TO THE WELL OF JACOB
Lent as we know is our journey towards the renewing of our baptismal vows at the Paschal Vigil. When we renew those vows it is like receiving “living water” again so that we can draw even deeper from the well to strengthen our faith for the next year. Now, during Lent, more objectively, is to put ourselves in the shoes of this woman meeting Jesus for the first time in her life. One of the questions we should ask ourselves during Lent, have I really met Jesus in my life? Could I sit down at a well and talk to Him about my life and believe in Him? Or am I more like the Samaritan woman who tries to fob Jesus off by throwing spanners in the works so I don’t have to listen to what He is trying to tell me? It is quiet easy to go to church, read the Scriptures without meeting our Lord. What is needed is to internalize what we hear and read about Him into our everyday life of prayer and living. When this is done our journey will continue as we hear the next step after we have come and seen, to go out and bring others to the Lord. There are so many ways we can do that. Yet undoubtedly the first is that others must see Jesus in us – the joy, the trust and commitment. Like the villagers in today’s reading once one has an inkling of who Jesus is one will want to know more about the One who can tell me everything I have done. “Come and see” are two powerful verbs in evangelizing that will lead to true discipleship as this evangelist wants us to understand about the Samaritan woman and her villagers as our examples. Jesus stayed with the villagers for two days is another challenge for us during Lent. When we think of spending that amount of time with the Lord we invariably think of a week-end retreat at a monastery where we have so much time simply being with the Lord in silence. Of course we can’t live a retreat in our everyday lives but we can still give Jesus prime time of every day. That way the well will never be dry in our lives.