Harrowing Of Hell
March 12, 2023

We are the Samaritans

The Rev. Lex Breckinridge

Who were the Samaritans? We’ve all heard Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan, the religious outsider who compassionately cared for the poor man beaten and left for dead in the ditch. The man who had been avoided by the religious insiders, the Priest and the Levite, because they thought he might be dead and coming into contact with his corpse would make them ritually impure. But the Good Samaritan crossed all sorts of boundaries, broke all sorts of rules,  to help a fellow human in distress. And Jesus commended his act of mercy in contrast to those religious leaders, the Priest and the Levite, who followed the strict rule of the Law.

So who were these Samaritans? They shared a common ethnicity with Jews yet they really didn’t like each other. You know any families where siblings or close cousins hate each other? Yeah, so do I. That’s what’s going on here, and in order to get deeper meaning from the beautiful story we just read, it’s worth taking a brief moment to know a little bit more about this sibling rivalry. So let’s wind the clock back about 900 years from Jesus’s day.  In the years following the death of King Solomon, the Kingdom of Israel divided into two rival states, the Northern Kingdom called Israel whose capital was in the city of Samaria, and the Southern Kingdom called Judea whose capital was in Jerusalem. Although they read from the same Torah and worshipped the same God, there were significant and deep religious differences. For our purposes, it’s important to know that the Northerners believed that all religious practice should be centered on Mt Gerazim, which was conveniently located near their capital city of Samaria. The Southerners, on the other hand, believed all religious practice should be centered on the Temple which was conveniently located in their capital city of Jerusalem. By Jesus’s day, these differences had descended into bitter conflict with each group calling the other heretics and apostates and other adjectives even less polite. Sort of the way it used to be between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. They cordially despised each other in the way that only rival siblings can.

So let’s fast forward  back to Jesus and his friends as they journey north from Judea to Galilee. We’re told that they “had to go through Samaria.” While that was the most convenient route to their destination, in John’s gospel, details like this almost always carry deeper significance. We are meant to see that Jesus will be crossing boundaries and offering himself in relationship to those whom his fellow Jews consider to be unacceptable. Impure. So they stop for a break in the little Samaritan village of Sychar. Jesus sends his friends off to buy food, and because he’s tired and thirsty, he wanders over to a nearby well. But this isn’t just any well. No, this is a well of Jacob, the great Patriarch revered by both Samaritans and Jews. Water from this well would hold special religious and spiritual significance. Now who should appear at the well but a woman, a Samaritan woman, come to draw water for her household. Jesus looks at her and says, “Give me a drink.” Astonished, she says to him, “How is it that, you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” They are both aware that he is crossing two boundaries here. A man doesn’t initiate conversation with an unknown  woman, and Jews don’t have any contact with Samaritans for fear of becoming ritually impure. And then he says something puzzling. “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” What in the world are you talking about, she wonders, and then Jesus explains.  “Everyone…who drinks of the water I will give them will never be thirsty. The water I will give will become a spring of water gushing up into eternal life.”  Eternal life. What a concept, right? And so the woman says, like you and I probably would, “O yeah, give me some of that living water!”

The conversation now takes a curious turn. “Go tell your husband what you just learned,” Jesus says. “But I don’t have a husband,” she replies. “Right you are”, Jesus says, “You’ve had five husbands and the one you have now isn’t your own.” (“Whoa! How does he even know that” she says to herself) But to him she says, “You must be a prophet! “and rushes off to tell the whole town about this amazing guy who has told her everything she’s ever done. And on top of that, he’s told her that he’s the Messiah, the one that both Samaritans and Jews have been waiting for forever. So “Come and see”, she tells her friends, “Come and see.”  Pretty remarkable five-minute conversation, wouldn’t you say?

Now, let’s stop for a moment. What do you think Jesus means when he says that the “living water” he gives will become a spring gushing up to eternal life? One of the themes of John’s gospel is that Jesus embodies, Jesus incarnates, eternal life. And that eternal life doesn’t start somewhere in the distant future, in some far-off place. It begins in the here and now. In the present moment. In the presence of Jesus, there is eternal life. It’s the same idea as “The Kingdom of Heaven” in Matthew, Mark and Luke. In Luke’s gospel in particular we hear Jesus saying over and over again, “The Kingdom of Heaven is in your midst.” Not in some other place. Not in some other time. Now. The Kingdom of Heaven is NOW. And it’s also not yet. Same with eternal life. It’s both now and yet to come. Great paradoxes, great mysteries, like this lie at the heart of our faith. For example, we affirm that Jesus is fully human and fully divine every time we say the Nicene Creed. How can that be? The Kingdom of Heaven is here– but not yet. How can that be? Eternal life begins now–and is yet to come. How can that be? What ties  all these paradoxes together is the presence of Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus the Christ. The One who is both things at the same time.

But what about eternal life in Heaven, you might be asking right now? Isn’t that some other place out there that I go to live forever after I die? And by the way, how good do I have to be to even get there? Good questions! So here’s some inside baseball. Lots of people go to seminary with those very questions top of mind. I mean, all these smart professors are bound to know the answer, right? My first year in seminary, one of my classmates asked that very question, although more elegantly than the way I’ve just put it, to a professor named Will Spong. Will was about 6’4” with long hair and a beard. Whenever I watched Will celebrate the Eucharist, I thought he looked like what Jesus would have looked like if Jesus had lived to be about 60 and worked in Austin TX. So Will smiled his always wry and very warm smile and said, “You know, I don’t know much about Heaven and anyone who says they do is kidding you. But what I do know is that God loves me, always has and always will. God isn’t going to stop loving me—me, Will–just because my physical body has become exhausted. That’s what I know about Heaven.” God isn’t going to stop loving me just because my physical body has become exhausted. I’ve never heard a better, more honest, answer to the question about Heaven than that one.

So let’s circle back to our story. You see, this dear woman has had her first taste of eternal life. On an ordinary day, on a day like any other, she has had an unexpected encounter. She’s found herself in the presence of Jesus, the Messiah, the Anointed One. And what happens? Jesus sees her, really sees her, knows her deeply and truly. He tells her everything she’s ever done and in that moment, she feels known. Now note this and note it well. Jesus doesn’t judge her. Jesus doesn’t shame her. Jesus doesn’t condemn her. He simply knows her and in that deep knowing, she knows she is seen, she knows she is loved, she knows she is safe. She’s transcended her daily, ordinary life and has caught a glimpse of eternal life–which is to say a glimpse of Divine Love. In Jesus’s presence she has received Living Water. And she’ll never be thirsty again. Ever. Like my old friend Will said, she knows now that God loves her and that God’s love for her is eternal.

“Come and see,” she shouts to her friends, “come and see.” Can’t you feel her excitement? Come and see. It’s what Jesus said earlier in John’s gospel to the curious Andrew and his friend as he called them to be his first disciples. “Come and see.” It’s what Philip said the very next day to the skeptical Nathaniel who didn’t think that anything good, like a Messiah, could come out of Nazareth, “O yeah? Come and see.” It’s what Mary Magdalene on Easter morning shouted to the skeptical male disciples who didn’t believe her wild tale that Jesus was alive and walking on the Earth. “O yeah? Come and see.” It’s what Jesus is saying—right now– to you and me, my dear sisters and brothers. Come and see. Come and see, on an ordinary day, on a day like any other, what’s always right before you. Eternal life. But you have to open your eyes and see. Really look and see. See it in the eyes of a sick friend you’ve gone to visit. See it in the eyes of the person experiencing homelessness you greet with warmth and compassion even though you’re a little scared of her. See it in your prayer time as you close your eyes and open your heart to welcome Jesus.

A few moments ago I asked, “Who were the Samaritans?” Now let me ask a slightly different question. “Who are the Samaritans?” You and me, my dear friends in Christ, we are the Samaritans. We are the ones for whom Jesus crosses boundaries to see and to know. We are the ones to whom Jesus offers a drink of Living Water, on an ordinary day, on a day like any other, if only we would open our eyes to see what’s always right in front of us. It’s Jesus who knows everything we’ve ever done, it’s Jesus who sees us clearly and truly so we can see ourselves as clearly and truly just like he does. It’s Jesus who sees you, really sees you, and says “You are with me. And eternal life begins NOW.”