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Bringing down the barriers

Jesus & Co

Greek storyteller Aesop claimed that ‘a man is known by the company he keeps’. If true, the people Jesus met can offer insight into his character and worldview, as Nigel Bovey investigates

The Samaritan Woman (John 4:1–26)

He told her he had something that could change her life for ever

Jesus spent most of his working life in the region of Judea. One day, he found himself in the wrong neighbourhood of Samaria. Today, thanks to Jesus’ par­able about the good Samaritan, we tend to think of Samaritans in a good light. But the Jews and Samaritans had his­tory, centuries of sectarian argument and division. The fact that it was a Samaritan who was the hero in Jesus’ story, because he helped a mugged Jew, added power and scandal to its punchline.

It was noon and Jesus was thirsty. He sat down to rest at a well. He had no bucket, so he asked a woman to draw him some water.

Her first response was a sectarian cliché: why are you, a Jew, asking me, a Samaritan, for a drink? (see John 4:9). We are worlds apart. We don’t mix. We have nothing to do with each other – not even a simple courtesy.

Jesus didn’t engage on such terms. He didn’t argue about the perceived rights and ancient wrongs. Some things were more important. She was more important. He told her he had something that could change her life for ever – living water (see 4:14).

Jesus also told her something about her­self – she had married five husbands but she was not married to the man she was living with (see 4:17,18). Whether unlucky in love, or having been bereaved many times, the woman was vulnerable and her love life messy.

She collected water during the heat of the day rather than the cooler mornings or evenings. This suggests that she felt uncom­fortable mixing with the town’s other women. Perhaps she was the subject of gossip. If true, she felt isolated. Her best defence was bravado. She flattered Jesus and started a religious discussion (see 4:20).

Jesus told her that God is bigger than religious tradition. The heart of a relation­ship with God, he said, is spirit and truth (see 4:24).

To Jesus, race, gender, relationship fail­ures and social isolation are no barrier. The fact that life is sometimes messy does not stop God from loving us or wanting to help us to change.

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