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My church, Resurrection Church in Greer, South Carolina, is taking a month out of our normal pattern to explore the doctrine of salvation in the weeks leading up to Easter. I’m also endeavoring to write a complementary blog each week, for what that’s worth, and attempting to connect some overarching themes while allowing the elders to do the real grunt work in the pulpit on Sunday.
This week, our emphasis text is John 3:22-4:54, and I’m going to zoom in on parts of Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well at the beginning of John 4. I will also note here that all opinions are my own and that this blog has not been officially sanctioned by my church, because some of these opinions may be a tad spicy to some.
You should read the passage for yourself, but for the purposes of this blog, I’d like to focus on three ideas that this story topples, which of course have counterpart ideas that are substituted in kind.
So, then the story of the woman at the well destroys the following:
Racism and ethnocentrism
Our 21st century, Western minds don’t grasp just how scandalous Jesus’ conversation with a Samaritan woman was. For one, men didn’t talk to women in public. For two, Jesus traveled through Samaria and engaged with them, instead of going around as was custom for the time.
The reason for this is not that they were halfbreeds, as some have posited, but that they claimed to be descended from members of the northern kingdom of Israel who weren’t deported, meaning they weren’t Jews, who were descended from the southern kingdom of Judah. They were basically apostate Israel before it was cool. The Samaritans also still claim to have a monopoly on the proper worship of Yahweh to this day. Effectively, you have both enormous ethnic and religious tension. I’ll deal with the latter in a bit, but let’s briefly focus on the former.
The woman appeals to “our fathers” in verse 20 as part of her case against Jesus. While not quite Hatfield and McCoy levels of drama worthy of a History Channel special, these groups just didn’t like each other, and the combination of truth claims and claimed superiority combined to form a giant Middle Eastern snowball.
But it’s important to note that in John’s Gospel, this is just the second time Jesus has actually preached the Gospel to someone, and it happens to be directed to one of those dirty Samaritans, and a woman at that. But he has created one new man in himself, reconciling both groups to God by his own blood, eliminating the wall of hostility (Eph. 2:13-16).
The eschatological system – most known for the rapture and poorly written novels – called dispensationalism also falls apart in John 4.
Again in verse 20, the Samaritan woman tells Jesus that one of the wedges in between them is the fact that the Jews worship on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, while the Samaritans regarded Mount Gerizim as their most holy place.
Jesus’ response in verses 21-24 is often interpreted by dispensationalists as something like, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming sometime in the distant future, after the rapture and seven-year tribulation but during my literal 1,000-year reign from Jerusalem when true believers will once again worship me with animal sacrifices in a third temple.”
But no, when the woman told him that she knew the Messiah was en route, Jesus tells her, “I am he,” conjuring myriad references to God saying “I am he” in references to his covenant promises to judge the nations, blot out our sin, be our comfort, carry us to and through death, and that he is the Alpha and Omega (Is. 43:13, 46:4, 48:12, 51:12).
What we have in the New Covenant is infinitely better. Jesus is greater than the temple and doesn’t desire sacrifices (Matt. 12:6-7). In fact, he sat down after he made the final one, meaning that any blood sacrifice made after his Atonement is superfluous at best and blasphemous at worst (Heb. 10).
In fact, the verse from Ephesians 2 that I cited in regards to Jesus eradicating ethnic hostility immediately flows into:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.Eph. 2:19-22
The church, in fact, is the temple that the Old Testament pointed to all those years. We ourselves are God’s dwelling place (Rev. 21:3). We don’t need bricks for a building when we’re already living stones (1 Peter 2:5).
Unlike the prevailing ecclesiastical wisdom, Jesus doesn’t appeal to the Samaritan woman’s felt needs, and he doesn’t beat around the bush regarding her need for a Savior.
Instead, he delivers a masterful presentation of Law and Gospel. “Go, get your husband,” he tells her in verse 16, and when she says she doesn’t have one, he replies, “Right. You’ve had five, and you’re shacked up with a guy you’re not even married to.” Her response is an acknowledgement that he’s a prophet, which leads to her theological misdirection about mountains and worship that we’ve already addressed. But after Jesus hooks her with just how gross her sin is, he reels her in by revealing himself to be the Messiah.
If we’ve learned one thing from the seeker sensitive church movement, it’s that its teachings don’t prepare Christians to suffer, be hated, or even be questioned. Immediately after this interaction Jesus’ disciples are asking what his deal is, talking with a woman (John 4:27). Jesus was clearly willing to be ostracized by his most-inner circle if need be, even staying two more days to teach this dirty, hated group of people (John 4:40).
Maybe this is a stretch, but I’m reminded of the martyrdom of Polycarp in AD 155. Polycarp was an early church father who was personally discipled by John and lived in Smyrna in what is now western Turkey.
In the Roman Empire at the time, Christians were often referred to as “atheists” because they denied the Roman pantheon and that Caesar was a god incarnate. A Roman Proconsul had Polycarp dragged into a coliseum to apostatize or be executed. In a bittersweet moment of church history, this time being the prequel to last week’s reference of Lattimer and Ridley, the crowd in the coliseum where he was to be executed heard a voice tell Polycarp, “Be strong, Polycarp and play the man!”
The Proconsul then adjured him saying, “Have respect for your old age, swear by the fortune of Caesar. Repent, and say, ‘Down with the Atheists!’”
Polycarp, apparently one for sarcasm, gestured toward the crowd and said, “Down with the Atheists!” He didn’t request a pause for some evidence and massaging the message, and maybe if we just unhitch from that angry God in the Old Testament…
“Swear,” urged the Proconsul, “reproach Christ, and I will set you free.”
“86 years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong.” Polycarp responded. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”
When threatened with being torn by animals and then burned at the stake when he didn’t bat an eye at the animals, Polycarp replied, “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and is then extinguished, but you know nothing of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. Why are you waiting? Bring on whatever you want.”
And as his last words before being burned alive, Polycarp prayed:
“O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of you, the God of angels, powers and every creature, and of all the righteous who live before you, I give you thanks that you count me worthy to be numbered among your martyrs, sharing the cup of Christ and the resurrection to eternal life, both of soul and body, through the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be received this day as an acceptable sacrifice, as you, the true God, have predestined, revealed to me, and now fulfilled. I praise you for all these things, I bless you and glorify you, along with the everlasting Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. To you, with him, through the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and forever. Amen.”