Author: Barry Dundas
In the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well. It is a well-known story and often portrayed as one of the first converts to follow Jesus and one of the first evangelists of the Christian faith. The woman’s life was changed by her encounter with Jesus.
There may be something more going on in this story. Samaritans and Jews had a long history of distrust that went back 700 years to the time of the fall of the Northern Kingdom. After defeating Israel, the King of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim and settled them in the cities of Samaria. Not only did they take possession of the cities, they built shrines to their gods and intermarried with the people of the land. Both of these practices were unacceptable to the Jews in Judah.
In his encounter with the Samaritan woman, Jesus asks about her husband. She replies that she has no husband. Jesus affirms her answer by saying that she has had five husbands and the man she is presently living with is not her husband. John’s Gospel is full of symbolism and the woman could represent all of Samaria. Her five husbands represent the five nations planted by the Assyrians in Samaria and commitments to their gods. The sixth man represents their relationship with the God of Israel. The Jewish People believed Samaritans were not fully committed to Yahweh. It is interesting that in Hebrew the word for husband is ba’al which also means God. In addition, the woman immediately asks questions about worship after the discussion of her husbands.
Even though Jews and Samaritans had lived in conflict for hundreds of years, Jesus does not condemn the woman or her faith practices. Instead he invites her into a new relationship and a new tradition, “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” (NRSV). Even though the cultures are different, they can united in God’s Spirit.
The One Church Plan follows the example Jesus sets in his encounter with a Samaritan woman. It invites us to put down our long standing disagreements and unite in a new model for being the church. I pray we can become as excited about this new relationship as the woman at the well.
Rev. Barry Dundas
Senior Pastor, Trinity UMC