The First to Know
Dr. R.B. McFee
Anyone who has ever worked in or with the media recognizes the value of a “scoop,” or being first to know and write about something. I remember as a rookie writer many years ago for an online newspaper how blessed I felt that I was the first one from various media outlets able to get an interview with a senior White House advisor at a big conference.
Now imagine being an outcast woman in a dangerous region of the world, being given the scoop of a lifetime – the first to be told that the man you are providing water to is none other than the Messiah. That’s the stuff of Pulitzer Prizes. That Jesus chose such a person for His big reveal is nothing short of amazing, and so very Christ-like to elevate someone with low social status to such a privileged position.
Yet how often do we study this part of John 4? Consider….
25 The woman saith unto him, I know that Messiah cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things. 26 Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he. 27 And upon this came His disciples, and marveled that He talked with the woman: yet no man said, What seekest Thou? or, Why talkest Thou with her? 28 The woman then left her waterpot, and went her way into the city, and saith to the men,29 Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?
John 4: 25-29
Most Christians are familiar with the story of the woman at the well whom Jesus asks for water. While many sermons often focus on the beginning of the interaction between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, this part of the story often gets less attention.
This is true of many Gospel stories. Consider Matthew 14. One would think that chapter goes from Jesus feeding the multitudes, to Jesus and Peter walking on water, ending with Peter schooled by Jesus on faith. Interestingly the chapter doesn’t actually end there. In fact there are several important events before, and after the lesson on faith.
As such, too often scriptural verses get overlooked, or skimmed past. What gets treated sadly as Biblical “fly over territory.” That is a pity, because some of the richest teachings Jesus provides us are in those skipped passages.
The same is true for John 4.
To be sure the beginning of the story holds important messages for His followers.
Consider: Jesus is sitting by Jacob’s Well after a long morning of walking. It is around noon, when the desert really heats up as the sun beats down. Jesus waits until His Disciples go into town for provisions. Since nothing is coincidental in God’s Kingdom, there is a purpose to Jesus hanging back, and moreover, this part of the story; for the benefit of first century Jewish listeners or readers, and for twenty first century believers….
7There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, “Give me to drink.”
In that very act Jesus was breaking three customs – some might suggest codes or laws of conduct for first century Jews: First, He spoke with a woman; Second, He spoke with a Samaritan; and Third, He was about to drink from her cup or similar utensil, which would have made Him ritually unclean.
Wow! In one verse Jesus revealed for the world to see – we are all one! Folks previously considered as outcasts, unclean, unworthy, uncool, or whatever contemporary descriptions to convey “un-us” was blown away, replaced with the notion – we are all “us.”
Yet too often there seem to be some folks labeled as “other,” or “them,” instead of just a different version of “us.” Whether Samaritan, or Gentile, male or female, slave, or free, Roman or Judean, Greek or Jew, Northerner, or Southerner, Coastal or Middle American, Democrat or Republican, entrepreneur (Wharton) or corporatist (Harvard), tall or short, fast or slow, indoorsman or outdoorsman, rich or poor, someone who is analog, or digital, you name it, we have created a dichotomy, a taxonomy, a way of identifying or separating others, of defining “them.” Taxonomy is fine for research, but not human relations. And Jesus knew it!
Associated with that sense of “other” is that sense of worthiness in the Kingdom of God, as practiced here on earth. Jesus made it patently clear that the woman at the well was valued as a child of God just for existing. She was worth talking with and caring about, as their dialogue proved.
Sadly I’ve heard folks say things like “women shouldn’t be ministers or priests,” or “anyone who votes Republican can’t call himself a Christian,” or “if you’re a practicing Catholic, you can’t rightfully vote Democrat.” Yet you will not find one word in the Bible from Jesus’ mouth to support those assertions; from the words of mortal writers taken out of context, perhaps, but not from Jesus.
Maybe it is best leaving judgment to God?
Anyway, Who else can judge the human heart? Or say that that which makes us different makes us unsuitable to associate with, care about, listen to, forgive, love, or show hospitality, or preach the word of God, or share His love, or help others from within our midst? Have we travelled so long from the first century that we have forgotten Jesus’ exhortations towards understanding? Do our opinions outweigh Jesus’ teachings?
In Scripture we see how to deal with those we disagree with, or have allowed a barrier, a sense of “other” to invade. And yes, easier said than done.
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him….overcome with good.” Romans 12: 20 – 21
Christ didn’t say following Him would be easy! If fixing a broken world was easy, we wouldn’t need people of faith.
Thankfully CCUMC is a place of love.
Rereading John 4, Jesus was empowering the woman at the well in many ways. By speaking with her, Jesus showed this outcast, this “other” that she mattered to Him. How could it be otherwise? Jesus thought about her, had to, to know about her sad life. Then He preached Good News to her – that she had found the source of ‘living water.’
In Judaism ‘living water’ has a great significance going all the way back to Genesis, and signifying the Presence of God. A first century Jew, or Samaritan would have gotten the reference immediately.
Jesus then gave her the privilege of being the first mortal to hear from His lips His true identity. It would be as if Clark Kent told a perfect stranger he was Superman, and didn’t swear that person to secrecy. In essence Jesus allowed the woman at the well to be the first to know, and the first to tell, to preach Jesus is the Christ. Wow.
And she did preach it. She left an important utensil – her water pot, something that had significant value to a likely poor woman – running to her neighbors, sharing the Good News. Wow.
For outcasts – people most Jews would go out of their way to avoid, Samaritans seemed to have a right heart; at least the ones Jesus talked to, and about. For a group of folks stigmatized by the mainstream residents of the region, when you get to know them, they seem pretty decent people.
Consider in Jesus’ teachings the three main stories involving Samaritans: 1. Jesus healing the ten lepers. Only one (a Samaritan) returned to thank Jesus. 2. The woman at the well -the first to know Jesus is the foretold Messiah, and shares that Good News. 3. The man who has inspired innumerable sermons… “the good Samaritan.”
Maybe Samaritans ought not be outcasts after all? Maybe they are worthy in God’s kingdom, too?
Who are we treating today as 21st century versions of Samaritans, “others,” “them,” “outcasts?”
As if being a member of an outcast group wasn’t challenging enough, add being a woman.
Recall back in first century Israel women didn’t count for much, figuratively, literally. In Matthew 14 the reference to the multitude that Jesus fed with a few loaves of bread and some fishes. There were 5000 (that was the number of men). And yet against this cultural backdrop, Jesus revealed His true identity to a Samaritan woman. Not even a Samaritan male. Not a Jewish male stranger. Not even a Jewish woman. Not even Martha, or Mary. Wow.
It wouldn’t be long after that when Jesus blessed another woman with the gift of “first to know,” when at the tomb He revealed Himself to Mary Magdalene. While others visited the tomb, none had interacted yet with the Risen Christ. Mary was the first to know Jesus had risen from the grave. And like the woman at the well, Mary was given the unique privilege of sharing that Good News in what might likely be the shortest sermon in recorded history when she told some of Jesus’ Disciples “I have seen the Lord.”
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”
Galatians 3:28: (NRSV).
Jesus came to rebuild our relationship with God. Jesus came to give us living water – the Spirit of God within us that never runs out. Jesus came so we could rebuild our relationships with each other. Jesus came to remove the sense of “other” that has plagued humankind for far too long.
There remain many people long estranged from love, acceptance, or the sense of God in their lives. Can we be their touch of healing? Can we be the voice of God letting them have a first to know experience in the love of Christ? Can we offer them a cup of living water? Can we sit down with those considered “other” from us – someone on a different side of the artificial divide that separates us based on human taxonomy, and instead see folks from the eyes of Jesus – we are all one in Him?
Jesus challenges us to look inside ourselves, to ask the tough question – have we treated a person, a group, as “other?” And then He challenges us to sit by the well, and share some of His living water with that person.
Moreover, Jesus asks us to reexamine ourselves in terms of the “other,” and ask is the mote in our eye as big or magnifying the one in theirs?
As people we will always disagree on something. Some will say church is too hot, or it is too cold. Some will suggest Rask is the best goaltender while others suggest Vasilevskiy or Hellebuyck. We’ll debate policy issues like social spending and immigration laws, justice reform, and similarly important topics. But to negatively label people based on their vision of which road to Rome is the best, when there are several; you select one, and I select a different one, is to treat those who differ as a Jew to a Samaritan.
As Christians we can do better. We can differ in a spirit of love. We can sit at the table or by the well with those previously considered as “unclean” and “other.” To do any less is to ignore Christ.
Two thousand years ago on a dusty trail in a desert region Jesus gave a Samaritan woman gifts to last a lifetime – hers and ours. Jesus knew her sins and flaws, as He knows ours. And yet she was the first to know Jesus is the Messiah. Every day we wake up, we get that same chance to declare through words and Christ-like deeds
“Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?”
John 4: 29