A Fork in the Road

Passage: John 4:5-42
Date: February 24, 2008
Preacher: Rev David Hutchinson
Guest Preacher:

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One name for our faith is - the WAY.

Christianity has been called - "the way"

Jesus said, "I am the way - follow me".

Have you ever thought about what that might mean - for how we live out our faith? What does it mean to think of a way, rather than, say a system of doctrine? A way, rather than an intellectual belief...? For one thing, following Jesus is a lot different from talking about Jesus, it seems to me.

The disciples who are described in this morning's scripture reading from John's Gospel have already heard Jesus call, "Follow me". The first chapter of John starts out with a story that contains the phrase, "follow me". And they have been following Jesus a round. And recently they have gotten into some trouble for baptizing in Judea, as they followed Jesus around. So now they are following him north, to Galilee.

In verse 4 of the 4th chapter of John's Gospel, the verse just before this morning's lectionary, it says Jesus "had to go through Samaria".

He had to go through Samaria. Why?

I have been pondering that question for a long time.

Why did Jesus have to go through Samaria?

I've found that it's very difficult to ponder a question that seems to have geographical implications, without looking at a map. At least it is for me. So I took a good long look at a map. There is one on the back of your order of worship.

At first glance, the answer seems to be fairly simple. If one is going north, from Judea to Galilee, Samaria is in between. To get from point A to point C, one has to pass by B.

I don't want to make this hopelessly complicated, but I think there is more to this question about WHY, than first meets the eye. After all, John's Gospel is forever using metaphoric language. Jesus is the ‘vine', or the ‘bread'. He doesn't say he is like a vine, he says he IS a vine....that sort of thing. In this story for today is another example, he says he has living water. Does he mean that this water has sensory perception like an organism, or that this water can reproduce? Of course not! So similarly, I think it's just the sort of thing John would make something of: a phrase like, "he had to pass through Samaria".

There IS another way to Galilee, by the way. It may be a bit out of the way, but one could travel the long road through Perea, located on the right hand side of the map, on the other side of the Jordan River. Located in East county, so to speak. You might have to do a little bush-wacking to get to it, but eventually, you could just head north and bypass Samaria. Herod Antipas ruled both Galilee and Perea, so the political situation would have been similar in both places. Perea would not have been the same kind of scary foreign place as Samaria, I don't think.

But to back up a second, my suggestion might raise the question in the minds of some: but why NOT pass through Samaria? For those of you who know a little about Samaria, you know that there was a political and religious rivalry between Samaria on the one hand, and Galilee and Judea on the other. This middle land was a land of outcasts. Samaritans were heretics in the eyes of the Jews of Jerusalem because of the temple at Gerizim. That alternative temple, to which Jesus refers in this account today, was built by invading forces. And furthermore, Jews saw the Jerusalem temple as a Holy expression of the covenant between themselves and God. A substitute was unthinkable and blasphemous. The parable of the Good Samaritan, then, is shocking for these reasons. Saying the "good Samaritan" in Jesus day, might be a bit like saying the "good Iraqi" in or the ‘good Iranian" in today's political and religious climate.

And yet the text says, "He had to pass through Samaria".

Geographically this is not strictly true. Though certainly Samaria is in between, and there is no easy way around it when traveling from Judea to Galilee, it is at least possible to go another way.

Maybe one answer to the question of why he had to go through Samaria is that they needed to get away from the Pharisees in Judea who were upset about the baptizing, which I referred to before. They were sort of on the run, getting out of Dodge. Heading North, and had to go.

As I thought more about this, I realized that for me, I usually say, "I have to..." when I don't want to. If there is something I don't want to do, I might say, "I have to do it". For example, I don't usually say, "I HAVE to eat some of that cake". But I often say, "I HAVE to take out the trash again"

So why go somewhere you don't want to go?

Are there things in our lives that we sometimes feel like we HAVE to do?

Things we maybe would rather NOT do...

But we feel like they are important.

We just have to do them...

Sometimes in situations like that, we describe the moment by saying, we have "reached a ‘fork in the road'". There is such a fork in the road along Jesus journey north. The fork in the road lies just at the location of this well, where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman. If you look at your map again, on the back of the worship order, and you can see this fork in the road. It is at the town of Sychar, where Jacob's well is located. At this fork in the road, Jesus could either go right, and north to Beth-shean. OR, Jesus could go left, and go right by Mt. Gerizim, and the much disputed unholy temple, and then on right through the heart of the CITY of Samaria, named after this heretical province.

If this sanctuary is Samaria, then the aisle on my right is the road through Perea. Then, the center aisle is the road through Beth-shean, And the aisle on my left is the way through the city of Samaria. The piano, being the dreaded temple, at Mt. Gerazim. The font, of course, is the well.

At this fork in the road, which way do you think Jesus went?

We are never told in scripture.

All we know is that he ends up (in the narthex) in the town of Cana in Galilee.

I like to think he went through Samaria.

I mane the city.

Past the source of the conflict.

Right to the heart of the pain.

That's what I think...

Though I still wonder about this question: why did he have to do that?

What was at the heart of this - having to go?I believe it is because of this encounter with the woman.

There is some sense in which he had to have this encounter.

It was a scandalous face to face encounter.Jesus had to decide to let himself be vulnerable. He had to decide to be open to scandal; and to ridicule; and to being mis-understood; and to being judged; unfairly.

he well, at this fork in the road, is Jacob's well. Do you remember Joseph in the Old Testament? He was the one with the coat of many colors. The one sold into slavery by his brothers. He was the one thrown into the pit and left for dead, until slave traders come by, and take him to Egypt, and to Pharoah. Joseph, was Jacob's son. It was his father's well. And it is pretty clear that the PLACE where Joseph was sold into slavery, by his brothers, was very near the site of his father's well.

It is interesting to me that when this pit is described, into which they threw Joseph, in Genesis chapter 37 it says that there was no water in it. It is as if there was supposed to be water in it. Could it have been a well? Could it have been his father's well?

The actual well is pretty deep, so probably not. Jim Moiso has dropped a penny into it and waited to hear it hit the bottom. He says it's pretty deep. So probably not. At least not geographically and historically speaking. But it's close by.

But metaphorically speaking, maybe truth lies elsewhere...

Surely John meant to evoke memories of the story of Jacob and Joseph, by describing the well the way he did. He could have just said, a well, or just, "Jacob's well". But John describes it as "the field Jacob gave his son". The son who was betrayed by his brothers.

This well is one of the very few, nearly undisputed sites in the Bible. Nearly everyone agrees that this IS the location of the well. This well IS, at a fork in the road.

This is a change of course marker.

This is where Jesus, going north, meets a Samaritan woman.

I believe the answer to "why did Jesus have to go?" IS the woman.

This is NOT a propositional answer.

It is relational.

He had to go, because of the relationship he would develop with her.

This truth, is not about a proposition.

This truth - is in the relationship.

Jesus, sitting with people, face to face - - is the truth.

Look what happens, in the encounter!

The woman leaves her water jar.

Now ask yourself: why leave the jar??? Empty!!!

She went to the well to GET water, and then she CRITICIZES Jesus for NOT having a jar - - - and then she leaves her jar behind!!

This can NOT be about water, folks! Like with the pit where Joseph was thrown by his brothers, there is NO water here. Neither Jesus, nor the woman are ever described as drinking any water. This is not about water...

This, instead, is about THIRST.

And what is this woman really thirsty for?

Kindness, respect, relationship, reconciliation, understanding...

This risky and scandalous encounter - brings CHANGE in her life.

This encounter brings healing.

And it leads her to spread the word of it to others.

So, my friends, the word for us today is not about water, it is about thirst.

What are we thirsty for?

What would make YOU leave your jar behind?

What would you leave behind - in order to follow Jesus?

Where are we at a fork in the road?

What decisions do we have to make?

With WHOM does Jesus want US to be in relationship?

To whom does Jesus want to lead us...?