“Word for Today” – John 4 – www.concordialutheranchurch.com
Oil and water. Night and day. Sweet and sour. Republicans and Democrats. Longhorns and Aggies. Some things just don’t go together.
Galileans and Samaritans. This was the “oil and water” combination of the first century. These two people groups despised each other. The Galileans considered the Samaritans spiritual “half-breeds.” According to 2 Kings 17:24-41, Samaritans were the result of intermarriages between Gentiles and Jews after Assyria exiled the bulk of the Jewish nation in 722 BC and brought in Gentiles to live alongside a remnant of Jews still in Israel. When these Jews intermarried with these foreign people, they also began worshipping their foreign gods. Thus, Samaritans were born. And hostilities between Galileans, who were pure-breed Jews, and Samaritans, who were half-breed Jews, only intensified with time. Allow me to share two examples, both from a first century Jewish historian named Josephus.
In AD 9 during the Passover feast, a group of Samaritans snuck into the temple at Jerusalem, the Galilean place of worship, and scattered human bones over the temple floor, which, understandably, dramatically increased tensions between these two people groups (cf. Antiquities, 18.29-30). Then, in AD 50, a Galilean man was brutally murdered while on his way to worship in Jerusalem. This so enraged the Galileans against the Samaritans that Josephus records that the Galileans “massacred them, sparing no one regardless of their age” (cf. Jewish War 2.232-237). Needless to say, the relationship between the Galileans and Samaritans was shockingly hostile.
“Now Jesus had to go through Samaria” (John 4:4). Of course he had to go through Samaria. For Jesus was a Galilean (cf. Matthew 2:19-23). And no Galilean would ever willingly travel through Samaria unless travel plans absolutely demanded it.
While traveling, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman and tries to strike up a conversation. Her response is telling: “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman” (John 4:9). This woman can simply not imagine that a Galilean would want to talk to a Samaritan.
In spite of strained national and political relations, and in spite of the cultural and religious mores that divide them, Jesus presses on. He talks to her about her relationally broken life (for this woman had been married five times and now had a live-in boyfriend) as well as, on a lighter note, worship differences that separate Galileans and Samaritans. Following their conversation, this woman finally responds, “I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us” (John 4:19, 25). And then, Jesus drops his bomb: “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:26).
The gospel of John is well known for preserving the “I am” sayings of Jesus. “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11). Many biblical scholars see these statements as a testament to Jesus’ divinity. For in Exodus 3:14, we learn that “I am” is God’s given name. Thus, Jesus appropriates God’s name as his name. The first “I am” statement in John’s gospel, however, is not be found in John 6, or in John 8, or in John 10. No, it is to be found in John 4:26: “I who speak to you am he.” A more wooden translation would read, “I am! This is the one speaking to you.” This, then, is a forthright and unequivocal statement of Jesus’ divinity. And he shares it not with a fellow Galilean, but with a half-breed Samaritan.
As Jesus finishes his conversation with this woman, John records that his disciples are “surprised to find him talking with a woman” (John 4:27). I’m sure they would have been even more surprised to know what he was talking about with this woman. For Jesus was telling this woman that he was the God of the universe.
God often says of himself, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). God, it seems, is the God of many. Other names can be lined up behind God’s “I am” as well. The God of Moses. The God of David. The God of Daniel. The God of Galileans. The God of Samaritans. Our God is the God of all. And our God desires to say, “I am your God too.” Do you take him at his word?
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