Third Sunday in Lent
The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Oews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) -John 4:9 (NRSVue)
Back in 1998, Beloit College began publishing “The Mindset List.” Although now curated by Marist University, the document’s main goal has been the same: frame the worldview of that year’s incoming freshman class and help the professors to engage with those students in more meaningful ways. “The primary use of a phone has always been to take pictures,” the list outlined of the class of 2024. And, for the class of 2025 it says, “The world’s political stage has always been post 9/11.” For those who are long past their youth, The Mindset List also serves as a reminder of how much has changed in the world.
I certainly fall into the latter category and frequently find myself trying to explain to my daughter the context of something with which she has no memory or experience. Typically, they are pointless bits of trivia. Lately, it has been things like old commercial jingles and prices paid for fast food and fuel. But there are also moments when it gets more confessional. “Oh, yeah. It used to be okay to use that word to talk about some people,” I said recently when a slur was spoken on a classic television episode. And, when walking through a museum, I found myself saying multiple times, “There was a time when those two groups really hated each other.”
It is widely assumed that John’s gospel was written for a diverse audience ... specifically one that was unfamiliar with Judean culture and the conflicts between the people who lived in the region. Thus, many of the parenthetical references it includes serve to explain why certain things are happening and/ or being said. It is quite frequent, and clumsily interrupts the narrative with contextual exposition that would probably be best served by a forward to the book. I imagine that they were added later. I imagine that the first drafts of the story were shared orally, but John’s author and supporters were peppered with questions and quizzical looks by the early audiences in the gentile-majority of the Roman empire, so they added notes to the paper copies.
In the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, there are two of these references. One frames why Jesus is alone, and the other references why this encounter could be troublesome. What I appreciate, though, is that they aren’t intended to be apologetic. John isn’t looking for sympathy from the audience regarding the Jews and the Samaritans ... nor could he. For the point of the story is that, to Jesus, the conflict was needless. The fact that there was trouble between them didn’t justify the dispute.
Jesus frequently upended the conventions of the world he lived in. He didn’t care for the division. He didn’t perpetuate injustice. He went so far as to empower the woman he met at the well so she could also upend those conventions in the way he did. So, because he wouldn’t comply with the assumed social norms, Jesus leaves the author of the gospel to explain what was really at stake.
His revolutionary way doesn’t stop with this story. Jesus continued to reframe the world in which he lived and worked in an attempt to unravel the divisive things that kept people from loving God and one another. And, for those who believe the gospel’s message, that work has been handed over to us. Instead of living in the past and clinging to debilitating memories of things that have been forgotten, Jesus gives all who love him the opportunity to be free from the mindsets that fracture us. He gives us the chance to understand them as things of the past and then let them go, making room for the living water to fill every one of us.