Monthly Archives: May 2018

Growing Understanding and Faith (John 4)

παρα  –  εις

John’s constant use of the prepositions para/towards and eis/into with their emphasis on step-by-step movement is now reflected in the story of the Samaritan woman. She grows gradually into an understanding of who Jesus is and faith in him, resulting in many of her fellow-Samaritans coming to believe in Jesus.
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Just a Jewish man (4.4-15)

Having walked from Galilee to Samaria in the glaring sun, Jesus was surely exhausted, dusty and in great need of a drink. As he sat himself down by the well, he can’t have looked much like the King of kings and Lord of lords! In his need he asks the Samaritan woman for some water. At this stage she has no idea that he is someone special. So she is surprised that he as a man should ask a woman for water. She is particularly surprised that he as a Jew would approach her, for Jews at that time did not “associate with Samaritans” (4.9) – the word translated “associate” may also indicate that Jews would not share a utensil with a Samaritan lest they be made ritually unclean by it. But Jesus breaks down such barriers. He is happy to approach a Samaritan woman and share a drink from the same container. So Jesus gives us a model of wide and open relationships.
The woman’s amazed response to Jesus’ request leads on to Jesus’ declaration that she should have asked him for a drink and he would have given her “living water”. But she had no idea who Jesus was or what gift from God he could have given her (4.10). Even when he explains that his gift of living water satisfies all possible thirsts and even imparts eternal life (4.13), she still can only think in terms of relief from having to come to the well each day to draw water. As with many people throughout history, material needs and the daily grind so occupy her that she cannot contemplate higher dreams.
At this stage the Samaritan woman has no conception of who this exhausted, thirsty man really is.
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A Prophet (4.16-19)

Not put off by the woman’s materialistic outlook, Jesus changes tack and tells her to go back to the town and fetch her husband (4.16). When she responds by saying that she has no husband, Jesus exercises an amazing spiritual gift of discernment. He knows that she had previously had five husbands and is now living with a sixth man (4.17). What did Jesus mean when he declared that the sixth man was not her husband? Was she not married to this sixth man, just living with him? Or was he rejecting their relationship because of her immorality in marrying one man after another? He evidently was not opposing marriage after divorce, for he does clearly accept that her previous men were her husbands.
Jesus’ detailed discernment astonishes the Samaritan woman. He was evidently more than just a tired and thirsty Jewish man. So she declares, “I can see that you are a prophet” (4.19) – a good start, but committed faith needs more than that.
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The Messiah/Christ (4.20-26)

Was the Samaritan woman embarrassed and trying to side-track Jesus after his penetrating words about her sinfully inadequate relationships? Or, having testified that he was a prophet, was she struggling with what it would mean for her as a Samaritan to accept a Jew as prophet? So she presents Jesus with the problem of where should people worship – in Jerusalem with the traditional house of God? Or In Samaria where her forefathers worshipped? Jesus unhesitatingly declares that “salvation is from the Jews” (4.22) and that Jews “worship what we know” whereas Samaritans  ignorantly worship what they don’t know. Jesus’ approach hardly fits the politically correct liberalism of today!
Jesus goes on to declare that the time is coming and has indeed already come when true worship will not be tied to any localised place. God’s universal purposes mean that we can worship the Lord anywhere. No longer should we be restricted to any particular city or building. What is important is that we should worship God “in spirit and truth”. Worship in spirit without due emphasis on truth is empty froth. Worship with solid biblical truth, but without spirit, is dead.
Still today in our contemporary churches this teaching of Jesus remains deeply challenging. In some churches we enjoy dynamic lively worship in the Spirit which relates relevantly to modern youth culture, but often the biblical teaching lacks careful exposition and theological truth. And the worship itself may contain little or no biblical reference. On the other hand, other churches may include excellent biblical exposition with helpful teaching and content, but they may lack the life and vitality of the Spirit. In Jesus’ words spirit and truth go hand in hand. Both together should characterise our worship of the Father (not just Jesus!).
Hearing Jesus’ teaching, the Samaritan woman feels that she is out of her depth. Sensing her inadequacy, she declares her faith that the Messiah/Christ is coming and he will explain everything. Is she already coming to believe that Jesus is the Messiah? Certainly Jesus responds with the uniquely direct confession that he is ‘I am’, God himself incarnate (4.26). To no-one else does Jesus reveal his identity so clearly.
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Wider witness (4.39-42)

Meeting with Jesus is so excitingly life-changing that you cannot keep quiet about it! Good news is infectious! Even with the Samaritan woman’s new and still somewhat unsure faith she immediately returns to the town and tells people about Jesus. As a result they welcome Jesus and persuade him to stay in the town for a couple of days before moving on to Jerusalem. Through his teaching many Samaritans believe in him and they testify that he truly (we may note John’s emphasis again on truth) is “the Saviour of the World”. He is the Saviour who liberates his people from all that is ungodly and against God’s perfect will. And he is the “Saviour of the world“. We are reminded of the four-fold repetition of “world” in John 1.9/10. Jesus has come not only for his own Jewish people, but also has a wider purpose to Samaritans and Gentiles.
Had so many Samaritans already come to believe in Jesus at this pre-Resurrection stage that Luke needs only to give brief mention of the Samaritans in his account of the expansion of the church in the Book of Acts? In Acts 8 Philip, and then Peter and John, have a powerful witness among the Samaritans, but only Acts 8.1-25 is given over to recounting God’s mission among the Samaritans. Nevertheless, in God’s plan for his world, they form the bridge between mission among Jews in Judea and Jerusalem (Acts 1-7) and the conversion of Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9), and then wider mission into the Gentile world.
Just a Jewish man -> a prophet -> the Messiah/Christ -> Saviour of the world.
We too are called to grow in our understanding of who Jesus is, our faith in him and our testimony to others.
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Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4)

 

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Turning now to the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, we may observe that John Chapter 4 highlights the same key emphases as the genealogy of Jesus at the outset of Matthew’s Gospel. Both underline in Jesus’ ministry on earth his special concern for women, for foreigners/Gentiles and for sinners.
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Women in Matthew and John

My family tree was written in 1920 in Frankfurt, Germany. At the top it has an introduction (in German) which boasts that this family tree is totally unique as it includes women and not only men. When I first saw this, I smiled! Actually women do play quite a significant part in bringing to birth the next generation of a family! I realised too that whoever brought our family tree together evidently did not know their New Testament! Over 1850 years before 1920 Matthew made a point of listing several women – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Uriah’s wife and the climax of “Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.”
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Matthew not only specifically introduces women into the genealogy at the outset of his Gospel, but also at its conclusion only tells of two women witnessing the resurrection of Jesus. And he observes that Jesus commissions those two women to be the first preachers of the good news of the resurrection, the heart of the Gospel (Matthew 28.10 uses a verb of proclamation when Jesus commands them to ‘tell’ of his resurrection). Of course the fact that women were the first to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ resurrection does not mean that the church should not also allow men to preach!
Turning to John, in chapter 4 the word “woman” is strongly underlined by means of constant repetition. It was culturally unacceptable for a single man like Jesus to chat with an unknown woman. And we read that Jesus’ disciples had gone away into the town to get some food. No wonder they were surprised to find Jesus “talking with a woman” when they came back (4.27)! And it was through the testimony of that woman that many of the Samaritans came to faith in Jesus ((4.39). In the history of Christian mission women have played a leading role – and still do so. Thus many Chinese churches were founded by Bible women; and in the great fast-growing churches of China today many have a woman as senior pastor.
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A Samaritan woman

Matthew’s genealogy also includes various foreigners – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Uriah’s wife – unashamedly embracing non-Jews as an essential goal even for a Jewish church.
In John too, we see that God in his grace does not normally parachute us direct into the heart of enemy territory, into areas of ministry which are impossibly alien to us. Usually he prepares the way by sending us first into forms of work which are closer to our own background and prepare us for the further challenge of what could prove really difficult for us. So he does not immediately call his disciples to witness with Gentiles, but emphasizes first the Samaritans. As we noted in our last blog, the Samaritans form a bridge between Jew and Gentile. In the Gospels therefore we not only have Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, but he also tells the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25-37). And in Luke 9.51-56 Jesus purposely walks to Jerusalem via a Samaritan village.  Luke also recounts how Jesus healed ten lepers and only one came back to thank the Lord; and Luke’s punch line is “and he was a Samaritan” (Luke 17.11-19). Unlike Matthew and Mark who say nothing positive about the Samaritans, Luke clearly had learned a lesson both from Jesus’ own teaching and from his experience as companion to Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles!
So God gently takes his disciples out of their nice Jewish comfort zone and prepares them for the wider international mission. Today in contemporary Britain the Lord may call us too into wider service among ethnic minorities in our own country as a preparatory bridge into further mission overseas.
What ‘Samaritan’ ministry might God be calling you to now? And what more difficult calling might lie ahead for you?
Sinners
“I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners”, Jesus declares (Matthew 9.13); “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Matthew 9.12). Jesus had just healed a paralytic and related this miraculous healing to the assurance that “your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9.5). God’s church is no place for the smugly self-righteous!
The Samaritan woman was known for her immorality, having already had five husbands (John 4.18) and was now living with a sixth. Was this why she was going to the well for water in the middle of the day? Women normally fetched water in the morning and evening, not in the midday heat, so she was alone when Jesus met her there. Was she unacceptable and despised by other women? In her shame was she forced to go alone to the well when no-one else was around?
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Many people (including Christians) carry around with them a deep inner sense of guilt. Some former sin remains on our conscience. Of course as Christians we know, but can easily forget that “the blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1.7).  “All sin”, not just ‘most sin’! No exceptions – the blood/death of Jesus Christ cleanses totally from all sin of every kind, however serious it may be. What relief and joy the Samaritan woman must have experienced after she met Jesus! No wonder she went back to her village and told people widely about Jesus, “He told me everything I ever did” (4.39). Jesus knows us through and through; and he cleanses us from all sin. Hallelujah!
I am
Jesus never normally revealed his divine identity in starkly clear words. But to this immoral foreign woman in the context of the coming Messiah he declares that the one talking to her is ‘I am’ (4.26), the very name of God himself (Exodus 3.14). To no-one else in the Gospel accounts does Jesus reveal himself so clearly – sadly some of our English translations fail to reflect the unmistakable clarity of Jesus’ use of the divine name ‘I am’.
John’s Gospel is known for its so-called ‘I am statements’ where Jesus declares that he is the good shepherd, the entry door, the resurrection and the life etc. Throughout his Gospel John is constantly showing us just who Jesus really is – he is the Word who is God, comes from God, lives in perfect oneness with God, obeys and glorifies God,  reveals God and returns finally back to God his Father. What a Lord! What a Saviour! We worship and praise him.
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Retreat to Galilee (John 4.1-6)

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Jealousy or fear?
It’s bad enough that John the Baptist was baptising so many people with great crowds following him, the Pharisees must have felt. But now Jesus was attracting even more people than John. Were the Pharisees threatened by Jesus’ success? Were they jealous that they could not attract and influence the crowds like Jesus did? It happens so often that even Christian leaders find it hard to tolerate one of their people being well-known and popular. Were they afraid of their own position if his teaching outshone theirs and he became the messianic leader of Israel? Or were they fearful lest Jesus cause violent political oppression by the Roman authorities?
John’s Gospel merely tells us that Jesus knew that the Pharisees had heard that he was baptising more people even than John the Baptist. As a result Jesus felt it wise to withdraw to the more friendly Galilee where he felt safer. Later he would purposely go to Jerusalem, although he knew that suffering and crucifixion awaited him there. But at this early stage of his ministry Jesus clearly felt that he still had much to do and teach. He therefore discreetly withdrew and avoided confrontation with the leaders of Israel.
As Christians we need also wisely and prayerfully to discern when it is right for us to avoid opposition and when God is calling us boldly and confidently to face up to it. Thus in Britain today the ‘politically correct’ and so-called ‘British values’ can make a clear declaration of Christian faith unacceptable and some times even illegal. When is it right to stand up for our faith in Jesus and when might it be right to keep quiet?
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Who did the baptising?

As soon as Jesus called his disciples to come to him and to follow him, he made them “fishers of men” (Matthew 4.19). Delegating some of his ministry, he began to use them in his service. In this way he was training them in preparation for the time when he would return to his Father and they would take over the full responsibility for his life-giving work. Thus, when he fed the crowds, he actually gave the bread and fish to his disciples. By his power the bread and fish were multiplied and the grossly inadequate resources of five small loaves and two small fish became enough to feed the thousands of people. But it was actually the disciples who gave out the food (Matthew 14.19 and 15.36). Likewise Jesus did not himself baptise, but delegated this ministry to his disciples (John 4.2). What a model for Christian ministry!
In Britain today we face an increasing shortage of ordained ministers. As a result, the church is facing a growing problem with the danger that our clergy can easily become  mere sacramental sausage machines with inadequate time and energy for the primary pastoral, teaching/training and evangelistic ministries which are so much needed and for which they have been trained. There is no specific biblical basis for the traditional practice that only ordained people can administer the sacraments. Our church practice desperately needs to be rethought. More Christ-like delegation would be beneficial for the life and growth of the church.
One day when one of our daughters was about eight years old Elizabeth began to teach her to make gravy. At lunch that day she proudly informed me, “I cooked the lunch” which was rather an exaggeration! And the gravy would have had less lumps if Elizabeth had not delegated the gravy-making to her! Likewise Jesus would doubtless have fed the crowds and baptised people even more effectively than the disciples. But it was good that Elizabeth taught and trained our daughter, giving her a role in our family life and a greater sense of worth. Jesus does the same in giving us various tasks and ministries to do for him and for his church. Like our daughter when she was young, we too are then tempted to pride – “I taught the Sunday School”, “I preached the sermon”, “I led the worship” and we write words like ‘Minister’, ‘Vicar’, ‘Elder’ with initial capital letters! It is good for us to remember that Jesus’ delegation of such tasks comes purely by his grace. A little humility never comes amiss!
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Samaria
Samaria lay between Galilee and Jerusalem. But it was common for Jews to avoid travelling through Samaria because it was believed that this would make them ritually unclean. But Jesus already shows his concern for the Samaritans by taking this direct route to Galilee rather than the usual circuitous ways. For Jesus, contact with Samaritans and then further with Gentiles formed a vital part of his vision. In no way does it make him unclean!
The Samaritans were the product of mixed Jew-Gentile marriages. Their religion was also a mixture of biblical Jewish background and pagan Gentile influence. They believed in the first five books of the Old Testament, but not the rest. They worshipped in a temple, but it was in Samaria and not the true Jerusalem temple. And it seems that the forms of their worship were also a mixture of good Jewish worship and pagan patterns. So the Samaritans are like a bridge between the Jews and the Gentiles. By stressing that God’s purposes include the Samaritans, Jesus is widening the disciples’ spiritual horizons to include Gentiles of every ethnic background.
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