Today’s reading of Jesus’ interaction with the woman of Samaria is interesting from several angles, especially if we consider it from a first century Jewish perspective. For one thing, we see a man who broke through social boundaries because of his compassion. A man talking to a woman in public, according to rabbis in the first century, was questionable, but especially on theological issues. It was even frowned upon for a man to talk to his wife in public. The disciples therefore “marveled that he was talking with a woman” (John 4:27). Not only that but she was a Samaritan and “the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans” (v.9). The third strike against her was that she was a woman of questionable reputation, having gone through five husbands already and now living with someone she was not married to (v.18). There’s quite a theme with women in the gospel records. In Jesus’ lineage, for example, outlined in Matthew 1, we have five women mentioned. Thamar acted as a harlot, Rahab was a harlot, Ruth was an outcast Moabitess (and we know their origins), Bathsheba was pregnant from adultery and Mary gave birth out of wedlock.
Life can be messy like that. While Jesus himself was innocent here were a lot of skeletons in his family closet. Most of us can relate to either having to deal with something messy in our family closet or in our own life. A past with something we’re not particular proud of, something that we really wish hadn’t happened, or something we’re presently dealing with. Sometimes those things come out in the open and we feel the shame the women in Jesus’ genealogy must have felt.
Take the example of the man referred to in this reading – whose life is on record in Scripture as having an extremely dysfunctional family. He was himself a bit of a scoundrel as a young man and had to flee the family home. He had two wives, who never got along, and as for his children – one was “unstable as water” (Gen. 49:4), two were violent (Gen. 49:5-7), one slept with a prostitute, one with his step mother, and together all his sons conspired to sell his favorite son into slavery. We’re of course talking about Jacob, and it’s his family that is key to the genealogy of Christ as well. All of which makes the woman of Samaria’s allegiance to Jacob all that much more intriguing. He was revered by the Samaritans hence the woman’s question “Are you greater than our father Jacob?” (v.12)
Jesus’ response alludes to the spiritual roller-coaster which was the life of Jacob. He said, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” (v.23), a quotation from Joshua 24:14 where Joshua exhorts the people to choose whether they will serve Yahweh or other gods. He tells them they can’t keep a foot in both camps: they have to “fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.” He goes on to tell them “You are not able to serve the LORD” (v.19) unless they “put away the foreign gods that are among you” (v.23). That’s what Jesus was telling the woman of Samaria: “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22) and you can’t pick and choose who you are going to serve: it must be the God of the Jews, Yahweh. Serving him in spirit and truth, or sincerity and faithfulness, means giving our whole heart to him and not mixing that worship with those of foreign gods.
Jacob himself learned that lesson later in life after he returned from his sojourn in Laban’s house: “Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments.” (Gen. 35:2). This happened just after the incident with his daughter Dinah, which his two sons Simeon and Levi took into their own violent hands. The dysfunctional nature of his family continued unabated but the lesson to put away foreign gods and serve only Yahweh was something he was determined to instill in them. He knew the difficult situations we put ourselves in when we are double-minded. A few chapters previously Jacob learned the lesson of his life when he wrestled with the angel. At the same time as wrestling against the angel he clung onto him and would not let him go until he blessed him. That’s the roller-coaster of Jacob’s life – one minute clinging onto the promises God gave to him but the next minute wrestling against God by using his own guile and deceit to get through situations.
It was after he wrestled with the angel that his name was changed from Jacob to Israel. No more would he be the supplanter, but a prince with God. Jacob’s life is an example of how God can work through all the mess we bring into our lives and produce in us someone who is single-minded in their devotion.
What’s interesting about Jacob’s name change is that it’s mentioned in two other parts of Scripture, both to do with the problem of double mindedness. In 1 Kings 18:31 Elijah made an altar made of “twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, ‘Israel shall be your name,’”. Why do we need to be reminded of Jacob’s name change? Because the people at the time were acting just like Jacob – “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” (v.21) Jacob’s limp, which was caused after wrestling with the angel, was a constant reminder of the problem of being “a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8) and now his descendants continued to show the same family trait.
The only other time Jacob’s name change is mentioned is in the chapter about the origin of the woman of Samaria. 2 Kings 17:34 mentions “Jacob, whom he named Israel” in the chapter which tells us where the Samaritans came from. Their problem was the same as the people in Elijah’s time – “So these nations feared the Lord and also served their carved images. Their children did likewise, and their children’s children—as their fathers did, so they do to this day.” (v.41) But it’s no good fearing Yahweh at the same time as serving idols. As Joshua said, you cannot serve Yahweh if you do that, and as Jesus said, echoing Joshua’s words, you cannot serve two masters.
Life is messy and complicated. But through the dysfunctional nature of our lives we need to learn the lesson to stop wrestling against God and give our hearts wholly to him. He will bring us through the disarray we create in our lives. Salvation is of the Jews – named after Judah, the one who was the ringleader in selling Joseph into slavery and involved in the whole sordid episode involving Thamar. You would have thought God would want things all nice and tidy and have his people named after Joseph. But it was not to be. God understands our lives are like a roller-coaster. And that’s true for all of us, and when the dirty linen of our lives is hung out for all to see let’s remember what Jesus said to those who brought another woman of ill-repute into his presence – “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). We’re all in this together. We all share the messy family traits of Jacob to one degree or another. Let’s make sure, instead of shunning one another as the Jews did to the Samaritans, we follow Jesus’ example of compassion and encourage one another. Let’s encourage one another not to be double minded, to stop trying to serve ourselves but instead to give our hearts completely to the God of the Jews and fully depend on him to get us through this life.
Simi Hills, CA