Had To

[Reflection on John 4:5-42]

I’ve spent a good deal of my life doing things that I had to do. When I was a kid, I was told I had to go to school. I found out soon, though, that there were exceptions to this — such as when I was sick. I took advantage as often as possible. I even got creative — I may or may not have held a thermometer up to a light bulb in order to show that I had a fever. I’m sure my mom was onto my scheme when the thermometer read one hundred six degrees. I had to do my homework. I had to eat dinner. I had to go do yard work for my aunt.

The had-to’s don’t stop with childhood. In college, I had to get a job if I wanted to be able to take Robin out on a date and to pay for an engagement ring. We had to go to the hospital when Robin went into labor, despite the fact that I didn’t believe her when she told me she was going into labor. We had to change diapers when the baby pooped at night time (I invoke my fifth-amendment right concerning whether I was actually asleep all those times when I supposedly didn’t hear the baby crying…). We had to work to support our family.

Now, along with all these real had-to’s are some others that are more debatable. I had to get the iPhone 7 when it came out. I had to eat that second brownie…lonely was lonely in the pan, all by itself. I had to watch that fourth episode of The Office…it just started automatically playing!

Jesus had to go through Samaria, John tells us. Word about him was spreading, and a potential conflict with the religious leaders was emerging. Jesus had been down in Judea. He had even gone to Jerusalem. But hearing that word was spreading, he decided it was time to return to his native Galilee. And he had to go through Samaria on the way home. If you were to look at a map of Israel, you might say the same thing. You would notice that Jerusalem, in Judea, is in central Israel, and Galilee is directly north. Between the two is the region of Samaria. Thus, for Jesus to travel directly to Galilee, he had to go through Samaria.

In Jesus’ time, Jews and Samaritans were not friends. John tells us this. The woman was aware of it, too. There were bitter religious, social, and cultural factors at play. But the point is: Jews did not have to go through Samaria. In fact, they took a different, longer route regularly so as to avoid the region altogether. If anything, they had to avoid it.

Further, men didn’t have to talk to women alone. The disciples raised this very issue. Especially at a well! This scene often led somewhere. The whole meeting-a-woman-at-a-well scene shows up a few times in the Bible, actually. In Genesis 24, Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for Abraham’s son, Isaac. The servant travels to a different land, and he finds himself near a well. Then, a woman approaches. The short of it: the woman is Rebekah, Isaac’s eventual wife. A few chapters later, in Genesis 29, Jacob, the son of Isaac and Rebekah, finds himself at a well. There, he meets Rachel, his eventual wife. So in John, when Jesus meets a woman at a well, we might think, “Red alert! Red alert!”

Jesus was convinced that he had to go to Samaria. He was convinced that he had to speak with this woman. He was certain that he had to hear her, to speak to her, to identify her needs, to share with her the message of the gospel. Despite all the boundaries that he was crossing, despite the ways in which those closest to him might chastise him for doing what he “shouldn’t” do — Jesus went.

This woman would have been easy to pass by. She was insignificant, in most ways. Interacting with her would bring Jesus serious shame. He would be rejected by his own people. All of this was according to the standards of humans. Jesus, however, operated according to God’s way of doing things. He knew what truly mattered.

Jesus understood his mission. The Gospel according to John opens in this way:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. (1:1–5)

Jesus knew that allegiance to God meant moving out of the center, out from the spotlight, and going into the cracks and crevices of society. He knew that this is where God would be. So in order for him to remain close to God, he had to follow where God went. He had to go proclaim to those who despaired, those who dwelt in darkness, that the light had come.

In the chapter before this one, Jesus speaks with a man named Nicodemus, a religious leader. They speak at night, in darkness — unlike with this Samaritan woman, whom he encounters in the light. In that interaction, Jesus offers perhaps the most famous words from the entire Bible:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (3:16–17)

This Samaritan woman believed. She recognized in her encounter with Jesus that God knows everything about her. But she also recognized that even though God knows everything about her, he still loves her. He loves her so much that he sent his Son for her. Those who choose to step out of the darkness, into the light, find that though they might have expected to be hit with the hand of judgment, instead they feel the warm embrace of love. In God’s way of doing things, the light shines into the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.