The Common Cup
A Sermon on John 4 and Ephesians 2
Jesus’ disciples were shocked to see him conversing with a woman in public. It just wasn’t done. Jewish men did not speak to women in public, unless they were immediate family members. And even then they kept the conversation to a minimum. Jesus’ disciples would have been even more shocked if they had heard him ask to drink from the woman’s water jar.
It was challenge enough that he had taken them into Samaritan territory. Like people now wishing to avoid going through a bad neighborhood, most Jews were willing to detour way out of the way in order to avoid going through Samaria on the way to Galilee. But not Jesus. John says that Jesus had to go through Samaria. And any time scripture says Jesus had to do something, it really means he had to do it. He was determined to do it. He was determined to go through Samaria, even though Jews considered that enemy territory.
The hostility between Jews and Samaritans ran deep. It was both racial and religious. Jewish parents taught their children to see Samaritans as half-breeds, impure people that were descended from the remnants of the old northern kingdom of Israel and Assyrians and whatever other nationality the Assyrian empire dumped there way back in the 700s BC. What’s more, Jewish children learned that Samaritan religion was corrupt. Mt. Zion, another name for Jerusalem, is the mountain of God, and that’s where everybody ought to worship God. The Samaritans think Gerizim is God’s mountain. They’re wrong.
Meanwhile, Samaritan children were also learning. “Those Jews are heretics,” their elders taught them. “Their religion is corrupt. Only the five books of Moses—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—truly are sacred scripture. The Jews have added books that ought not to be there. God’s word is clear: Mt. Gerizim is the mountain of God. That’s where people ought to worship. Don’t you children ever forget what those Jews did to us in 128 BC when they destroyed our temple on Mt. Gerizim.”
The pain between Jew and Samaritan ran deep, like that between Israeli and Palestinian, Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda, Northern Irish Catholic and Northern Irish Protestant, native born citizens and immigrants.
As Betty Connette said in her sermon on this text at a New Hope Presbytery meeting (February 2005), for Jews the only thing worse than a Samaritan was a Samaritan woman. Samaritan women were thought to be permanently unclean. Any contact at all with them at any time meant defilement.
The woman herself was shocked when Jesus said, “Give me a drink.” It was incredible. Imagine her thoughts: “This Jewish man wants me to take my jar, draw water for him, and let him drink from it.” And John notes, as if we couldn’t guess, “Jews will not use the same cups and bowls as Samaritans use.” That’s literally what the Greek text means there. Figuratively it means they will have no dealings with one another. They will not drink from the same cup.
Jews and Samaritans do not drink out of the same cup. Some of us can remember when people of different races could not drink from the same water fountain.
Imagine the woman’s surprise: “This Jewish man must be too thirsty to care whose cup he uses.” “Let me have a drink of water from your cup,” Jesus said. The text doesn’t say whether she actually gave him one or not.
Jesus then proceeded to offer her a drink of living water from his cup. He offered the cup of eternal life, starting now, gushing up now and forever. Jesus waited patiently for the woman to shift gears mentally, for her to realize that he was talking about spiritual water, the most important water of all, which is life in fellowship with God.
The woman was profoundly touched. “This man knows I’m a woman. He knows I’m a Samaritan. He knows my whole story. And yet he is still willing to converse with me. He still wants to share the cup. He says he’s the Messiah. Do you think he could be, really?
Sharing a cup reminded me of my very earliest memories of communion at the Kirk when I was a child. The wine was poured from a large silver vessel that had a hinged lid into two silver goblets, one for each side of the congregation. I knew there was something special in those silver cups, and that was confirmed for me one Sunday when I secretly tasted the last drops of wine in one of the goblets before my mother cleaned it. At every communion service I watched as the adults passed the cup to one another.
Sad to say, even to this day, not all the parts of the body of Christ want to share the cup with all the rest. There are some churches that do not welcome all Christians to take communion. You are not a real Christian unless you do just what they do, or believe just what they believe. Use our method of baptizing, or else you aren’t really baptized. Our interpretation of scripture is correct, and yours is not. Our way of worship is the right way, and yours is not. They stress the differences and don’t look for the commonalities.
Stressing the differences causes pain, and that pain welled up yet again in our election this past fall. As we saw, for example, in letters to the editor in Telegram, Christians were cutting one another down. “Our candidate is the Christian candidate, and if you’re a real Christian, that’s who you’ll vote for.” “No, ours is the Christian candidate.” Christians were calling each other’s faith and integrity into question. Satan had to be laughing all the way to the bank! This is just what the powers of evil want: get Christians to take their eyes off of Jesus Christ and to focus instead on themselves, on being right and proving others wrong. Differences become lines, and lines become walls.
Walls, like the one that existed between Jews and Samaritans, who lost sight of their common ancestry as children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who lost sight of their common humanity before God. Jesus dismantled that wall. And when his disciples saw it happening, their mouths dropped open. Jesus offered no condemnation whatsoever to that woman, only invitation: drink living water from my cup. The woman forgot her water jar as she hurried to tell others about her extraordinary encounter with Jesus.
As she hurried away, Jesus’ disciples said, “Rabbi, you need to eat something.” Then they, too, had trouble shifting their mental gears. Talk about non-sequiturs! Jesus said, “My food is to do God’s will. I live on doing God’s will. There’s work to do, and I’m going to finish it. Look around! The fields are ripe for harvesting!”
Friends, remember where the disciples were. They were right in the middle of Samaria. They were in territory they didn’t want to be in, and Jesus was telling them, look around at this field. This field, this Samaritan field is ripe. Reap here, disciples! Farm this field!
The words were hardly out of Jesus’ mouth when Samaritans started streaming to Jesus. They wanted to see for themselves. They begged Jesus to stay with them a while, and he did—eating from their plates and drinking from their cups.
This had to be hard for the disciples. This wasn’t the way they were brought up, and yet this was where Jesus was leading them. He talked to this woman, this Samaritan woman, as though she were a member of his family. And so he made her a member of his family. He formed a family with her neighbors, a family that drank the same living water from the same common cup as his disciples from Galilee.
The church has often struggled with who is family and who isn’t. The early church wrestled with whether Gentiles could be Christians, and whether they needed to become Jews first. They wrestled with whether or not Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians had the same status. Were Gentiles Christians as “good” as Jewish Christians?
Paul spoke to the issue many times. As we read in Ephesians today, Paul says that Christ Jesus has broken down the dividing walls. He has broken down the hostility. He has done it with his own body. He has made one humanity, one family, one household of God.
He put it another way in Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
The one cup of living water is offered to all, and that includes Samaritans, and whoever we have been brought up to think less of, the people we would rather steer around like people steering around Samaria.
The Morton session raised an important question at one of our meetings last fall. We were having a good and challenging discussion on issues of church publicity, and reflecting on making contact with people in the community, and especially with people who might not realize Morton Church is here, if it’s not on their regular route, for example. The question was raised, “Whom do we really want to reach. Whom do we want to come here?” Another way to put that is “With whom do we want to share the cup?” Those are excellent and vital questions, healthy questions.
A bigger question for our church and every church is “What does Jesus want? His food is to do God’s will, and that must be our food, too. What field or fields does he choose for us? Whom does he want to reach?
He took those first disciples through Samaria. Where will he take us?
“This man wanted to drink out of my cup,” the woman told her neighbors. “He knows all about me. He wants to give me living water. Could he really be the Messiah?”
Her testimony prompted many Samaritans to come to Jesus and believe in him. Many more heard his message and believed. Jesus was not only the Savior, but as they said, “we know he really is the Savior of the world.” Thanks be to God!