Solving for x

God’s surprising approach to outsiders
August 14, 2016 | John 4

Solving for x
Not to bring up unpleasant memories, but do you remember high school algebra? Do you remember “solving for x”?

The teacher would give you an equation like this

2x + 3 = 7


4 + 4x = 22 – 5x


3x2 + 12x + 6 = 42


15x3 – 100 = 20

Your job would be to “solve for x” in each of these different equations. It wasn’t always easy, was it? Once you got out of school, you may not have had so much opportunity to “solve for x,” but “x” still represented the unknown. Part of the reason why we use “x” for the unknown, is that xenos in Greek means strange or foreign. (There’s a TED talk which gives another reason.)

In math and in life, we always have trouble with the unknown.

The statistical website fivethirtyeight recently asked about people in the Northeast about baseball and politics:

In the survey, [we] asked 1,071 people which baseball team they supported (if any), how strongly they supported the team, and then . . . asked them this:

How upset would you feel if you had a son or daughter who married a Boston Red Sox/New York Yankees . . . fan?

Red Sox fans were asked about marriages to Yankees fans and vice versa.

Eitan Hersh, “What The Yankees-Red Sox Rivalry Can Teach us about Political Polarization” (Aug. 11, 2016).

It turns out that about 1 in 5 baseball fans would be upset if one of their children married a fan of a rival team. (Let me just be clear about one thing — if any of our kids gets married to a Red Sox fan, Katherine is going to be way beyond “upset.”)

There is a very natural tendency for us to be estranged from those who are different. We see this whether the differences are political, racial, ethnic, political or even about sports allegiances. No one wants to take a long car trip with a Florida Gator fan and a Florida State Seminole fan during football season.

FiveThirtyEight wanted to look at “political polarization,” but some people have another name for it

xenophobia noun, irrational fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners

This is, in fact, a recognizable feeling for most of us.

We are a little concerned about the purposes and motivations of people who are different from us, and it is easy to imagine the worst. Knowing that this is a temptation, we try not to give into it.

It seems wrong to hate or fear people just because they are different from us.

But like most errors, there is an extreme in the other direction:

xenophilia noun, irrational attraction to strangers or foreigners

This modern word is coined from the word for the unknown and one of the Greek words for love, philia. Sometimes we see people whose preference for strange or odd things goes to extremes — in every setting they prefer the unusual, the strange, the foreign, the grotesque, or the unknown, to what is familiar.

That seems wrong, too.

Like the rest of us, Jesus often had to deal with strangers and people who were different, and I want to look at one famous example and see how Jesus solves for x — is he xenophobic or xenophilic?

Let’s pray.

* * *

Let’s turn to John 4.

Allie has already set the scene for us. Jesus and his disciples are traveling from the south, near Jerusalem, north towards Galilee. This is early in Jesus’ ministry, long before he makes that trip in the opposite direction, going to Jerusalem with the sure knowledge that he is going to his death.

At this point, his death is not near, but after half a day of walking he is sitting alone by a well in Samaria. It is noon, he is weary, and he is sitting by Jacob’s well — a well that had been in use since the time of Abraham’s grandson (and is still there today).

A new character enters the scene:

7A woman from Samaria came to draw water.

Jesus said to her,

Give me a drink.

8(For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.)

Now, I want to make sure you remember the history between the Jews and the Samaritans. (This will be a little oversimplified.)

When King Solomon was at the end of his life, the throne passed to his son, Rehoboam. Rehoboam was a vicious despot, and he lost control of the northern half of the nation. The king in the north was named Jeroboam, and although his name sounds like Rehoboam’s, he was not in the king’s family, and humanly speaking, he had no right to the throne.

The nation split into two in 931BC, with the Northern Kingdom now known as “Israel” and the Southern Kingdom now known as “Judah.” The capital of Israel was Samaria, the capital of Judah was Jerusalem.

King Jeroboam’s basic problem was that the thing which had held the country together was the common worship of Yahweh, and the center of Yahweh worship was Jerusalem. Worshipers were obligated to travel to Jerusalem for the festivals, and Jeroboam felt that it would be unlikely that they would be loyal to Israel if they were worshiping in Judah.

So he invented an alternate form of Yahweh worship, that did not involve Jerusalem or the Temple:

28 After the king had consulted with his advisers, he made two golden calves. Then he said to the people,

“It is too much trouble for you to go up to Jerusalem. Look, Israel, here are your gods who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”

29 He put one in Bethel and the other in Dan. 30 This caused Israel to sin; the people went to Bethel and Dan to worship the calves.

I Kings 12:28-30.

Concerned that he would lose political control, Jeroboam led the people of the Northern Kingdom into an idolatrous mixed religion — partly Jewish, partly pagan.

Eventually, the Northern Kingdom would be destroyed by the Assyrians and other people brought in to live with the Jews who remained in the area. The Northern Kingdom was now known as Samaria — a nation mixed in ethnicity and religion, partly Jewish, partly Gentile.

They accepted the first part of the Hebrew Scriptures, but rejected the rest. They concluded that a mountain in Samaria was the proper center of worship, and they built a Temple on that mountain. By Jesus’ time it had been destroyed by a Jewish army.

There was no love lost between the Jews and the Samaritans.

This is why the story of the “Good Samaritan,” which Billy spoke on a few weeks ago, is so remarkable.

The Jews considered Samaritans continuously “unclean,” and the Samaritans had nothing to do with the Jews. Because they lived their separate majority lives in separate areas, they each considered the other xenos — strangers, foreigners, different. (Sort of like Yankees fans and Red Sox fans.)

So it is pretty amazing when Jesus, a Jewish man, asks a Samaritan woman for drink of water.

9The Samaritan woman said to him,

How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?

(For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)

She is essentially asking “What’s up with you? Jews don’t drink out of the cups of Samaritans, and you are obviously Jewish and I am obviously a Samaritan — what’s going on?”

This is a pretty straightforward question from the woman, and Jesus may have answered it directly, but if he did, John does not report the answer.

Instead, Jesus “answers” by gracefully disrupting her question:

10Jesus answered her,

If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, Give me a drink, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.

What exactly is Jesus saying? “If you knew what God gives, and who I am, you would be asking me for water.”

What is it that “God gives”? So far, in John, we have seen several things “given” by Jesus or the Father, but let’s look at John 1:17:

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

So Jesus could give this woman — by the way, in the Russian Orthodox tradition her name is “Svetlana,” so if I get tired of calling her “this woman” (which sounds more dismissive in English than in Greek), I will start calling her “Svetlana.”

Jesus could give her grace and truth.

But Jesus speaks in a veiled way, and says that if she asked he could give her “living water.”

Why is she at the well? She, like everyone, needs water. Unlike the other women of the town she did not come in the early morning, but at noon, in the heat of the day. No one enjoys hauling water, but it is usually better to do it in the company of friends, in the cooler period of the day.

There is a reason why she did not do that. Perhaps she is an outsider, a stranger even among the group of Samaritan women living in Sychar. We will see.

In any case, the possibility of getting “living” (that is running) water from Jesus sounds good, but immensely improbable, to Svetlana.

11The woman said to him,

Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.

She interprets Jesus’ words in a purely literal, physical way: “Sir,” (actually “Lord,” but perhaps just as a term of respect) “how are you going to get any water without a bucket?”

Then she takes one step too far, when she says “Are you greater than Jacob?” And Jesus could reasonably have said “Yes, yes, I am.”

But instead his answer pushes her to understand what he means by “living water”:

13Jesus said to her,

Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

Svetlana understands at least that this man is offering her something valuable which will satisfy her forever (“you will never be thirsty again,”), but I am not sure she quite understands exactly what kind of water he means:

15The woman said to him,

Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.

She is still thinking in terms of physical thirst, and in the possibility of avoiding the entire process of coming for water. And really, if we had not heard the story before, we would not see why she so wants to avoid having to come to the well.

Jesus sees more than we do:

16Jesus said to her,

Go, call your husband, and come [back] here.

17The woman answered him,

I have no husband.

Jesus said to her,

You are right in saying, I have no husband; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.

This is a bizarre exchange.

She says, yes, give me this special water. Jesus suggests that she has to bring her husband to get the water, and she gives a true (but evasive) answer — “I’m not married.”

Jesus then unpacks her answer and reveals what she was not going to reveal — she has been married five times and is now living with another man. This is probably why she doesn’t come to the well with the other Samaritan women — her lifestyle does not conform to their social expectations. There is a serious backstory here, but we aren’t told why she is in that situation.

Now there is no lecture in what John reports — Jesus speaks the truth to this woman in order to get her attention, not to reprimand her. He does not seem angry or even particularly critical, but he does place his finger on the big issue in her life.

Having just been “outed,” we might expect that she would be angry with Jesus, but instead, she finally lets the conversation turn to spiritual matters:

19The woman said to him,

Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.

Now remember that I told you that the Samaritans had previously had a Temple on Mount Gerazim — they said that the proper place for worshiping God was Mount Gerazim, not the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. She is willing to talk about spiritual things, as long as the focus is on the argument between the Samaritans and the Jews about the place of worship.

She reasons that if Jesus knows all about her he must be a prophet, and he might have insight into this whole Mount Gerazim / Temple Mount issue.

But Jesus does not let her deflect the conversation into theological trivia:

21Jesus said to her,

Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But 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. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

Jesus says, in effect, the place is not always going to be that important. What is always important is that God be worshiped in “spirit and in truth.”

God is spirit — that is not a body limited to a place — and those who would worship him must give spiritual worship, and submit to his choices. It is submission to the truth which God requires.

He also says “salvation is from the Jews,” which means “Messiah will come from the Jews,” that is, the tribe of Judah.

And the Samaritan woman understands what he is saying:

25The woman said to him,

I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.

26Jesus said to her,

I who speak to you am he.

Now for those of us who have been studying Matthew, this is amazingly direct. Here at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus simply tells someone he is the Messiah.

He is saying (in a direct and straightforward way) that he is the one who will set all things right and defeat evil. It is an astounding claim.

Now if she responded to this revelation, the writer does not tell us what she says, because they are now interrupted in their conversation:

27Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, What do you seek? or, Why are you talking with her?

The disciples just returned from their grocery shopping, and they see the strange sight of Jesus speaking with a woman. No one says anything, but all of them think “Well this is odd.” (You might wonder how the writer knew what the disciples were thinking, until you remember that John was one of the disciples.)

In any case, the woman takes this opportunity to leave — without getting water, so she intends to come back — and go to the town:

28So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people,

29Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?

30They went out of the town and were coming to him.

She goes and tells people what has happened, and says he “told me all that I ever did,” which is hyperbole, though there certainly may have been more conversation that is reported. She asks them whether this man might be the “Christ,” that is the Messiah, the one who would come at the end of time to defeat evil and set everything right.

So everyone comes to get a look at this one who might be the Messiah.

The scene changes back to the well:

31Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, saying,

Rabbi, eat.

After all, they had just gone shopping!

32But he said to them,

I have food to eat that you do not know about.

33So the disciples said to one another,

Has anyone brought him something to eat?

When Jesus was talking to the woman about water, he was really talking about something else; here he is talking about food, but is really talking about something else.

They take it to be literal food, so Jesus explains:

34Jesus said to them,

My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. 35Do you not say, There are yet four months, then comes the harvest? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. 36Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, One sows and another reaps. 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.

This is hard.

First, Jesus say that his purpose in life is to do what God has sent him to do. Sometime people say “I don’t live to eat, I eat to live.” Jesus is saying “Lunch is secondary to something else which is going on.” Jesus is saying “The fact that you are bringing food is not so important as the fact that she is bringing the people of her town.”

Then he reminds them of a saying — something on the order of “Today we plant and in four months we harvest.” He says that “the harvest is now,” meaning that there were people who were very close to understanding the truth about God on that very day, and the disciples would be a part of that process.


Well, first the Samaritan woman, but the story comes quickly to an end as two days are told in four verses:

39Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony,

He told me all that I ever did.

40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman,

It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.

Jesus brings grace and truth, and people come to see that he is the Savior of the world.

Jesus’s interaction with this woman Svetlana starts with grace — he treats her like a person, for goodness’ sake.

It continues in truth — he doesn’t act like everything is fine in her life, when it clearly isn’t.

In the end, this exchange leads many Samaritans to believe that Jesus is the savior, not just of the Jews, but of the entire world.

* * *

Jesus encounters this foreign woman, and he does not react with xenophobia. He does not shun her and refuse to interact with her. He engages her with grace and truth, beginning with their shared physical needs and moving towards a discussion of spiritual things.

I want you to notice that he also does not react with xenophilia. He is not drawn to her because she is different, nor does he say that her life is fine the way it is.

He is neither xenophobic nor xenophilic.

Solving for x.

There is another Greek word that starts with the same letter, and that is xenia, which refers to the mutual respect between a host and guest. (Ken mentioned the concept in Hebrews 13 a few weeks ago, where the word philoxenia is translated “hospitality”: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”).

That’s what characterizes Jesus’ interaction with this woman.

I think there are two lessons for us here.

First, Jesus’ behavior is a model for us if we are Christ followers.

He treats her with respect, speaking with her and showing grace, even though she is different from him in gender and religion and behavior. I know too many unbelievers who think that Christians are characterized by a lack of respect for those who are different. It ought not to be that way. Christians should be the ones who demonstrate maximum grace. Christians should be following Christ’s example.

Second, Jesus’ behavior towards the Samaritan woman reminds us how he treats us.

Was the Samaritan woman unclean? Of course. I know this because I know that I am unclean. We are all unclean. We don’t need someone to celebrate our particular uncleanness. We need someone to save us from it.

Part of the truth which Jesus communicates to this woman and to the others he encounters is that he is willing to convey his holiness to her — even to her.

Even to me.

Even to you.

Let us pray.

One thought on “Solving for x

  1. Hi Al,

    Didn’t you say that you intended for all of the equations to have x=2 as a solution? The quadratic equation as posted,

    3*x*2 + 12*x* + 6 = -42 , has no real solutions.


    3*x*2 + 12*x* + 6 = 42 has solutions of x = 2 or -6 . (Gotta watch those signs. :))

    Doesn’t detract from the sermon, but thought you’d want to know. Jonathan

    On Sunday, August 21, 2016, c o m m o n p l a c e s wrote:

    > albrooke posted: “God’s surprising approach to outsiders August 14, 2016 | > John 4 Not to bring up unpleasant memories, but do you remember high school > algebra? Do you remember “solving for x”? The teacher would give you an > equation like this 2x + 3 = 7 or 4 + 4x = 22 – ” >


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