Preached 3 March 2002 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
I wonder if I need even ask what image, what two words, immediately come to your mind when I mentioned the name Martin Bell … the independent MP for Tatton? Well, I’ll ask anyway?
White suit. Yes, indeed. And, you know, that suit gives me a problem with Martin Bell. Whenever he appears on news broadcasts and so on, it distracts me. I seldom hear anything he says because I’m worrying about his suit … about keeping it clean.
You see, I once had a white evening jacket and it was a nightmare. Any of you ladies who’ve ever worn white dresses must know what I mean. However careful you are about what you sit on, what you lean against, what you touch, what you brush against … within no time at all you’re covered in dirty marks.
No doubt when you are wearing dark clothes you are covered in dirty marks in just the same way, but it becomes immediately obvious when you are wearing white. So you have to spend all your time and effort steering clear of anything that might pollute you or defile you.
Well, that is a picture if ever there was one of the Jews of Jesus’ day … and indeed of the Jews ever since the day fourteen hundred years earlier when Moses came down from Mount Sinai and delivered to them the law of God and also delivered to them the startling news that they were to be God’s “holy people”.
A holy people, eh? Wow! … Just look at us. We’ve all got white suits! But hang on a minute … what if we get them dirty?
And then it began … the avoiding of this, the running away from that, the refusal to go near him, the casting out of her … so that the suits stayed clean … didn’t pick up the “dirt” of the world in which these chosen people lived. And the dirt was often stuff that, to our eyes, had nothing filthy about it at all.
In my role as Zebedee in the first of our Lent course sessions, I was explaining that Jews could not eat fish that didn’t have fins or scales … so that, strange as it might sound to us, eating an eel or an oyster made your suit dirty. So did eating a flying insect that walks on four legs … unless those legs were jointed for hopping. So you had the strange situation that your suit stayed clean if you ate a locust (with or without wild honey) but it immediately got dirty if you ate the bee that produced the wild honey!
I could go on for hours with these kinds of examples … trawl through the book of Leviticus if you want to find more of them for yourself … but I think I’ve said enough for you to see where the Jews were coming from. They were the white suit brigade and their whole lives were governed by a complex code of conduct that was designed to keep those white suits clean.
Of course, they weren’t always successful. Sometimes, despite their best efforts, their white suits did get dirty, and what happened then? Well, they had a kind of spiritual Crockatts (or Johnsons as it now is) … a dry cleaners they could go to … and that was the temple and its system of offerings and sacrifice. Pay for the appropriate treatment … a lamb, two doves, an ox or whatever … and your suit came back to you almost as good as new.
Now all this might seem a bit silly and something we might easily dismiss were it not for one aspect of it that had massive repercussions for the whole human race. And it was this. The Jews didn’t draw the line with themselves. Oh no. They argued that because their white suits were so easily polluted and defiled, God’s white suit … which must be infinitely whiter than theirs … must be capable of being even more easily polluted and defiled.
So it followed that God’s rejection and avoidance of anything at all dirty or soiled must be even more comprehensive and extreme and absolute than their own. And that in turn meant that any kind of one-to-one relationship between a normal human being and God must be completely out of the question. How could one even think of approaching Mr White-Suit Himself. He would run a mile.
And, just in case you think I’m exaggerating the Jewish take on all this … consider, if you will, the temple in Jerusalem. The temple in Jerusalem was the heart of Judaism; and it depicted … it was meant to depict … in the form of a piece of architecture, the world and God and how the two fitted together and related to each other. And the picture it paints makes crystal clear all that I’ve just been saying.
The temple was a series of courts, one within the other, each smaller and more elevated and more select than the one before. First there was the huge outer court … bigger than 30 football pitches … the Court of the Gentiles. Here, but no further inwards, could the non-Jew go. This recognised that non-Jews had a part, of sorts, in the scheme of things, but only just. They were on the edge … as far away from God as it was possible to be. (And, incidentally, physical contact with any of them made your suit dirty.)
Next, raised up above the Court of the Gentiles, was the Court of Women. Jewish woman, of course. But even Jewish women were little better than Gentiles. They had no civil or legal rights in Jewish society. They were things, and a male could do with them as he liked. A wife could not divorce her husband, but a husband could divorce his wife simply on the grounds that she gave him offence … which might be nothing more than having bad breath or forever burning the toast. And women were a big nuisance to Jewish males in that they were always making your suit dirty.
For instance, for forty days after giving birth to a boy (80, if she gave birth to a girl), a woman made anything that she came into contact with dirty, a plate for instance … So that if you then ate off such a plate (whether it had been in the washing-up or not) your white suit got dirty. It was the same when a woman was having her period. For seven days every month, she made everything she came into contact with unclean. Small wonder then that every Jewish male started his daily prayers with a thanksgiving that God had not made him a Gentile … or a woman.
So … the Gentiles were as far away from God as you could get … the Court of the Gentiles. Next came Jewish women … the Court of the Women. Then came Jewish men … the Court of the Israelites, and, mark this … for a Gentile or a woman to set foot in that court could lead to summary execution, immediate death by stoning.
Then came the Priests … the Court of the Priests where there was the altar of sacrifice … the place where dirty white suits were hopefully made clean. And then, beyond that, was the Holy Place and within the Holy Place, the Holy of Holies. A small window-less cube of a room, divided from the Holy Place by a heavy veil.
This was regarded by the devout Jew as the very dwelling place on earth of God himself. On the roof of the Holy of Holies were golden spikes so that not even birds could perch there. And for 364 days a year not a soul was allowed inside. Not even a priest. But on the one remaining day in the year … Yom Kippur … the Day of Atonement … the High Priest himself, alone, and only after long and careful and proper purification, was permitted to enter. Though, by all accounts, even he, despite all the preparation, was terrified at having to do so. Legend has it that he had a rope attached to one ankle, held by the priests outside. And he had bells on the hem of his garment. So that if he was struck down, the bells would stop tinkling and the priests could drag him out, hopefully before he had been burnt to a crisp. (See footnote).
And this, in Jewish teaching, was the God of the whole world. Mr White Suit Himself. A “Don’t Come Near Me Cause I Don’t Know Where You’ve Been” God that runs a million miles at even the prospect of coming into contact with a member of the human race that he once created. And who, if he ever does come into contact with one such, is likely to zap him into extinction. And there he lurks, at the heart of the temple, in the Holy of Holies, the most unapproachable person in the most unapproachable place on the planet.
And now, if this were a film rather than a sermon, I would cut from the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem to a man in his early thirties, sitting on the low balustrade of a well just outside of a village called Sychar, about 40 miles to the north. His friends have gone off into the village to try and get some food but Jesus … for that is who this man is … has stayed by the well because it’s midday and he is hot and tired. They have been walking all morning.
At first he has the place to himself. The well is not used much … there is another well in the village itself. And in any case no one comes out to get water at midday unless they have some special reason for doing so.
But, look, along the path is coming a woman, carrying her large water jar and, fastened on the girdle round her waist, a small drinking cup. When she catches sight of Jesus sitting there, she falters … But then she strengthens her resolve and comes to the well. She keeps her eyes averted and prepares to let down her jar into the well. When suddenly the man speaks. “Will you give me a drink, please,” he says.
The woman is so taken aback that she almost lets go of the rope holding her water jar. “Sir,” she says … “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?”
This woman knows all about the white suite brigade … and this man is a member of it. His pronunciation gives him away. In Aramaic he has said: “Teni li listoth … Give me a drink,” whereas she would have said: “Teni li lishtoth.” (The Samaritans and the Jews pronounced their esses differently.) And given that he is a member of the white-suit brigade, she knows that he is about to defile himself in at least two different ways. For she is a Samaritan and she is a woman.
I’ve already explained about women. Jesus knows nothing about this woman and he certainly doesn’t know in what state of uncleanliness she might be. But not only that – she is a Samaritan!
Seven centuries earlier, the Assyrians had invaded Samaria … the area of Palestine that corresponds to the Midlands … and had carted most of the Jewish population off into exile. But they had replaced the exiled Jews with foreigners from other conquered nations; and those foreigners had soon begun to inter-marry with the few Jews that remained and to produce offspring of mixed blood, like this woman. She, like all Samaritans, was a half-caste and accordingly had the same contaminating status as a corpse. Even today, in strict Jewish circles, a funeral service is carried out for a Jew who marries a Gentile, and henceforth that Jew is regarded as being dead.
But surely, you say, so long as Jesus didn’t actually touch her …
No, you are missing the point. Let’s be quite clear about this: what Jesus is asking this woman is not that she will pour water from her water pot into some receptacle that he himself will hold out to her but that she will let him drink from her cup. Jesus has no cup of his own. But to drink from someone else’s cup is one of the most contaminating forms of contact imaginable. We still see it rather like that today, don’t we? Even husbands and wives ask each other, “Is that your cup … or is it mine?”
So why was Jesus so keen to do it? Because it was the very reason he had come to this earth. He asks to drink from the same cup as a Samaritan and a woman because he wants in this way and in a thousand other similar ways to stamp out the lie that God is a “Don’t Come Near Me Cause I Don’t Know Where You’ve Been” God that runs a million miles at the prospect of any contact with any member of the horrid human race.
It is why he touches lepers. It is why he allows a prostitute to wash his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. It is why he eats with tax collectors and sinners.
It is why in the most sublime of all his parables he depicts God as a father throwing his arms round his wayward son who is still covered in muck from the pigsty in which he’s been trying to earn a crust.
In saying to the woman: “Give me a drink,” he is hammering home to the whole human race the good news that God is not wrathfully smouldering in his dazzling untouchable purity in the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem 40 miles down the road. He is sitting on the dusty balustrade of a well in Samaria waiting to drink from a Samaritan woman’s cup! And not just water, but whatever that cup contains. Her failed relationships. Her fear. Her guilt. Her pain. Her longings. Her anger. Her sin.
In saying to the woman: “Give me a drink,” he is hammering home to the whole human race the good news that he is willing and wants to drink from our cup. And that, when we allow him to do so, it is not that our sins and failures will contaminate God but that God’s love and mercy and goodness will purify us and make us holy. We won’t dirty God’s white suit. God’s white suit will make us clean!
How is that possible? We need another half-hour and we have another half-minute. But the short answer is this. Because the Samaritan woman’s cup did contaminate Jesus. He allowed it to. He chose that it would. Not the fact that she was a Samaritan or the fact that she was a woman, but the fact that the cup she brought to him was full of her failure, her wretchedness, her darkness and her sin. And Jesus drank the contents of that cup and of all our cups of darkness when he died upon the cross. He allowed his white suit to become black with our sin.
It seems that, in Gethsemane, Jesus was shown, in vision, a cup. A cup brimming with the sins of the world. A cup that he was being invited by the Father to now drink to the dregs. It may be fanciful, but I wonder whether the cup that he saw was the cup that was handed to him by the woman at the well. And whether it was the memory of her face, as well as yours and mine, that turned his, “My Father, if it is possible let this cup be taken from me” into “Yet not as I will but as you will,” and took him onward to the cross.
What did Paul say in our Epistle this morning? God shows his love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Living he loved me, dying he saved me, buried he carried my sins far away. Rising he justified freely forever. One day he’s coming, O glorious day!
Mr White Suit Himself became flesh and dwelt among us. He touched us, wrapped his arms around us, drank from our cups, and took within and upon himself all of our sins. His white suit became filthy rags. He died in those filthy rags. But he rose again, as white as before, and he is here to embrace us again this morning and to clothe us in his purity and goodness and love that we might be white too … And have within us the living water of his very own life.
Note: The story of the rope was originally stated as fact but has now been changed because Paul Hansen (see the Comment below) asked for an authority for it. Research revealed that the story was first popularised in John Gill’s commentary on Hebrews 9.7 in his Exposition of the Entire Bible (circa 1750) where he asserts that “the Jews say, that a cord or thong was bound to the feet of the high priest when he went into the holy of holies, that if he died there, the rest might be able to draw him out; for it was not lawful for another priest to go in, no, not an high priest, none besides him on the day of atonement.” The reference he gives for this is, however, “Zohar in Lev. fol. 43. 3. & Imre Binah in ib” which I have not been able to take much further. The Zohar is a work of Kabbalah and Imre Binah appears to be a Talmudic commentary. More recently, the tradition has been noted in the Zondervan NIV Study Bible (1985) in relation to Exodus 28:35; but for all that, I am now bound to conclude that the tradition may well be a myth. (Not that it invalidates the point made in the sermon).