This is a story about boundary-crossing and encounter. It is about the transformative power of love and the capacity to receive and live into a new identity. As we unpack the text this morning, I invite you to put yourself in the story. How are you this woman? Where do you need to encounter the living God? What are you thirsting for? I’m certain that the Samaritan woman did not expect such a transformative experience on such an ordinary day. And it all begins with a real physical need – Jesus is thirsty! And why is he thirsty?
You see, Jesus was in Judea where his disciples were baptizing new followers. When word of his popularity spreads to the Pharisees, Jesus leaves Judea for Galilee, presumably because of mounting tension between himself and the religious authorities. Geographically-speaking, passing through Samaria is the shortest route between Judea, in the south, and Galilee, in the north. Even so, most Jews avoid going through Samaria because they consider the Samaritans racially impure – they are the product of mixed marriages between surviving Israelites and their foreign captors. Samaritans are also religiously heretical because they created a worship shrine on Mount Gerizim and proclaim it, not Jerusalem, to be the cultic center. As a result, Jews treat Samaritans with disdain and scorn and centuries of resentment exist between them. Nevertheless, Jesus flouts social convention and travels through Samaria – the first example of boundary-crossing in this narrative.
The second boundary Jesus transgresses at Jacob’s well concerns male-female relations. Jesus thinks nothing of asking the Samaritan woman for a drink. It is noon, the sun is beating down on him, he is weary from his travels, he is hungry and thirsty. He has sent his disciples to get food and this woman, with her water jar, can draw water for him. In reality, he doesn’t so much ask as he commands her – the verb “Give” is in the imperative.
The radical nature of Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman is expressed in the disciples’ amazement – “They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.” This reaction is cultural and appropriate given the many restrictions rabbinic patriarchs placed on women during the time, all of which Jesus would have been familiar with. To name a few:
• Women were categorized, along with Gentiles, slaves, and children, as property.
• Wives were generally confined to the house.
• If a woman needed to ask a question or speak, she was to do so with her husband at home.
• A husband could easily divorce his wife, but a wife could not easily divorce her husband.
• Women had little or no property rights.
• If a woman’s husband died, the estate reverted to the eldest son, or the eldest male in her deceased husband’s family, provided there was no son. The widow could then marry her husband’s brother if he chose to, but her future is in question until someone comes to her aid. Women needed the protection of men.
• Women were not allowed public conversation with males.
• To talk to a woman, to look at a woman, or to associate with a woman was dangerous and objectionable.
• According to rabbinic law, a holy man who spoke to a woman was in sin
• And if this isn’t enough, according to rabbinic tradition, this woman, a Samaritan, is so far from the kingdom of God that to mention her race is an abomination.
Consider too that she is going to the well at noon, absent other women from the city who would typically gather earlier in the morning when it’s cooler. Her behavior is suspicious; she is all alone. More than her race and her sex seem questionable – she appears separated from her own people. Is it any wonder then that she is surprised by and even wary of Jesus’ request for water? Who am I that you would notice and ask something of me? We’re not supposed to mix.
It is interesting that Jesus’ stance changes at this point. Jesus, the one who asks, the one who initiates, offers the woman something in return. In the Hebrew scriptures water is a common metaphor for the satisfaction of spiritual needs. The Psalmist declares, “He leads me beside still waters.” “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” The prophet Isaiah proclaims, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”
Jesus goes to the well because he is thirsty. He meets a woman who is also thirsty. Yet their needs are different and Jesus, being who he is, sees her need and responds. Jesus offers to satisfy her spiritual thirst; a thirst that goes to the root of her being. He offers her the gift of God – the well from which Jesus draws and gives living water; promising that she will never thirst again.
The woman first understands Jesus to be referring to water from the well and asks how Jesus will give her this without a bucket. This is like when Nicodemus, in chapter 3 of John’s gospel, interprets Jesus’ teaching about being born again on a literal level; he cannot look beyond the earthly (physical birth) to the spiritual (birth from above). But unlike Nicodemus who doesn’t seem to move beyond his confusion, this woman does move. She asks for this water, even though she doesn’t fully understand how it is different. And as soon as she asks for the living water, the conversation turns to her life; Jesus tells her “everything I have ever done.”
Much has been made about this woman’s marital, and therefore sexual, history. Over the millennia, many Christians have branded her an adulteress, a prostitute, a woman with a past. She is the sinful, immoral, sensually-minded harlot from Samaria. Yet there is nothing in the passage that makes this an obvious interpretation. Neither John nor Jesus supplies this information. Jesus at no point invites repentance or speaks of sin, for that matter, at all. She could be widowed, abandoned or divorced (which in the ancient world is pretty much the same thing). Recall in Luke and Matthew, the Sadducees ask Jesus about a woman with seven husbands, wanting to know whose wife she is, i.e., who she’ll belong to, when all seven are resurrected from the dead. Five husbands is heartbreaking, but not impossible; imagine if she’s buried them all! This woman’s story is tragic. Her spirit is in a real sense dry and dried up, parched and brittle and all used up by life. She is thirsting.
Jesus tells her everything she has ever done and this recognition, rather than shaming, is life-changing and life-affirming. Jesus “sees” her. He sees her plight – of dependence, not immorality. He recognizes her, speaks with her, offers her something of incomparable worth. In fact, Jesus talks longer to the woman at the well than he does to anyone else in all the gospels.
John Snow, in an analysis of Jesus’ actions with women says:
One has the feeling, when observing the responses to Jesus of the women in the Gospel
stories, that Jesus is the first man in their experience who truly heeded them as persons,
who would stop whatever he was doing to listen to them, to discuss seriously the most
profound truths of life with them.
And that is exactly what happens here. When Jesus speaks of her past knowingly and compassionately, the Samaritan woman realizes she is in the presence of a prophet. For this reason she risks asking him the central question that has divided Samaritans and Jews for centuries. She offers a heartfelt question pertaining to the right worship of God. When Jesus surprises her with an answer that is both more hopeful and penetrating than she’d expected, she leaves her water jar behind to tell her neighbors about this man. She is the first evangelist, John tells us, and her testimony brings others to faith. All of this because the Samaritan woman at the well exists for Jesus; she has worth, value, significance.
I don’t know about you but I need to hear this story over and over again. I need to hear that I am seen and heard; that I have worth, value and significance outside of the roles that I assume and the work that I do. It is a powerful reminder that my identity is wrapped up in something far greater than anything you or I can construct.
This story also challenges me. It makes me question the purpose and place of the boundaries I have resurrected. How am I keeping others out? Who am I not recognizing as “worthy” of living water? Who will I be surprised to find at the well?
And secondly, what keeps me from going to the well for spiritual nourishment? What am I afraid to see reflected in that living water?
The good news is that however hard I try, I can’t seem to get God to respect my boundaries. Just as Jesus pursued a relationship with the woman at the well, Jesus pursues me and you too, sometimes despite my best efforts. I don’t always understand what God is up to or where I’m going to encounter Jesus. So I trust. I trust in the witness of this unnamed Samaritan woman. That when I am open, when I show up, when I ask, I will receive. Maybe not what I think I need, but that which truly satisfies.
Come to the well. Trust that God is there waiting. God is pursuing you, just as you are. For only one who loves you can know you as you are and not as you pretend to be. Only one who loves you knows your deepest desires. Only one who loves you can look at your past without blinking.
Come to the well.
Drink it in.