START WITH SCRIPTURE:
“Christ and the Woman of Samaria” by Pierre Mignard  is located at the North Carolina Museum of Art.
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Sometimes physical and cultural context are a large part of the meaning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has been on the road since beginning his ministry. Following his encounter with Nicodemus by night (Click here to read the SOAR from last week’s Gospel lectionary reading — John 3:1-17) which occurred in Jerusalem during Passover, Jesus has moved on through Judea, returning north. On the way, he ventures into Samaria, near Sychar. (Sychar may have been the ancient city of Shechem, the capital of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel prior to its conquest by Assyria in 721 B.C.)
Sychar was not far from Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim, which were also famous for the renewal of God’s covenant with Israel under the leadership of Joshua some time around 1200 B.C. The encounter described here occurs at Jacob’s well, outside the city. The history of Jacob’s well goes back even farther in Biblical history, to the age of the Hebrew Patriarchs.
The irony here is that despite the storied history of this place for the Jews, it is now territory occupied by the Samaritans. We are reminded that the Samaritans were introduced into the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians after 721 B.C. in order to repopulate the area. They had adopted some of the aspects of the religion of the Israelites, and even had their own version of the Torah (adopted from the first five books of the Old Testament).
However, there were sharp differences. For the Samaritans, the location of worship was Mt. Gerizim, not Jerusalem. Josephus, the Jewish historian from the first century A.D., tells of a magnificent Samaritan temple built on Mt. Gerizim. Also, the Jews regarded the Samaritans as an inferior race with a subpar religion.
Jews avoided contact with Samaritans if at all possible. Think of the caste system in India, or segregation laws in the Old South in the United States in order to get an idea of the attitude of Jews toward Samaritans.
Jesus is thirsty. This small detail reminds us that though John is careful to exalt the nature of Jesus as the only begotten Son of God, Jesus is also human. He sits to rest by the well given by Jacob to Joseph, according to local lore.
While the disciples go into the town to secure food, Jesus is left alone. And around noon, a Samaritan woman comes to draw water. This in itself is not odd. Drawing water and carrying it on one’s shoulder into town in a large pitcher was definitely woman’s work in that male-dominated society, where gender roles were very clearly defined.
What is odd is that she comes at noon. Normally, women came to the wells later in the evening as the day was cooling. It was likely a social event for gossipping and visiting about the events of the day. This woman comes alone, during the heat of the day. We find out why shortly.
What is also odd is that Jesus engages her in conversation, even asking her for a drink since he has nothing with which to draw water. This is odd first because she is a Samaritan, and Jews and Samaritans normally avoided interactions. It is also odd because she is a woman, and a Jewish man simply did not initiate conversations with a woman he didn’t know! When the disciples later return from foraging, it is this they note more than the fact that she is a Samaritan:
They marveled that he was speaking with a woman…
When Jesus asks for water, it is the woman who notes that he is breaking all the rules of social taboo. She asks warily:
“How is it that you, being a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)
It then becomes clear why Jesus is speaking to her — it is he who has living water to offer her. Their dialogue is fascinating. Jesus is offering a spiritual gift, playing off the metaphor of water; the woman is very literal. When Jesus tells her he can give her living water, she says he has nothing to draw with, so how can he draw living water?
There is a play on words here. Living water usually suggests running water, like a spring or a brook. Obviously this would be fresher than the water in a well, and preferable. Jesus, of course, is talking about living water as a metaphor for the abundant life that he offers. But in this dialectical method so familiar in the Gospel of John, this truth about living water is gradually discovered rather than baldly stated.
The woman is still skeptical of him:
Are you greater than our father, Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself, as did his children, and his livestock?
Jesus then reveals the key to understanding what this water would mean to her:
Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never thirst again; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.
As with so many of the images and metaphors that Jesus uses to describe himself and his gift of eternal life, this image is packed with meaning — the living water he offers will completely satisfy the soul, and will be a source of inner refreshment continuing forever.
The woman continues to stubbornly stick to a literal interpretation of his words:
“Sir, give me this water, so that I don’t get thirsty, neither come all the way here to draw.”
So Jesus goes deeper in order to confront her more directly with her own life and past:
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered, “I have no husband.”
Now it becomes clear why she has come alone to the well at the hottest time of the day — she doesn’t want to have any conversation with the other women from town. It comes out that not only is she not married, she has had five husbands, and she is currently living with a man to whom she is not married. It is unclear whether she had been widowed five times or had been divorced. All of this would have been exceedingly scandalous in that time and culture. What is astonishing is that she doesn’t tell Jesus any of this — he discerns it spiritually, and tells her about her own life!
It is beginning to dawn on her that Jesus is no ordinary man. She calls him a prophet — and this becomes an occasion for theological discussion of the differences between the Samaritans and the Jews:
Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.
Jesus doesn’t use this opportunity to bash the Samaritans, or to proclaim the superiority of Jewish worship. Instead, he points out that soon worship of the Father will transcend religious and ethnic boundaries. At that time neither Mt. Gerizim nor Jerusalem will be the center of worship:
You worship that which you don’t know. We worship that which we know; for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour comes, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such to be his worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.
It is to the Jews that God has revealed the law, and it is through their history that the prophets have spoken, and it is from their bloodlines that Jesus has come. But their role has been to prepare the way for all nations to come to God. This is in keeping with the prophetic vision that Israel was a nation of priests (Exodus 19:6) whose ultimate role was to bring all nations to God:
I, Yahweh, have called you in righteousness,
and will hold your hand,
and will keep you,
and make you a covenant for the people,
as a light for the nations. (Isaiah 42:6).
However, Jesus makes it clear that all who seek to worship God are those who do so in spirit and truth. Those who respond to the truth that Jesus brings will not be limited by nationality, ethnicity, or culture. Those whom the Spirit of God summons, and who are drawn to the truth of Jesus, will belong to him, regardless of their origins or gender — or their dubious past.
This woman seems to suspect that something deeper is here. And so she says — perhaps timidly:
I know that Messiah comes, he who is called Christ. When he has come, he will declare to us all things.
The rumors of a coming Messiah must have been in the air. Of course, there were Messianic prophecies in the Hebrew Bible. I can’t say how prevalent these expectations were for the Samaritans. But a Messianic hope was obviously current even among the Samaritans.
And for the first time, Jesus speaks absolutely clearly about who he is:
Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who speaks to you.”
Prior to this moment, others have borne witness that he is the Son of God (John the Baptist in John 1:29-34); and Jesus has spoken of himself as Son of God in the third person. Now he owns it — that he is indeed the Messiah.
This is interesting. Perhaps because she is a Samaritan, his witness to her must be more direct. She doesn’t have the benefit of the Hebrew Bible. And when speaking to a Samaritan, Jesus doesn’t have to worry quite so much about the presuppositions and expectations that the Jews have piled on to the idea of the Messiah.
It may well be that that this is the very first of the famous I am statements of the Gospel of John. These statements, such as I am the bread of life (John 6:35), I am the light of the world (John 8:12), and several more, are unique in this Gospel. They suggest a direct correlation to God’s disclosure of his divine name to Moses in Exodus 3:14:
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM,” and he said, “You shall tell the children of Israel this: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
This name is called the Tetragrammaton (the Four Letters) that describes Yahweh’s eternal and immovable character. In John’s Gospel we have been told that Jesus is the Word become flesh (John 1:14), which means that God himself has become human (see John 1:11-4). And Jesus makes the correlation even more clear in John 8:58:
Jesus said to them, “Most certainly, I tell you, before Abraham came into existence, I AM.”
By telling the Samaritan woman I am he, meaning the Messiah, he may also be conveying the deeper truth that he is God incarnate, preexistent before the creation of the world.
No doubt, this has been a lot for this woman to take in. And at this moment, the disciples arrive. There is a transition, as she returns to the city — leaving her water pot behind in her distracted haste! She is on a mission to tell everyone she can about this remarkable man who knows everything about her.
As mentioned earlier, the disciples are taken aback that Jesus is speaking to her, but they have already learned not to question their master:
no one said, “What are you looking for?” or, “Why do you speak with her?”
They urge Jesus to eat the food they’ve procured. And this becomes a teachable moment for them. He says:
“I have food to eat that you don’t know about.”
Once again, Jesus encounters literal-minded folks who have trouble grasping his metaphors. Has someone else brought him food?
Jesus must spell it out:
Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.”
The will of the Father for Jesus is for him to fulfill his mission as Messiah — and that includes extending the Good News of eternal life to this Samaritan woman. This is what feeds his soul.
Jesus then employs an agricultural metaphor so they can begin to grasp the urgency of the work ahead of them all. He quotes what sounds like a proverb, suggesting there is plenty of time (four months) until the harvest. But he tells them that if they have the eyes to see it, the fields are ready now to be harvested. The harvest, of course is not wheat or barley, but people. People are to be gathered in for eternal life.
He also seems to restrain any false pride the disciples might have. He says that those who sow and those who reap may rejoice together, but he tells them:
I sent you to reap that for which you haven’t labored. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.
Jesus doesn’t make it clear who has sown the seed — the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament, perhaps? — or perhaps he is speaking of the spiritual preparation that has been made not by human agencies but by the work of God’s Spirit? In any event, the credit for the “crop” belongs to others — the disciples have the blessing of participating in the joy of the harvest.
Once again, the scene shifts, as the Samaritan woman returns to the well — bringing many Samaritans with her. She has enthusiastically testified about Jesus’ insight into her life, and posed the question:
Can this be the Christ?
And then there is more evidence of the harvest of which Jesus spoke, which is beginning to explode exponentially:
From that city many of the Samaritans believed in him because of the word of the woman, who testified, “He told me everything that I did.”
Jesus stayed in Sychar among the Samaritans for two days, and many came to faith. Only now it wasn’t second hand information:
They said to the woman, “Now we believe, not because of your speaking; for we have heard for ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.”
There are multiple applications possible from this multi-layered account of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman. Perhaps the simplest approach is simply to say that no matter what the culture says about us — Samaritan, woman, second-class citizen, outcast — what Jesus has to say about us is far more important.
Jesus actually engages with this woman. We might imagine her in her own city walking about in public with downcast eyes because of her reputation. But he actually dialogues with her, and then offers her the living water of eternal life that comes from himself.
And this woman with the tarnished reputation and the moral issues, who has perhaps been seeking solace and meaning from various men, now sees that Jesus is the source of true life. And she finds the courage to return to the streets of her city and boldly exclaim:
Can this be the Christ?
Jesus knows our lives and our failures also; and he comes to us and says:
whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never thirst again; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.
There have been a few difficult times in my life when I have sought counseling from wise pastors or therapists. These were moments of humility for me, when I realized that I didn’t have all the answers, and I needed help. I found these sessions helpful.
But when I think about this Samaritan woman’s opportunity to have a face-to-face conversation with the Wisdom of the Ages, Jesus himself, I can only say — how fortunate she was!
Jesus knew how to ask the right questions that help this woman confront her own mistakes and past failures. He does not judge her, but enables her to draw her own conclusions about who he is and whether he can help her find meaning and authentic life through him.
When we come to faith in Jesus, we have the same opportunity — the Lord of All Life, who understands and knows us better than we know ourselves, questions and listens to us with the deepest of empathy and love. He listens to us with empathy because he has been in our shoes, as the Word made flesh.
The author of Hebrews says it this way:
Therefore he was obligated in all things to be made like his brothers, that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. For in that he himself has suffered being tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted (Hebrews 2:17-18).
Our Lord, our past sometimes becomes all that we can think about, and influences the way we live our lives everyday, like the woman who came to the well. Thank you that you meet us where we are, and if we listen to you and turn to you in faith, you provide meaning and purpose that exceeds anything we have previously known. Help me to share your meaning and purpose with others as the woman at the well did with her neighbors in Sychar. Amen.
“Christ and the Woman of Samaria” by Pierre Mignard is in the Public Domain.