The Samaritan woman at the well is a familiar passage from scripture. It is a long dialogue between Jesus and an unnamed woman. The passage is fascinating for a variety of reasons, but a linger question is who are we in light of God’s revelation to us in the person of Jesus Christ?
Scripture: John 4: 5-42
Our passage from John’s gospel this morning is well known. It is a story of a man and a woman having a conversation at a well. Such an image might not be shocking to us, we are used to seeing such images of people gathering and talking. The well in the ancient world was very much the water cooler of the modern office. People gathered, had a drink, exchanged gossip and then went back about their business.
Of course this gathering is a little different than that. The individuals in our story are Jesus, a Jewish Rabbi and an unnamed Samaritan woman. This is significant for several reasons.
First, in the patriarchal time of Jesus it was taboo for a man and woman who were not married or blood-relatives to be talking to one another, alone. This is bad news for the woman and her family, thankfully we live in different times now, but when Jesus walked the earth this was not okay. The woman as a result of Jesus’ presence might likely have been panicking and we’ll get to the reasons why.
Now, even if this wasn’t bad enough the two individuals are a Samaritan and a Jew. There is no love lost between these two groups of people. They don’t like each other. It’s why the story of the Good Samaritan has such a sting. The two people, once ancestors, no longer enjoy one another’s company.
Next we come to the Samaritan woman. The story gives us a clue about her when it tells us what time Jesus arrived at the well, it was about noon. The sun was up, the heat of the day was oppressive, not the best time to come to the well for your days water unless you weren’t able to go at another time. This woman is a social outcast in her village, the other woman don’t want to gossip with her.
As Jesus speaks to her it becomes apparent why. In the course of their conversation Jesus asks her to bring her husband to the well. The woman replies that she doesn’t have a husband. Now in ancient society this would mean she is a widow, never wed or is divorced. Any of those three make her a social outcast, placing her at the bottom of importance within her village.
Jesus tells her that she is right, she doesn’t have a husband she has had five and that the current man she lives with isn’t her husband. Oh boy, let’s turn all our stereotypes on and with that all of our petty judgement about this woman and her life. For much of history this story has been told that this is a woman with loose moral values, that she is a sleazy sinful woman (Scott Hoezee) or worse. And it is very unfortunate that this type of a connection was every made and that they idea endures. The reality is we don’t know. Remember what I said early about this woman’s social standing, it was low, well so was the social standing of every other woman. All a man had to do was haul his wife out into the street and then say to her three times, “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you” and that was that. The women didn’t have much say in the matter.
We don’t know why she has had five husbands and is currently living with a man who isn’t her husband. We don’t know because the story doesn’t tell us. We can make all the assumptions we want, the reality is we don’t know and it doesn’t matter because this woman is fascinating and she is a theological juggernaut going head to head with the Son of God on matters of faith. More than that, this woman has a sense of humour.
Look at their encounter, Jesus asks her to get him a drink from the well.
Her reply, “But sir, you don’t have a bucket.” From there she begins the theological discussion as she talks about Jacob and her ancestors, the conversation ranges from living water to the true place of worship. It is fascinating, all from this woman who has been labeled a social outcast by her people because she’s been married a five times. The others in her village have clearly judged her, but what is fascinating is that at no point in their discussion does Jesus judge her.
At no point does Jesus chastise her for her choices or for the hand that life has dealt her. He doesn’t tell her to go home and marry the man she lives with. He doesn’t tell her that she has led a sinful life. Jesus doesn’t judge her at all, instead he reveals who he is that he is the Messiah, the Son of God. Just as he reveals truths about her life, Jesus also reveals the truth about who he is. But in all that he doesn’t judge her.
If you will recall last week we read John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus doesn’t come to judge, he comes to save. In John’s gospel the world already sits in judgment for turning its back on God. Jesus comes to offer grace, to offer life not judgment. Jesus comes to repair the broken relationship that the people have with God and here in this encounter at the well we see how this relationship can be repaired first hand.
In “The Lectionary Commentary” (Eerdmans, 2001) Mary Margaret Pazdan points out that the story of Nicodemus in John 3 and the story of the Samarian woman at the well in John 4 form a diptych of contrasting models of discipleship and so provides a vital lesson this early on in John’s gospel narrative. The dichotomies and contrasts are clear: Nicodemus is an esteemed religious figure who comes to Jesus at night to cover his tracks; this Samarian woman is a despised person on the fringes of her village who comes to the well in daylight. Both need a new birth and both wonder about how this will go. Among other things, it’s a fine reminder that no matter who you are, Jesus is the cosmic Word made flesh who alone can give to us what we need. Academic learning and fine religious credentials no more help get you into the kingdom than a tawdry reputation can keep you out! (Scott Hoezee)
This meeting between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is a story about identity. Of knowing who we are as children of God, as followers of Christ. About how we know ourselves in light of being known by God. Prof. Kathryn Schifferdecker writes, “the meeting between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is in many ways about identity, about knowing and being known.” (Kathryn Schifferdecker)
If you have any doubts about the Samaritan woman at the well and her importance in John’s gospel, I leave you with this. Despite any blemish that may or may not exist in her character, this unnamed, social outcast Samaritan woman is the first Evangelist in John’s gospel. She plays the same role that Mary Magdalene will play at the empty tomb when she proclaims, “I have seen the Lord!”
The Samaritan woman told the people of her town what happened at the well. She tells them about the encounter with Jesus, about the encounter she had with a Jewish Rabbi. She tells a story that could further damn her and isolate her, but she tells it anyway. And because she told her story many from her town came to believe in Jesus. Because of her words many more became believers.
An unknown, unnamed, socially isolated and shunned woman becomes the gateway for others to come to faith. Just think what God can do with us! Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.