Today we have a well known passage from John’s gospel, the woman at the well. It’s a story we know well, in fact we may know it so well that we assume we understand what is happening in the story and miss the message.
Scripture: John 4: 5-42
Sometimes we think we know the story so well, we lose sight of what the story and the author are trying to convey to us. The passage known as the Woman at the Well is one of these stories that we find in scripture. We think we know what is happening, we recall what we’ve been told about the story, and as a result we read what we’ve been told about it.
As we begin to look at this passage and what is occurring here, lets peel back the layers and see what we can uncover.
All passages of scripture are important. We have favourites, but all passages are important. This passage makes some very interesting connections that are probably lost on us because of when and how we are reading it. What we should note is that this is the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the gospels. This passage is longer than any single conversation Jesus has with the disciples, it is longer than the passage from last week with Nicodemus. John as the author of this gospel is providing us with some very interesting insights.
Who are the characters in this story? Yes, Jesus is present as is a woman. Who are they and where are they from? Samaritans and Jews lived in neighbouring lands, practiced similar religions, all while expressing feelings of animosity towards one another.
This makes our story surprising that Jesus, a Jewish Rabbi, would initiate a conversation with a Samaritan woman. They are both outsiders to one another and culture would dictate that they should not be having a conversation. The Samaritan woman says as much. The conversation starts innocently enough, Jesus asks for water. The Samaritan woman then responds with a question that focuses on the common ground that they share: Their ancestor Jacob who gave the well.
This begins a deep, moving, and theologically relevant discussion. And we need to be abundantly clear, this is a conversation that never should have happened. Yet, the depths of revelation that occur during this conversation are astounding.
The conversation begins around a drink of water. Let’s talk about water as we find it in John’s gospel. It shows up a lot. Each of the gospels has baptism narratives. But it is only in John that we find Jesus turning water into wine, the discussion between Nicodemus and Jesus from last week about being born of water and spirit, and now a conversation about living water. Clearly, John is hinting at something here. As I mentioned last week, whenever we see water or baptism being talked about there is a transformation about to occur.
So why does Jesus suddenly change the subject and ask about the woman’s husband?
This is where we need to be biblical scholars. Fortunately, John is giving us clues. Jacob, for whom the well is named after, met his wife Rachel at a well at noon. John is making connections for us between Jesus and Jacob, whom God later renamed Israel. A generation before that Isaac’s wife Rebekah is met at a well. Biblical scholar Robert Altar labels these repeat scenes as betrothal scenarios (Robert Altar – https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-john-45-42-6).
The timing and location of the passage aren’t just casual narrative details, they have deep meaning and add layers of understanding to the story.
Now Jesus, doesn’t marry the woman at the well, but it is a coming together of Jew and Samaritan and them finding common ground and understanding about what God is trying to do in creation. John’s audience receives what they expect, a man and woman meet at a well at noon, that is a reference to marriage. However, the Samaritan woman is not the virgin they are expecting. Instead, she has been cast aside by society and her previous husbands. She is living with the shame of her position in society, it’s why she is there at noon instead of earlier in the day with the other woman from the village.
About this passage Debbie Thomas writes, “Long before I was old enough to read John’s Gospel for myself, I “knew” that the woman at the well was “sensuous,” “promiscuous,” “unchaste,” and “immoral.” In some sermons, she was described quite explicitly as a prostitute. A “fallen” woman. A harlot. And the grace of the story in this version — the “Good News” — resided in nothing more than Jesus’s shocking condescension: “God even forgives the sins of such a woman.” (Debbie Thomas – Journey with Jesus – The Woman at the Well)
We should be absolutely clear, neither Jesus nor John as the gospel writer make any comments about the women’s character and that such a reading of this passage is very damaging. Our assumptions about her and her lifestyle are based on misplaced and ill-informed modern ideas. Within the culture of her time, men, in this patriarchal society have abandoned her. She could have been barren and subsequently divorced or a widow. What you need to remember about society in that day is that a woman couldn’t initiate divorce. We need to stop typecasting her as immoral. When we do this, we take our focus away from what John is trying to tell us.
So why mention marriage, why five husbands? Jennifer Garcia Bashaw indicates in her commentary, “if Jesus is not shaming the woman, why does he mention marriage? Many commentators interpret the woman’s husbands symbolically, representative of either the five political powers that had ruled Samaria or the five groups that were rumored to have comprised the early Samaritan people. In this view, Jesus is rehearsing Samaritan history. Perhaps this betrothal type-scene doesn’t anticipate the marriage of a couple but of the Samaritans and their God.” (Jennifer Garcia Bashaw – https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-john-45-42-6)
Why is all of this significant?
Because Jesus reveals his identity and is vulnerable with a Samaritan who culturally is opposed to him. And because he breaks barriers on gender norms and what is considered appropriate by confiding in a woman. In the act of saying “I am he, the one who is speaking to you” Jesus demonstrates that God is interested in reconciliation and breaking down barriers which have been established by society.
God through Christ, is interested in doing something new in creation. Here is another detail that isn’t just a casual narrative detail by John. You’ll note that when the woman receives and accepts Jesus, when she receives the living water that Jesus represents and then she goes to proclaim the good news she has received. You’ll note that she leaves her water jar behind because she no longer needs it.
An encounter that shouldn’t have happened produces an individual who goes and preaches the good news that Christ represents and because of that many others believed.
May each of us drink deep from the well that is the living water of God’s nourishing love. Amen.
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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.
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