Narrative Lectionary Reflection
February 4, 2018
Last week, we looked at John 3 and his visit with the Pharisee Nicodemus. Nicodemus comes at night for reasons we don’t know to meet Jesus. Night was a good metaphor for not really understanding who and what Jesus was all about.
In John 4 we are introduced to a Samaritan woman with no name who meets Jesus at the heat of the day. Again, there is some debate as to why she came at that time to draw water, but it might show that she is open to hear what Jesus was going to say.
Why does this story matter? What does this speak to us today?
Let’s look at Jesus and the woman at the well.
Engaging the Text
Jesus had to go through Samaria. 5 He came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, which was near the land Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there. Jesus was tired from his journey, so he sat down at the well. It was about noon.
In this passage, we have Jesus and the disciples on a trip. The first verse says that Jesus had to go through Samaria. Samaria was a region home to Samaritans, a group of people that had a mixed Jewish-Gentile heritage. It’s interesting that the passage says “he had to go through Samaria.” If you were to look at a map of ancient Palestine, you would see that it isn’t necessary to go through Samaria to get to Galilee. Most Jews didn’t want to have any contact with Samaritans so they crossed the Jordan River and go up the other side, thereby bypassing Samaria.
There is a reason why most Jews would ignore Samaria. Now, when we hear the word Samaritan, we think of the parable Jesus told about the Good Samaritan. While we might think Samaritans are good stand-up folk, that wasn’t how Jews saw them. The two groups despised each other.
The reason for the bad releations between Jews and Samaritans is rather complicated. The Jews saw the Samaritans as outsiders and idolaters. The Samaritans saw themselves as descendent of the long passed Northern Kingdom. They used the Pentateuch as scripture like Jews, but they worshipped at Mount Gerizim instead of Jerusalem.
While most Jews would avoid Samaria on trips. Jesus, however doesn’t. As the passage says, he had to go through Samaria which is better translated “it was necessary for him.” This shows his choice of route was not about geography, but theology. It shows that no part of creation is beyond God’s love.
At some point, Jesus and the disciples stop at a well. The disciples go on into an unnamed town to get some food. The writer of John says it was about noon. Jesus is reclining in the noonday heat, a woman makes her way to the well to draw water. If you’ve been to very warm regions of the world like Spain or the American South during the summer, noon means the sun is high in the sky and it is hot. People tend to stay indoors to escape the heat.
But this woman was out gathering water. Why? As we said before, in hot climates like Spain, Puerto Rico or the American South you learn that people tend to do their main work either in the early morning or in the evening; times when the temps are cooler.
This woman went to gather water at noon. Why? It could be that the time she drew water indicated that the town treated her as an outcast. Dealing with the extreme heat of midday was easier than dealing with stares from the other women. This is a small town and she couldn’t hide.
This is the first of a two parts of the passage where there is disagreement. While some see the time she come to draw water as a sign of judgement, in this case the community she lives in, others think that is not the case. Theologian Karoline Lewis thinks the time of day has a more metaphorical meaning instead of a moral one:
The reference to the time of day points to the theological theme of light and darkness, with darkness representing the realm of unbelief and light, the realm of belief. The fact that the Samaritan woman meets Jesus at noon invites hopeful anticipation of this conversation.
Jesus sees the woman and asks her, “Give me something to drink.” The woman looks at Jesus and notices maybe by his skin tone or his speech that he is Jewish. That must have sent chills up her spine that her hated enemy was sitting there asking her for drink as if she was his servant. She then responds, “Why in the world would ask me, a woman and a Samaritan, for water?”
The narrator explains that Jews have nothing to do with Samaritans. The hatred was so intense that rabbis taught the Jews to not eat anything cooked by a Samaritan, not use any vessels used by them and not have any ritual contact with them. Samaritans were deemed unclean. So where the woman says “How do you, being a Jew, ask from me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” she is truly shocked.
Jesus then starts talking about water again- but not the water in the well. He speaks of a Living Water, a water that will quench the thirst of this woman forever. At first, she was still a bit skeptical, wondering how he could get this water without a bucket. Then she starts to ask if there is any way she could get this water and not have to come out in the heat to get water.
Jesus is turning her attention away from actual water to heavenly things. He tells her that she would get “living water” if she knew who he was. The Old Testament describes God as the “fountain of living waters” which would have given the people of Israel had they not forsaken God (Jeremiah 2:13 and 17:13). Living waters also refers to to the end of time when God will rule over all the earth (Zechariah 14:8-9). Jesus turns her attention to heavenly things. He points out her non-understanding of the person who is asking for water and then discloses himself as the one who would have given her “living water” had she recognized him as the Christ and asked him (4:10). In the OT, God is described as the “fountain of living waters” from which his people would have received life had they not forsaken him (Jer 2:13; 17:13). The term “living waters” also denotes the life of the end-time, when God will be King over all the earth (Zech 14:8–9).
At some point, Jesus asks the woman to call her husband. She responds quickly that she has no husband. When she says she has no husband, Jesus replies that she is correct. She has had five husbands and the man that she lives with now is not her husband.
Traditionally, people have thought that she might have been doing something that was considered sinful. However, another story has come forward in recent years that rejects seeing the woman as a sinner, but more as a victim of some sort. The Bible never really tells us what this woman has done, if anything. The passage raises question about this woman and what has led her to be an outcast, but we are never told what happened. The scholars argue that the traditional understanding of the woman at the well is full of misogyny and moralism. Here is what David Lose said in a Huffington Post article in 2011:
Her story is told in the fourth chapter of the Gospel According to John. She is a Samaritan woman who Jesus encounters by a well. Jews and Samaritans don’t get along, and women and men in this culture generally keep a safe social distance from each other. So she is doubly surprised when Jesus asks her for a drink. When she makes a remark to that effect, he offers her living water. Confused, but intrigued, she asks about this miraculous water. He eventually invites her to call her husband, and when she replies that she has no husband, he agrees: “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” (4:18).
And that’s it. That’s the sentence that has branded her a prostitute. Conservative preacher John Piper’s treatment is characteristic. In a sermon on this passage, he describes her as “a worldly, sensually-minded, unspiritual harlot from Samaria,” and at another point in the sermon calls her a “whore.”
So if this seems at least as probable an interpretation as the more routine one, why do so many preachers assume the worst of her? I would suggest two reasons. First, there is a long history of misogyny in Christian theology that stands in sharp contrast to the important role women play in the gospels themselves. Women, the four evangelists testify, supported Jesus’ ministry. They were present at the tomb when their male companions fled. And they were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Yet from asserting that Eve was the one who succumbed to temptation (conveniently ignoring that the author of Genesis says Adam was right there with her — Gen. 3:6) to assuming this Samaritan woman must be a prostitute, there is the ugly taint of chauvinism present in too much Christian preaching, perhaps particularly so in those traditions that refuse to recognize the equality of women to preach and teach with the same authority as men.
A second reason preachers cast this woman in the role of prostitute is that it plays into the belief that Christianity, and religion generally, is chiefly about morality. Treating the Bible as one long, if peculiar, Goofus & Gallant cartoon, we read every story we find in terms of sin and forgiveness, moral depravity and repentance. But this story is not about immorality; it’s about identity. In the previous scene, Jesus was encountered by a male Jewish religious authority who could not comprehend who or what Jesus was. In this scene, he encounters the polar opposite, and perhaps precisely because she is at the other end of the power spectrum, she recognizes not just who Jesus is but what he offers — dignity. Jesus invites her to not be defined by her circumstances and offers her an identity that lifts her above her tragedy. And she accepts, playing a unique role in Jesus’ ministry as she is the first character in John’s gospel to seek out others to tell them about Jesus.
What do you think? Does it matter if the woman had a shady reputation or not?
At some point, Jesus reveals himself to her as the Messiah. She runs back to town and tells the townsfolk that this man told her everything about her. Could this be the Messiah?
This woman was an outcast. Whether or not she was an innocent victim or someone with a seedy past, doesn’t matter; she is on the outside. And yet, Jesus reached out to her. He crossed the boundaries of ethnicity, gender and probably 200 other boundaries to reach out to this woman in grace and love.
But this story isn’t simply about what Christ did, though that’s incredibly important. It’s also about how the community that claims to follow him lives. We call ourselves Christians. Do we respond to the people we meet with the same grace that Christ did? Could we love those who might be doing something we might not necessairly agree with?
Regardless of how we see the woman, she is a remarkable character. In her chat with Jesus she goes from protest, to doubt to confession and finally witness. She is willing to engage Jesus long enough to come to a new understanding. She becomes and evangelist to her people who then come and see Jesus for themselves. She becomes the model disciple before the disciples ever do.
The reason this is such a wonderful story is that it reveals something about God, and maybe even a clue as to how God’s church should act. The God we have is one that loves us passionately. This God will sit and talk with a woman at the risk of God’s own reputation. We have a God that knows everything about us and loves us anyway.
Whether or not this woman appeared to be a sinner it shows Jesus as the friend of sinners, the one who is willing to impugn his own reputation to love the sinner and the outcast. THAT is what makes this story so amazing. Regardless if this woman was a sinner or not, Jesus radically loves this woman, even to the point of causing people to talk.
Lutheran pastor Delmer Chilton recounts a story that place right after his ordination; one where the newly minted minister ends up in the midst of some “working girls:”
I was ordained many years ago in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in a church not far from Fort Bragg. An old college friend drove several hours to be there. After the service that evening, he gave me a ride to the house where I was staying with another friend during the clergy conference that was to begin the next day. Our route took us through a part of town where “working girls” offered their services to GIs. We came to a stoplight, and they spotted me sitting there in his open-bodied Jeep. I was wearing a black suit and clergy shirt. Several of them came over to the car and began talking while we waited for the light to change to green. I said to my friend, “Get me out of here or this might be the shortest clerical career on record.”
He laughed as we drove away and then he said, “Well Delmer, I’m just a lowly English teacher, and you know I don’t go to church very much, but the way I read the Bible – aren’t those the very people you’re supposed to hanging out with?” I’ve known the man a long time and I still hate it when he’s right.
The reason the Woman at the Well resonates is that Jesus was willing to be seen talking with someone that at the very least was an outcast and still loves her. Because of that radical love, this woman was able to witness to her neighbors and they too saw Jesus as the Messiah.
This story is really about a God that is willing to love someone, anyone so radically that one might think God is off God’s rocker. If God is a friend to outcasts and sinners, then God is surely a friend to you and me. We can rest in the hope that we have a God that passionately loves each one of us.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.