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4 Now he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
17 “I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26 Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.”
This story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman is the listed reading for the next three days. But since the third of those days is Saturday, I’m going to combine the first two days’ readings so we can think about it for two days rather than three.
And like a number of stories in the Gospel of John, this is a pretty long one, so please bear with me if today’s reflection is a little longer than usual. For my money, this is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking stories from the life and ministry of Jesus.
The story takes place as Jesus travels through the region of Samaria. That in itself is significant, because lots of the Jews despised the Samaritans so much that they wouldn’t even walk through the region – they’d walk all the way around it. The Jews considered the Samaritans to be ethnically and theologically ‘impure,’ and wouldn’t allow them to worship at the temple in Jerusalem. So just by walking through Samaria, Jesus was demonstrating that his mission in the world was sort of breaking down the walls around Jewish religious practice. Jesus was reaching out, as he would on so many occasions, to those considered ‘unworthy.’
As Jesus sits by a well alone at mid-day, he holds a conversations with a Samaritan woman who comes to draw water. That’s a second surprising thing here. Religious Jewish men – and especially rabbis – were told to avoid conversation with women, who were considered frivolous at best, as well as objects of sexual temptation. But Jesus asks the woman for a drink, which would presumably mean drinking out of her jar. The woman expresses her surprise – Jesus’ request would be something like a white southerner during Jim Crow days wanting to drink out a water fountain designated for “colored” people.
But when the woman answers by observing that Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans, Jesus says something else that surprises her. He says that he has something for her – a “living water” that would satisfy a deeper thirst in her. And what’s more, Jesus says, this living water would start to flow out of her, to become a source of eternal life for others. And then he goes on to surprise the woman again, by revealing that he knows the facts of the woman’s unusual personal life. She’s had five husbands, and she’s living with a guy she’s not married to.
It’s common for Christian interpreters to characterize the Samaritan woman as promiscuous, or at least as sinfully cavalier about her marriage commitments. But that might say more about the interpreters than it does about the woman. We have no idea how her five marriages had ended, or anything else about her circumstances.
It does seem reasonable to speculate, as some interpreters have, that the woman’s unusual history had made her the target of gossip in her community. Most women in that hot climate would go to the well for water first thing in the morning, when it was cool. But this woman had gone at mid-day, so there must have been some reason for that. And avoiding gossipy neighbors is a reasonable possibility.
But whatever the reason for her unusual schedule, Jesus doesn’t offer a word of judgment or condemnation. He just tells her that God is doing a new thing. God is washing away the barriers between people, ethnic distinctions, gender boundaries and apparently perceived boundaries of ‘propriety.’ God is now concerned only with finding those who are willing to worship him “in spirit and truth.”
When you really step back and look at this story, the whole theme that runs through it is that on this occasion Jesus did and said a lot of really surprising – maybe even ‘shocking’ – things.
And there was even one more surprise to come. Because it is to this Samaritan woman with the unusual past that Jesus reveals something he has revealed to no one else in the Gospel of John: that he is the Messiah.
The woman doesn’t immediately fall on her knees and worship him, but she does respond in a powerful way. Leaving her water jar by the well, she runs back to town and starts spreading the word that she might just have met the Messiah out at the well.
We’ll think about the conclusion of this story tomorrow.
Let’s pray: Lord, we know you often work through surprising people in surprising ways. Guard us against rejecting your work when it is done through people who might seem ‘inappropriate’ to us. And guard us against being shocked to learn that you intend to work through us, as well. Amen.
(The listed readings for today are Psalms 27 and 80; Genesis 11:1-9; Hebrews 6:13-20; and John 4:1-15.)