Six refreshing reflections on the encounter between a woman in Samaria and Jesus to challenge our perceptions and our life by Margaret Killingray.
Power, status and being human
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”
The story of Jesus and the woman of Samaria provides rich teaching, – on evangelism, gender and ethnicity issues, genuine worship – but the implications of the first few verses are often overlooked.
These two were on their own. The disciples were off looking for lunch. The woman was making a solitary trip to the well at noon. Between them lay cultural barriers of status that would normally rule out any kind of genuine communication. He was a rabbi, a man and a Jew. He was also the Lord of Creation, the promised Messiah. He was tired, hot, hungry and thirsty. She may well have been kept by some man as an unloved drudge. She expected him to stand up and walk away leaving her until she had finished her solitary task.
But he didn’t. He didn’t hide his vulnerability and need – he was thirsty and the well was deep. He didn’t pull rank and he didn’t insist on his status. He had already faced that temptation. Beginning ‘If you are the Son of God’, the tempter had suggested that if Jesus did have the authority, then as he was hungry, he should turn stones into bread. And if people didn’t realise who he was, then he should demonstrate his divinity so that all could see. But he chose not to go that way.
How much is status worth to us? How difficult do we find it to allow others to see our weaknesses and our vulnerabilities, fearing that our authority will be diminished by such openness? Anyone who has any kind of authority faces the temptation to ensure that everyone ‘beneath’ them knows the extent of that power, and to keep any weakness well hidden.
Jesus stayed sitting on the wall of the well, and asked her for a drink. He put himself in her debt. Later he began to tell her who he really was and to startle her with his words of knowledge. But not before he had established that he was just another human being. In doing so he shocked her, and his disciples.
- What barriers do we need to break down today?
- Jesus was hungry, so he was tempted to turn stones into bread.
How difficult is it to allow others to see our weaknesses?
Verses from John 4
The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’… The woman said to him, ‘Sir you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob who gave us this well?’ … then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’
Jesus asked a Samaritan woman for a drink. He challenged cultural practice, shocking the woman and his disciples. However surprised and disturbed she may have been, she did not back away. She faced up to this disconcerting stranger and questioned him.
People often asked him questions – straightforward ones, as the Samaritan woman does here, but sometimes patronising ones or devious ones to catch him out. The rich young man asked Jesus what he should do to gain eternal life, but the answer in the end was too much for him and he turned away. The Samaritan woman went on asking questions and listening to the answers, and found the Messiah.
Good questions are a good guide to the success of human communication. I remember classes where teachers were so intimidating that no one dared ask a question, or so lax that silly questions were asked to waste time. At work where managing, planning and being efficient require meetings and conversations of all kinds, we need to check whether people do feel free to ask straightforward honest questions – and to go on asking. We need to create climates where questions are permitted and encouraged. We may need to ask necessary questions ourselves when we sense that others dare not ask them.
In the same way, space for questions is crucial when we are communicating our faith. Courses aimed at those on the edge of faith, Alpha and Christianity Explored, for example, come with the strap line, no question too simple, no question too hostile. But we should also always make sure that there is adequate space and time for questions within the on-going life of the church. Our growth into a mature understanding of our faith depends on a Spirit-led process in which we build each other up. We need to share all our questions with each other in this process. The Samaritan woman was not intimidated; she listened, questioned and commented. Then she fetched her neighbours and friends, invited him to stay for a couple of days, and many became believers.
- The Samaritan woman asked questions and found her Messiah.
- She listened, questioned and then fetched her friends.
Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’
It’s a very hot day and you’ve walked a long way. What price a cup of cold water? Some of you may recall being taught a theory in economics that involved the way the relative value of water and diamonds changed dramatically if there was no water.
A spring of water gushing up cold and pure for ever is a powerful and dramatic picture for a woman who has to fetch her water in a jug from a well – or a river or a muddy ditch. For those of us with half a dozen taps delivering cold water in one house, the metaphor may lose some of its immediate impact.
Why does Jesus speak about the living water that quenches all thirst for ever? Why does he use parables and allegories, pictures and metaphors? Why? Because he has to. Because he is the Lord of Creation and we are creatures. Because he wants to help us understand enormous mind-challenging truths. He is like an astrophysicist explaining the distances of space to his young children.
So we need to allow ourselves time to think about water; to reflect on our total and absolute dependence on water for life and health; to delight in the beauty of water in all its forms – cups of tea, glaciers, waterfalls, hot showers, rain and snow. Then we can see that he is offering this woman – and anyone else – the free gift of life, abundant and fully satisfying forever, a spring of living water – in us – gushing up and washing us into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Isaiah used a similar picture: –
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Everyone who thirsts; come to the waters.
A spring of living water washing us into the Kingdom of Heaven.
- In places where water just comes out of a tap; do we value water?
- In lives of comfort; do we value salvation?
A judged woman?
Jesus said to her, ‘Go, and call your husband and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘you are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’
Most commentaries make judgements about this woman. She was ‘illiterate because women were not educated’; she was ‘living an immoral life’; she was ‘publicly despised and ostracised’. But are these judgements fair? She was probably non-literate but John records an intelligent discussion about the history and theology of Jewish and Samaritan worship. Was she despised and ostracised? All that we know is that she came to the well on her own at midday. Even if she acted that day outside usual custom, it tells us nothing about her status in her home town, only that – in God’s plans for Samaria – she was in the right place at the right time.
Do we presume she was despised because of her ‘immoral’ life? There is nothing in the passage that suggests this. She dropped her jar and went back to her town; the people listened, accepted what she said and went back with her to Jesus. Many believed in him because of her testimony. That hardly suggests a despised and ostracised woman.
But what can we say about her five husbands, etc.? In fairness, we know nothing about the reasons for this situation. All we do know is that the laws of marriage and divorce were about male choices and male decisions. Her husbands may have died; she may have been ‘inherited’ by male relatives; she may have been barren and therefore divorced. As a husbandless widow she may have found refuge in someone’s household, as a servant. Jesus may be voicing sympathy with a victim rather than gentle reproof to a loose woman.
Whatever we may want to assume about her, Jesus saw her as the one chosen by him to take the gospel into Samaria. ‘The reaper’, he said, ‘is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life’ (4:36). Did he say this as he watched her hurrying eagerly back to tell her neighbours? I hope she was still there when Philip and then Peter and John came to take up the work she had begun (Acts 8).
It is so easy sometimes to jump to conclusions about someone, or to accept others’ assessments without question. Jesus said, ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged’.
- It is easy to accept others’ assessments without question.
- Jesus saw this woman as the one chosen to take the gospel into Samaria.
An act of betrothal
The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us’. Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’
John must have known the Hebrew Scriptures pretty well. And as he set out to write his thoughtful and theological gospel, he included incidents that would illustrate his wider themes. In the first three chapters he has described Jesus’ first miracle, making water into wine at a wedding, and he has also introduced John the Baptist. Immediately before Jesus’ journey into Samaria, John the Baptist says, ‘I am not the Messiah but I have been sent ahead of him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice’.
And then we come to a story of a man travelling to a foreign country and stopping at a well. A woman comes to the well, they talk and the woman runs home to report on the stranger, who is invited back to the village. With variations, that is the story of Abraham’s servant finding Rebekah for Isaac, Jacob finding Rachel, and Moses finding Zipporah. Was John deliberately echoing these betrothal narratives, narratives from the Pentateuch, the only scriptures Samaritans recognised? This is Jacob’s well, and Jesus is the bridegroom come for his bride. Of course John makes pointed contrasts. But a Samaritan woman with a chaotic married life is wooed and called to become a believer, a follower and a ‘bride of Christ’.
Metaphors for our relationship with God abound in Scripture, but perhaps Jesus as the bridegroom and the church as bride is one of the richest. It is not just about marriage itself, but it invites us to imagine the point where love and commitment, joy and promises, expectation and the opening up of a glorious future come together in a wedding.
So on a dark Monday morning in February, when we have to get up, have to go to work, and deal with the usual amounts of frustration and satisfaction, it’s good to remember that we are not just the foot-soldiers, not just the hired servants, but we too are the bride, the one at the centre of the celebration, the one sitting down next to the bridegroom at the wedding banquet of the Lamb.
- A man travels to a foreign country and stops at a well.
- A woman called to be the bride of Christ at the wedding banquet of the Lamb.
Missing the point
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So his disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’
The disciples’ puzzled inability to understand is oddly endearing. Surprised to find Jesus talking to a woman, they didn’t, however, feel able to voice their disquiet. As she left, they set out the picnic, urging Jesus to join them. His response puzzled them even more, as he added metaphors of food and harvest to that of water.
The disciples frequently failed to understand what Jesus was talking about. They asked for explanations of parables. They rejected his warnings about his own death. When he spoke about the ‘yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees’, they thought he was talking about the bread they had forgotten.
As he washed their feet he told them, ‘You do not know now what I am doing but later you will understand.’ As he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, they did not understand, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered – and understood. They didn’t understand – Luke says it, Matthew says it, Mark and John say it. Writing in the post-resurrection power of the Holy Spirit, they look back at their failure to understand, recording that Jesus kept on teaching them as they travelled with him, listened to him and watched him in action. He knew he was investing in their part in taking the gospel to the world.
They stood by Jacob’s well, and didn’t understand. They missed the point – the ripening harvest, the fruit gathered for eternal life and Jesus the Son of God setting a Samaritan town on fire with the living water. But in Acts 8, Peter and John were back in Samaria preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Knowing that we have missed the point can be very uncomfortable. Did the disciples, like us, have that irrational desire to go back in time and play the scene again? Have we fought the wrong battles, argued for a programme that won’t work, decorated the building about to be demolished? The Lord’s loving patience, the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and the humility to say we don’t understand, go a very long way in helping us to live with our human stumbling.
- The disciples didn’t understand; they missed the point.
- Jesus kept on teaching them as they travelled with him.
Margaret Killingray worked for many years at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. She is a lay reader and worships at St Nicholas, Sevenoaks.