The Samaritan woman at the well is probably for many of us a well-known character in the gospel narrative. I wonder what you think when you hear her mentioned. Do you see a much maligned and ostracised woman whom society had rejected? Do you see a terrible sinner who lured men into her bed and then cast them off? Perhaps you see a bold woman who is prepared to set aside the conventions of society and dare to debate on religious matters with a Jewish rabbi.
What we actually know about this woman is not very much. She was drawing water at noon, which is unusual. The evening would have been more likely, when the heat of the sun had gone, or early morning to get fresh supplies for a new day. At noon most people would be keeping in the shade if possible. It could just be that on this occasion the woman went at noon for an extra visit for some reason or it could be that she wanted to avoid the other women of the city. The reason for avoidance could have been that the man she was living with was not her husband in a legal sense. She’d had five husbands but this seemed to be what we might call a common-law husband. Even without the complication of this sixth man, perhaps the woman felt shame due to the ending of her previous marriages (Jews considered that no woman should have more than three husbands) and so avoided the other women. Of course, in those days when life was more precarious than now, all five husbands might have died but I suppose even that might have made tongues wag.
We may not know much, but Jesus knew everything about this woman. He knew without being told that she had had five husbands and that the current man was not married to her. Even knowing what he knew, at no point is the woman’s behaviour condemned or is she asked to change. Instead Jesus looked at her and saw the hurts she had suffered, the disappointments in her life and her deepest needs. Not only did he see them; he actually set about doing something to address those needs.
Often in the gospels Jesus saw need and provided the solution in a miraculous way. On this occasion the whole story hinges not on some amazing physical cure but on a conversation. This is the longest conversation which we have recorded of Jesus. Sitting by a well in the noon day sun, tired from his walk, Jesus broke social conventions and chatted to someone he should never have talked to at all, never mind at length. Men did not speak in public to women who were not their wives. We can see by the disciples’ reaction when they returned from their errand – astonishment – that even having been with Jesus for some time, this action on his part had really taken them aback, though they didn’t have the courage to say so. Of course, the woman wasn’t just any woman but a Samaritan – the Jews looked on Samaritans as half-breeds and enemies. The Samaritans only accepted a portion of the Scriptures (the Law), they worshipped in a different temple at Mount Gerazim and they disputed the Jewish claims that it was through the Jews that salvation would come.
The conversation, though breaking conventions, seemed to start innocently enough with Jesus’ request for a drink of water. However, as soon as the woman showed a willingness to engage with Jesus, he began to lead her to an understanding of who it was that she was talking to. The reference Jesus made to living water was pertinent to where he was sitting. Jacob’s well is very deep and gives access to an underground stream. Moving flowing water, as opposed to stationary stored water, was called living water by the Jews. We can understand why the woman wondered how Jesus could possibly access such deep water in the well without any physical means of doing so.
Of course, what Jesus was really referring to was spiritual water. As he said, those drinking the water from Jacob’s well would need to come back to draw more as they would become thirsty again. Bodies need water every day to stay healthy, even Jesus’ body. The water of the Holy Spirit was there to supply the soul with a never ending spring so that it would never be thirsty again. At first the woman could only think on a physical level. If she had this water she would save many trips to the well. Her life would be easier. Jesus steered her away from her physical needs to her spiritual needs by pointing out her marital status. The woman quickly changed the subject to the matter of worship, how and where, but even this was used by Jesus to point her to the need for the Holy Spirit. Still the woman clung on to the certainties of her life – “I know that the Messiah will come and then we’ll be told the right information.”
With skill and patience Jesus led the woman to a place where he could tell her: “I am the Messiah.” She was now ready to consider that Jesus was more than just a prophet who knew more about her life than was comfortable for her. Without waiting to converse further, the woman ran off to the city to talk to her fellow citizens. Any reservations about meeting them seemed to be forgotten in the excitement of the question on her lips: “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” To their credit the people responded to her invitation to ‘Come and see’ and discovered for themselves that this travelling Jew was indeed the Saviour of the world.
I’m struck by two particular aspects of this story. The first is that Jesus spent so much time with this woman. He had only three years to teach his disciples and prepare them to continue his mission. Yet he took time to talk to an insignificant, possibly even disreputable, woman. He even stayed in the city for two days at the request of its citizens. It’s easy to focus on the big tasks, the strategies, 5 year plans, things that seem to have the potential to make a significant difference. If we are followers of Jesus perhaps we should be copying his method and spending time with individuals. I remember a friend of mine who is a priest saying that when he left a parish, the letters of thanks he received didn’t mention the big things he had done (and he had done a lot) but homed in on the seemingly insignificant items which he had almost forgotten: his conversation at the bus stop, his promise of prayer, his collection of some necessities from the supermarket for a sick parishioner. So often here in SL we have chance conversations with individuals. Perhaps we shouldn’t underestimate their impact even if they seem insignificant.
The other aspect I noticed was the speed with which the woman became a witness for the Gospel. She hadn’t got it all worked out in her head, she had no training, she had had the merest sip of the living water Jesus promised but she ran off to witness to her neighbours. Jesus said, ‘The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ And in John 7:37-38 Jesus promised that those who come to him and drink will find rivers of living water flowing out of their hearts. Not only do we receive the promise of eternal life but we are also promised that the Spirit of Jesus will flow out of our hearts to those around us giving them life.
The disciples just didn’t understand that they were observing people ready for the gospel, like fields ready for harvest. The woman at the well didn’t hesitate but let the joy of her encounter with Jesus flow out as she shared her news with others. Can we do less? Let’s share the gift of God that we’ve been given – the bubbling, gushing living water – with individuals or whole cities or a whole world here in SL, as God gives us the opportunity.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor