A reading from the Gospel of John, 4:3-42: Jesus left Judea and started for Galilee again. John tells us that Jesus ‘had’ to go through Samaria on His way from Jerusalem to Galilee. [John 4:4] But He really didn’t. Most Jews would have crossed the Jordan River and passed Samaria on the other side. No, Jesus didn’t have to travel through Samaria, but, as some translations put it … it was ‘necessary’ for Him to do so. But why would Jews even consider avoiding Samaria? About 800 years earlier, during the time of the Assyrian captivity, many of the leaders, artisans and other skilled labor were taken from the Northern Kingdom into exile in Babylonia. At the same time, many of the Assyrian people moved in to take their places. What was once part of the Northern Kingdom of Israel became known as Samaria, its inhabitants known as Samaritans – a people of mixed race, mixed culture and mixed religions. Those who remained Jewish, the majority of the nation as I understand, looked to the Pentateuch as their scriptures – that is, the first five books of the Jewish Scriptures (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) – not accepting the later writings nor the prophets as did the Jews. They also worshiped on Mt. Gerizim, not Jerusalem.
Anyway, Jesus was hot and tired and sat down at Jacob’s Well for a drink and to rest. “It was noon, and … a Samaritan woman came to draw water from the well.” [John 4:6] This was near the field that Jacob had long ago given to his son Joseph. The well that Jacob had dug was still there, and Jesus sat down beside it because he was tired from traveling.
“Jesus asked her, “Would you please give me a drink of water?” “You are a Jew,” she replied, “and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink of water when Jews and Samaritans won’t have anything to do with each other?” Jesus answered, “You don’t know what God wants to give you, and you don’t know who is asking you for a drink. If you did, you would ask me for the water that gives life.” “Sir,” the woman said, “you don’t even have a bucket, and the well is deep. Where are you going to get this life-giving water? Our ancestor Jacob dug this well for us, and his family and animals got water from it. Are you greater than Jacob?” Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again. But no one who drinks the water I give will ever be thirsty again. The water I give is like a flowing fountain that gives eternal life.” The woman replied, “Sir, please give me a drink of that water! Then I won’t get thirsty and have to come to this well again.” Jesus told her, “Go and bring your husband.” The woman answered, “I don’t have a husband.” “That’s right,” Jesus replied, “you’re telling the truth. You don’t have a husband. You have already been married five times, and the man you are now living with isn’t your husband.” [John 4:6-18]
While researching this scripture I ran across a reference to a sermon by the Conservative Evangelical preacher John Piper. He describes this woman as “a worldly, sensually-minded, unspiritual harlot from Samaria.” Later, he just calls her a “whore.” Unfortunately, his view of this woman is not uncommon. This unnamed woman from Samaria has not been treated at all well by the Christian church. But John doesn’t lead us there. Neither does Jesus. Just look at what John wrote: Jesus at no point speaks of any sin on the part of this woman. There is nothing to be forgiven. Historically, the woman could tragically have been widowed or abandoned or divorced. Women in those days had little to no power or authority. Women couldn’t leave an abusive husband and they couldn’t divorce their husband no matter the reason. If she was unable to bear children (especially a male child), or if she dropped a casserole at a dinner party, thus embarrassing her husband, that was grounds for divorce. If she was childless and widowed she could, through Levirate marriage, be married to her deceased husband’s brother so she could produce a son to insure his future lineage. This woman’s story is tragic, not scandalous. This treatment of this woman was as misogynistic then as it is today – when we still see women stripped of their dignity and worth because of gender. Genesis is clear that men and women were created from the same dust; that men and women were created as partners within creation. But still there is a long, unfortunate history of misogyny and chauvinism within Christianity which is all the stranger as we see the role that women play in the gospels. Women, scripture tell us, supported Jesus’ ministry; women were present at the tomb when their male counterparts fled; women were the first witnesses to the resurrection; and, in this story shared by John, we will see that this woman was the first evangelist for Jesus.
Jesus told her, “Go and bring your husband.” The woman answered, “I don’t have a husband.” “That’s right,” Jesus replied, “you’re telling the truth. You don’t have a husband. You have already been married five times, and the man you are now living with isn’t your husband.”
I can see her now looking deep into Jesus’ brown eyes. Is Jesus judging her? Is Jesus showing disapproval or judgment? I can only believe that this woman saw understanding. Immediately after Jesus describes her past, she says, “I see that you are a prophet”. [John 4:19] In John, to ‘see’ is to understand, or to believe. What this woman ‘sees’ in Jesus’ eyes is that Jesus sees her, He sees deep into her and understands her pain and her loneliness. To Jesus, she has worth, and value, and dignity beyond the limits of her culture. She no longer has to be a victim of the system she lives under, but can now be part of a new community, a new Realm. When Jesus speaks of her past both knowingly and compassionately, she realizes she is in the presence of a prophet – a person of God.
“The woman said, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet. My ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews say Jerusalem is the only place to worship.” Jesus said to her: Believe me, the time is coming when you won’t worship the Father either on this mountain or in Jerusalem. You Samaritans don’t really know the one you worship. But we Jews do know the God we worship, and by using us, God will save the world. But a time is coming, and it is already here! Even now the true worshipers are being led by the Spirit to worship the Father according to the truth. These are the ones the Father is seeking to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship God must be led by the Spirit to worship him according to the truth. The woman said, “I know that the Messiah will come. He is the one we call Christ. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” “I am that one,” Jesus told her, “and I am speaking to you now.” [John 4:19-26]
Jesus ignores cultural, social and religious prejudices and restrictions and entrusts Himself and His Word to this woman – a woman who is a foreigner, a woman who by the norms of her culture has no standing, no dignity of her own, a woman who even worships on a different mountain, in a different way. It is to this woman and not to Nicodemus, a leader and teacher of Israel who came to Jesus at night, that Jesus reveals His true identity, His divine nature. It is to this woman, who comes to Jesus in the bright light of the day that Jesus first speaks of His identity: “I Am”… “I Am” the one who will come, and has come. “I Am” is speaking to you now.
John tells us that … “The woman left her water jar and ran back into town. Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! Could he be the Messiah?” After hearing the woman’s testimony: “... everyone in town went out to see Jesus.” [John 4:28-30] Come and see who I’ve seen; come and see One who sees me as I am; who accepts me as I am; who accepts me and my burdens. “Could He be the Messiah?” What do you think? Can He be the One we’ve been waiting for, been longing for, been hoping for? Come and see for yourselves.
“A lot of Samaritans in that town put their faith in Jesus because the woman had said, “This man told me everything I have ever done.” They came and asked him to stay in their town, and he stayed on for two days. Many more Samaritans put their faith in Jesus because of what they heard him say. They told the woman, “We no longer have faith in Jesus just because of what you told us. We have heard him ourselves, and we are certain that he is the Savior of the world!” [John 4:39-42]
John is telling us a story of the transforming power of love, of welcome, of acceptance. John is telling us a story about the capacity to receive and to live into a new identity, a new life, a new being. Jesus gave this woman a drink of refreshing water, satisfying water, that will continue to bubble up and flow through her and give her life.
Could John be telling us a story about how God sees us with all our hesitations and uncertainties? “Could He be the Messiah?” – what do you think? What do you feel?