Friday, March 20, 2020

The Samaritan Woman

The Samaritan Woman
Read John 4:1-45
We are the woman at the Well

Most people who know the story of the Woman at the Well have some pretty set opinions on the history and character of the Samaritan woman with whom Jesus strikes up a conversation. Some of those opinions we may have formulated ourselves, and others may have been passed down through sermons or songs or Sunday school lessons. But the truth is we know very little about her. We know she is a woman, a Samaritan, a person who has been married 5 times and she lives with a man who isn’t her husband. We also know that, at least on this particular day, she came to the well at a time when it was likely that no one else would be around.

That’s not a lot to go on, but somehow we manage to create an entire history and character type for the woman. Through most of my life I have had, and the church has taught, a picture of a woman of questionable character and loose morals who had relationship issues.

I know, it is not unreasonable to make those assumptions. After all, 5 marriages are a lot in our culture today; in 1st century Palestine it was an inconceivable number. But just because an assumption is not unreasonable doesn’t mean it is true nor proper.

Women could not initiate divorce in that culture, so she couldn’t divorce anyone. The husband is the only one who could initiate divorce. That doesn’t automatically mean that she was completely innocent, but it does give a moment’s pause. If she was continually discarded because of infidelity, it seems likely that in a village as small as Sychar the word would get out after just a couple of marriages.

The Samaritans revered the Torah like the Jews did. Barrenness is one of the few reasons the Torah allows for a man to divorce his wife for. Children, particularly sons, were considered a sign of God’s favor. When I think of Sarah and Rachel giving their handmaidens to their husbands just so they could bear him sons, it is not unreasonable for me to think that a husband might set aside a wife by divorce because she was barren. Again, you would think that if that was the case, word would get out pretty quickly in a small village, but still….

Life was hard in 1st century Palestine, and the life expectancy, especially for a man, was not particularly high. Being children of the Torah, the Samaritans would have observed the Leverate Law (where a man is obliged to marry his brother’s widow). It is not unreasonable to think that she might lost a husband and gone through a brother or two somewhere in those 5 marriages.

And, we don’t even know the woman’s age. Most pictures of the encounter Portray Jesus talking to a young attractive woman, but she may well have been an older woman. You would think it might take some time to work through 5 marriages. It is not unreasonable to think that she might just have outlived a husband or two.

Even Jesus’ statement that the man she lived with was not her husband does not necessarily have to carry the baggage we tend to assign to it. It was shameful for the head of a family to have even a member of the extended family be uncared for—particularly a widow. While the wording used does imply some kind of relational possession (“the man you have is not your husband”) it is not unreasonable to think that she might have lived in the home of a brother, or brother-in-law, or a cousin.

I’m not arguing for any of these. I just am trying to show that there are a number of scenarios or combinations of scenarios that could explain how the woman’s life took the route it took, and none of them are less reasonable that the assumptions the church has made for years.

But that is not even the point I want us to see.

What I want us to notice in this story is that none of this mattered to Jesus. I don’t mean to imply that Jesus didn’t care about the condition of the woman’s life. What I’m saying is that Jesus understood that the woman was where she was, and that where she was at that moment was more crucial than how she got where she was.

Did I lose you? Let me try and explain.

I’m going to put you in a couple hypothetical situations and let’s compare your responses to them:

#1—You’re sitting in a coffee shop with a gentleman (I know that may be hard to imagine in the present quaratine conditions) and he is telling you his story.

He says, “I lost my wife. She had an affair and left me for the other guy.”

What is your gut response to that? What are your feelings toward the man? What would you say to him?

#2-- You’re sitting in a coffee shop with a gentleman (I know that may be hard to imagine in the present quaratine conditions) and he is telling you his story.

He says, “I lost my wife. I was a drunk and a partier. She begged me to stop. Finally she couldn’t take it anymore and left. Now She’s found someone else.”

What is your gut response to that? What are your feelings toward the man? What would you say to him?

Were your responses any different from each other? How? Why do you think they were different?

If you’re like most of us, you might find it hard to be as compassionate toward a person who is suffering because of his/her own choices, own foolishness, or own selfishness. That may just be human nature. We may honestly hurt for the man who’s wife was unfaithful, but for the man who drank his marriage away it is awfully easy to think, “Well, I feel bad for him, but he brought it on himself.”

But I think Jesus would respond the same to both of them because he would understand that at the present moment the first sentence (I lost my wife) is where they are. It means they are both men who had lost someone they dearly loved. Nothing they can choose or do will change that. They can make changes in their life, make better choices, clean up their acts, repent and apologize until they’re hoarse, but it won’t change what happen to get them to this point. Both men are suffering in the same place.

The Samaritan woman had been married 5 times and lived with a man who wasn’t her husband. That’s where she was. Whether or not it was her fault didn’t alter that. No matter how much effort she put in now in making better choices, going to Husbands Anonymous meetings, participating in support groups or committing to New Years Eve resolutions, she could never undo the events and choices that got her there. She was where she was, and she probably wasn’t particularly confident about what might come next, and that’s exactly where Jesus met her.

We don’t know more about her life because John doesn’t say anything else about her. I think John didn’t say anything else about her because he didn’t know anything else about her or the conversation. Remember, the disciples weren’t there during this exchange. They only knew what Jesus must have told them later. I think John didn’t know anymore about her history because Jesus didn’t tell him any more about her history, and I think Jesus didn’t tell his disciples any more about her life because that wasn’t the point.

Conventional wisdom has interpreted Jesus’ statement to the woman, “Go get your husband and bring him back” as Jesus’ way of pulling the woman’s covers. If this scene, as I previously understood it, was in a movie, you would see Jesus, somewhat out of the blue, make this request, “go get your husband….” The background music would dramatically go “dun, dun dun.” The woman, caught off guard would steal a panicked look at Jesus and then stutter, “I don’t have a husband,” to try and throw him off the scent. But instead, she falls right into Jesus’ trap.

Actually, that’s not what happens at all. Jesus’ request that she go get her husband fit right into the conversation. Jesus had offered to give her a gift, living water. She agreed. The custom of the day didn’t allow a man to give a woman outside of his family a gift. He would give it to the husband who would share it with the wife if he chose. The request may have caught her off guard in the sense that Jesus was suddenly taking seriously a conversation she might have thought was merely banter, but it definitely was not a request that came out of the blue.

It was his next statement that sent her into the Twilight Zone.

“I don’t have a husband.”
“That’s true, You’ve had 5. And the man you have now is not your husband.”

Now Jesus had her attention.

The traditional interpretation of the story would now say something like, “Jesus was gently laying her sins before her.” I don’t think that was Jesus’ motive at all. I think that when Jesus revealed this knowledge of her life, he was saying to her, “I see you. I know where you are. I understand how uncertain your life is right now.”
We’re all like her. We’re at a certain place in our lives and as much as we may want to, we can’t go back and change the circumstances and choices that got us here. Some of us may not want to change those circumstances and choices, others of us might be desparate to.

We live in the days of the coronavirus. How we got here is of little importance because that is done. But it is easy to focus on that. I’m teaching an online class that started on Monday. I had each student write a post to introduce themselves and tell the rest of us something about their lives. One student told us that he works in security for a big high-end restaurant in Portland. I guess when a restaurant goes to take-out only, they don’t feel as much of a need for security. He wrote, “You can’t believe how hard this has hit us. If I had gone to college right out of high school instead of messing around I wouldn’t be in this mess.” He is where he is, and as much as he may want to he can’t change the circumstances that got him there. We have to start where we are. Jesus understood that with the Samaritan woman; Jesus understands that with us.

Some of us may have been laid off of jobs. To some of us the virus may present more at risk because of our age or health issues, some of us may actually have  a few extra rolls of toilet paper in the bathroom cabinet. But none of us are very sure about what might come next.

I’ve seen Christian articles and blogs that say the virus is God’s punishment for humanity’s sin. Others have said that the coronavirus is God winding up for his end-time knock out punch.

I don’t believe that. I think Jesus is present, saying, “I see you. I know where you are. I understand how uncertain your life is right now.”

It's the Water

During their encounter Jesus and the woman have a cryptic conversation about water. It appears to me that she takes it as banter while Jesus means exactly what he says. At our church staff meetings we occasionally use this saying: “God was doing something up here (the speaker twirls her/his hand above his/her head) while we were looking down here (speaker twirls her/his hand about waist high). I think that is what was happening here. Jesus is talking up here, while she is listening down here.
The Samaritan woman comes to the well to draw water.

Jesus surprises the woman by asking her for a drink.

She quickly reminds him that she is a Samaritan woman and he is a Jewish man. That was a problem because adult men did not speak to women who were not family members. If a man needed to communicate with a woman who was not in his family he would talk to her husband if she was married, or to her father or brother if she was not.
Jews also limited their contact with Samaritans. The NIV here says, “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans,” but the literal translation is “Jews do not use dishes Samaritans have used.” She was likely pointing out that Jews considered Samaritans unclean so even if she wanted to give Jesus water he wasn’t allowed to drink out of her bucket.

It's at this point where Jesus suggests to her that she should be asking him for “living water.” Living water would not have been a new or unknown term for her. That was the term they would have used to refer to running water or moving water such as rivers or streams or even a rainstorm. Moving water, as it rolls over stones and gravel, is self-cleaning, and self-renewing. Water that sits in a stagnant, stationary place doesn’t have that ability.

Every morning I try to get into Newberg at least an hour before the office opens and walk the neighborhoods. This morning (Thursday) I parked at the office and walked down to the Willamette River at Roger’s Landing. I took this picture:

I noticed that the River wasn’t much different than it was the last time I was down there. It was sunny, and the last time I was down there it was raining and there were little dimples on the surface of the water, but the river itself was still flowing bringing life to everything around it. It’s life giving, living water.

I know all the stuff about the Willamette being poluted so I’ll use another image. When you are hiking or backpacking, and you need to fill up your waterbottle (filtered bottle of course) wisdom says that it is best to find moving water (living water) such as a stream or creek, rather than use still water such as a lake or pond because it will likely be cleaner.

Water makes up about 60% of our bodies. When we take a drink, the water doesn’t just lubricate our tongues and hydrate our mouths, although that is what we feel. It travels throughout our bodies giving life to every part of us.

Let’s take Jesus’ metaphor even further. While our bodies as a whole are about 60% water, our brains and our heart are about 73% water. So water is the biggest ingredient in the parts of our bodies that give us life and allow us to process the world around us. So the water we take in becomes the very thing that keeps us alive and through which we understand the world. What would you choose to supply your life-giver and world-filter, living water or stagnant water?

Jesus didn’t come to the Samaritan woman and offer to erase 5 marriages and whatever other harsh and unwelcome experiences she might have had. Instead, he offered her a new way to be a woman who had lived through 5 marriages and all those other experiences—a way to let those experiences make her stronger and wiser and more Christlike rather than just being an excuse to let herself and others stereotype her as a certain kind of woman.

We all know that one of the best things we can do for our bodies is to keep them hydrated, particulary in times of anxiety and stress. That defines our world right now. 

We can be used by Jesus to show the world a different way to be if we keep taking in that living water. I think that is what Jesus means when he says, “abide in me….”

The Change

Not only did Jesus offer the woman living water, he also chose her to be the first person to whom he would reveal himself as Messiah. In the previous chapter he sat with  a Jewish teacher who was obviously also a seeker. But Jesus chose not to reveal himself to Nicodemus. Instead he chose a woman who was from a people that jews considered unclean, who had been through 5 marriages and lived with a man who wasn’t her husband. That might be important to remember next time we’re contemplating how Jesus might feel toward people who act differently than us or think differently than us.

Because of the encounter the woman was changed.

When the story opens, the woman is coming to the well to draw water at a time when it was most likely that she could avoid other people. After her encounter with Jesus she leaves her waterpot, runs into the marketplace in the city and begins tell even the men what had happened to her. She wasn’t hiding anymore. Because of her the whole town comes to hear Jesus, and he and his disciples end up staying with them for 2 days. It’s important to note that in the Bible whenever a man or woman meet by a well a wedding ensues. That’s what we see here—a whole new people becoming the bride of Christ.

But the woman was not the only one who was changed by the encounter. Jesus was changed.

When the story opens he was sitting by the well and he was weary. Maybe he was avoiding people a little bit, too. Jesus, who usually drew crowds and engaged crowds, sent his disciples into town, without him, to get food. Maybe he was hoping for a little alone time here by the well in the heat of the day.

But by the time the disciples get back from town Jesus was pumped. They offered him food, but he wasn’t hungry any more. His spirit had been fed. He had come so we might have life and have it abundantly, and someone actually got it. A woman, an outcast, a person with at least a questionable past and hopeless present had gotten it. This is what he had come for and it happened. He didn’t need anything else.

If Jesus was this happy over one woman jumping all-in on his offer of living water, just imagine how he might feel if all of his children would live like we’re fueled with living water.


  1. Bruce,
    Thank you for your insight on the story of the Samaritan woman. I had not thought about the “living water” being like that of when you get water out of running streams. Curtis always reminds us about getting moving water (with a filter) when we go backpacking.
    I also do not usually think about judging the Samaritan woman when I read about her life situation. I mostly think about how she had probably been ostracized in some way by the other women and that is why she was not coming to get water in the morning like (I have understood) the other women.
    A few years ago I did a study on comparing how Jesus ministered to other people and how his ministry fit with the 5 Love Languages that Gary Chapman writes about. I found it interesting to think about the fact that Jesus did not touch her. I believe that she had probably experienced some negative effects from being touched by a man and Jesus knew that information and was sensitive and respectful to her situation. He did ask her to do an “Act of Service” for him and this act brought on the deeper conversation that ensued.
    I also noticed that she was pretty knowledgeable about her religion. My understanding was that women were not able to go to “school” like the men were so it is interesting that she could carry on a pretty deep conversation about the water and the differences between Samaritans and Jews and about the significance of the well.
    Jesus offers the living water and talks to her about going to get her husband, gives her a positive response when she tells him the truth about her situation, and then says that he knows her situation in more depth. Jesus did not stop at this point to wait for her to go get her “husband” but continued to share who he was.
    I would love to know what all she said to the people and in what way she said it that motivated them all to decide to come see and listen to Jesus! I would say that she was the first missionary and she was a woman!
    Deb Climer

  2. Thank you, Bruce, for putting your thoughts out so we could read and respond. I really appreciate the work you put into giving us words that make us think more deeply. being able to hear your words, and those of others, has allowed me to feel connected. I was especially blessed by the words you interpreted Jesus saying, “I see you. I know where you are. I understand how uncertain your life is right now.” As you said, these are words for each of us right here, right now. I’m going to try to remember these words as I encounter the many people around me who are feeling anxious about these uncertain times.