The woman at the well

A sermon on John 4:1-42


his is a conversation that just never should have taken place. The lines that kept Jews from having anything to do with Samaritans were strong, rooted in well- established prejudices of race and religion. No matter that these peoples shared much in common—including religious texts and a good many practices—they were as divided as Catholics and Protestants of the Northern Ireland in the days before its current, still fragile, peace. It didn’t matter that they held many beliefs in common, or that both Jew and Samaritan thought of Jacob as being our ancestor; in fact, that might have heightened the animosity.

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And then there is the powerful social boundary that kept men from speaking with women in public spaces. For a man to do so was not only presumptuous on his part, it also stood as an insult to the woman’s husband. And so why would a Jewish man speak with a woman at all, much less a Samaritan woman? He must be questioning her morals, perhaps open to having his own tested. Any man who judged it worth his time to speak to a woman when no one else was around in all likelihood was fishing for something more than just a conversation.

Jesus and his companions are making their way back to Galilee from Judea, and en route pass through Samaritan territory. John tells us that Jesus is tired from the journey, and so sits beside the well that sits just outside of the main town. It is noon, which in that part of the world means it is hot, and so when a woman comes out from the town to draw water from the well John’s original audience would have recognized that something was up. Why had she not done what all of the other women in the town would have done, namely to head to the well in the cool of the morning? Did she have some reason for needing to avoid those other women?

It turns out that she does, and it has everything to do with her reputation with men. Married to five different men and currently living with a sixth, this woman would have been an easy target for gossip. You can just imagine the looks, the comments, and the insults were she to try to draw water earlier in the day. The noonday sun might be hot, but at least she doesn’t have to endure those women. Yes, on this particular day there is a stranger sitting at the well—a Jewish man no less—he’s no threat.

When Jesus speaks to her and asks her for a drink, she’s taken aback. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” she replies, to which John adds the comment, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” An understatement if there ever was one. How is that a Jewish man asks for water from a Samaritan woman? We’re not supposed to be speaking to each other, and even if I did draw water for you, according to your ritual law you’re not supposed to be sharing things like drinking vessels with me.

I think the very fact that she responds at all says something about this woman’s personality. Social convention would have dictated that she just remain silent, and trust that by ignoring this man he would leave her alone. That she does answer him—and she even answers with a question, as opposed to a simple statement—means that she is a boundary-crosser, quite prepared engage this man. Is she testing his boundaries, pushing to see if it is worth flirting with him? Or is she just so accustomed to standing her ground that she won’t back down from anyone?

Of course, she’s not the only seasoned boundary-crosser in this story, and if she is going to respond to Jesus with a question he is quite happy to dive right in, social and religious conventions be damned. They have this exchange about water and thirst, in which Jesus begins to speak metaphorically, saying “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.” Just as had been the case in his conversation with Nicodemus when Jesus spoke of being “born again,” at first the women seems to misread his imaginative language and take it literally—“Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” However, unlike Nicodemus she doesn’t just fall silent after just a bit of back-and-forth conversation. This woman will wrestle through the conversation right to its end, whatever that end might be. Even at the point that she realizes that this man somehow knows all about her, she neither backs out of the conversation nor falls into silent shame.

I love how the writer Ivan Kauffman pictures this in his poetic retelling of the narrative:

The longer we talked the more I could see
He know more about me than I did,
That he liked me even if he knew who I was.

I had thought there were things that could never be told:
The secrets of the bed and the heart
We take to the grave unsaid.

But with him
There wasn’t anything you needed to be ashamed of,
So long as you told the truth.

(Ivan Kauffman, “The Samaritan Woman,” He Was Here, Brazos, 2000)

The thing that does finally interrupt their conversation is the return of the disciples, but by this time she’s bursting to run into town and tell people that they need to come out and see this man at the well. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

I love the fact that in spite of the fact that she’s probably been the object of scorn and the subject of gossip, she’s eager to share word of Jesus’ presence. In spite of all that she has done with her life, her great hope remains in the coming of Messiah—can this be him?—which really means that she is daring to hope for something greater than the smallness and brokenness of her own life.

And why did the people in town listen to her, and come out to see what she was talking about? Maybe because for the first time in memory, they saw light and life in her eyes. Maybe it was because she could speak about this man having told her everything she had ever done, yet rather than be bowed over in shame she seemed so very alive and unburdened. Maybe they saw that, and in a moment recognized that they wanted it too.

That’s when I ran back to town, telling everybody, Ivan Kauffman’s poem continues,

“You don’t need to be afraid anymore!”

And everybody came out, like it was a wedding.
We kept him with us for three days,
And after that we quit telling lies.

Give us this water, and we’ll thirst no more.


Jamie Howison

One Response to The woman at the well

  1. Jaylene says:

    I love that you addressed this bit of scripture. It’s resonated with me in many different ways every time I’ve encountered it this past year, which has been surprisingly often.

    My latest musing on it included a question you touched on: was she “coming on” to Him?

    I also wonder about her personality. Maybe her question: could He be the Messiah wasn’t so much a daring to hope as it was a “Hey, check this out!” from a social networking-type…A sanguine and charismatic free-spirit…Maybe her trip to the well was more about an independent spirit than anything else.

    She strikes me as the bold and independent type…The kind of woman who lived outside of convention, and clearly had to given her social and religious surroundings…She ran back to her village after her encounter. She was loud about her experience with Him. I’m not so sure she felt any shame when she told Him she had no husband. I think she may have been angling to engage this man, with whom she was alone (?) a little bit more…Hmmm. Very interesting.

    Maybe, maybe, maybe…I just find this story quite fascinating. And His response to her is all about keeping it real…He turns her statement re: having no husband right back on her in agreement…No judgment, but a “Hey, be real with me”. He tells her there’s coming a time when He’ll be worshiped in Spirit and truth…Maybe He sensed she was attracted to Him, worshiping Him the same way I saw a slew of young women worshiping Drake an industry party the other night (ugh)

    I realize it’s bizarre that I’m going on about this, especially when it’s simply speculation…But I’ve been struck by this story. It’s made the bible come alive to me in a new way of late, and be truly real-world. I’ve always known that, but haven’t known that, if you know what I mean. (Now THAT is a sentence worth rewriting, but I’m keeping it in for fun)

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