Standing at the Edge:
the Samaritan Woman at the well
This Sunday, the Gospel reading in the lectionary is the story often described simply as “Jesus and the Samaritan woman”. We find this story in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel, as it narrates an encounter that took place beside a well outside the Samaritan town of Sychar. As they meet, Jesus and the unnamed woman of that town speak of thirst, drinking, and living water.
I find myself getting increasingly annoyed at the standard view of this unnamed woman. Most of the accepted views of her originate with male biblical scholars. These views are usually moralistic, and border on misogyny.
I invite you to join me in the redemption of the Samaritan woman, and explore the story from different perspectives, engage with different assumptions, and I hope this will lead you to different conclusions. You will need to use your creative and imaginative abilities, and place yourselves back in time, in a very different location, amongst people of vastly different cultural customs.
I will make a couple of points about the text. Firstly, in a literaary sense, the woman is at the well at noon because John needs her to meet Jesus in broad daylight. This serves to directly contrast with Nicodemus, in the previous chapter, who comes to talk with Jesus at night. Between the stories, John has a lot to say about dark and light, so we can be sur that the story has a symbolic literary purpose.
Secondly, the translation in the NRSV in 4:18 is misleading. It says:
...for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.
This certainly gives the impression she is with her sixth sexual partner, and perhaps is a potential adulteress who is not properly married. This is the favoured way of viewing this verse, which then colours the rest of the interpretation of the whole passage. In fact, the Greek clearly includes a masculine participle, and could equally read:
...for you have had five husbands, and the man you have (or "regard" is a lesser known meaning of this verb, echo) is not your husband.
As woman in the ancient near Eastern world needed a man to protect and help her survive respectively, the man with her could have been a protector, a relative who looked out for her in the same way Boaz was meant to protect and help his female relatives in the book of Ruth.
I have retold this story in the form of a dialogue. In effect, this is an attempt to transport you back into biblical times, and offer you the opportunity to listen in to a conversation about living water and quenching thirst.
The conversation we will be listening to is not the conversation between Jesus and the woman beside the well of Sychar—although, as we shall find, it will figure in the discussion that takes place. Instead, we will find ourselves beside another well, a little outside of Jerusalem, at a time just a little later on from that most famous conversation. This well is a familiar stopping place for travellers making their way towards Jerusalem. The two travellers who will be conversing with one another today, are a Samaritan Christian woman, Erebekka, and a Jewish Christian man, Baruch. They have never met one another before; their meeting is quite by accident.
Baruch and Erebekka are somewhat different people: a Samaritan, from the north; and a Judean, from the south. What they do have in common, is that they each know the stories of the death and resurrection of Jeshua, the prophet from Nazareth, and they are travelling to Jerusalem in order to seek out fellow believers. She is with her family, but they are encamped a little way off. He is travelling alone.
So now, please imagine yourself watching this scene.
B: Ahem. Good day. Shalom to you. I see you have a bucket with you.
E: She ignores him.
B: Look, I know it isn’t etiquette for me to speak with you, after all you are a women and alone, but desperation makes me ask you for a loan of your bucket. I have no means myself of getting to the water and am desperately thirsty. Please help me.
E: She quotes: From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ The book of Exodus. Seems some things do not change. Look at you: Why are you so unprepared for your journey? Why do you venture forth into unknown country without the provision of water? Is this the Jewish way? Perhaps you expected a miracle, such as the one that happened to my people’s ancestor Jacob, at the famous well in our homeland. Perhaps you expect the water to gush to the top, as it did for him?
B: Ah, I see you must be a Samaritan.
E: Yes, I am – a woman of Samaria. So how is it that you, a Jew, ask me this favour? You are taking some liberties. And I have not forgotten how the Samaritans were treated by the Jews long ago. Your rulers, Ezra and Nehemiah, blamed the men of Israel who had married foreign women for their defeat by Babylon, and they demanded that all such men immediately divorce their wives. Rather than abandon their wives to be humiliated and exiled, our men of Samaria did the honourable thing and refused. For their pains, they got this kind of treatment, reported as the words of Nehemiah:
I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair (Nehemiah 13:25-30).
B: Well, I can understand how they felt!! Now, I don’t deny that hostility between Samaritans and Jews is rife. But you Samaritans are also happy to aggravate us Jews in a number of ways – what about when you scattered bones of dead people in the Temple precincts and so defiled the Temple? To say nothing of your long and wholesale rejection of Jerusalem and our priests, despite many prophecies that salvation will come from the Jews. You seem to thrive on this conflict! You forget that the prophets have foretold that salvation is from the Jews.
E: Can your remind me which prophet says that salvation is from the Jews?
B: Well, maybe not a prophet as such, but as good as one. You know, the evangelist Johannan, he believed this. Based on the book of Isaiah, I am told.
E: Isaiah was talking about gentiles, not Samaritans. While we may not share water buckets with each other as a general rule, we do share a history, and we do have the same Torah, that the Lord God gave to the great teacher, Moses. But I dispute the biblical interpretation that you offer. I am of the opinion that Johannan was more likely saying something about himself and his community hierarchy, rather than making prophetic statements sent from God.
B: I believe I am speaking the truth.E: Maybe you are – but you seem to forget that I am the one with the bucket, and you are the one with the thirst. Are you going to quarrel with me like the people of old did with Moses, in the hope this will produce water for you? No wonder we no longer share things in common with each other!
B: (backing down) You are right. I apologise. I will not quarrel with you. It is true I have come unprepared – as a matter of fact, I was rather disturbed and excited and not thinking straight when I left home. So please accept my apology. But having said that, I do want to return to the passage from the Torah which you cited; in fact, I want to dispute your biblical interpretation. Surely the passage you are referring to in Exodus is about lack of faith, not lack of preparedness. (He quotes:) Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?’
E: I confess I have often wondered about this passage. It stresses that the “people thirsted there for water”. They were hustled out of Egypt by God; told there was no time for preparations as such. They were thirsty. THIRSTY!! What are you doing now because you are thirsty in a dry land? You are begging for water. What would you have done back then if you needed to get water for your children to survive? Maybe the people were right to quarrel with Moses.
B: Hmmmmm, I see your point. Of course we all need water. And the Lord did supply the water the people asked for – though don’t you think that we must wonder – if they had not asked, would the water have ever appeared? Which brings me back to my original request of you. Please may I use your bucket?
E: I do not even know your name. Why should I do this for you, a Jew? You must realise that if I served you in this way, I would surely leave myself open for criticism and scorn.
B: I apologise. My name is Baruch. I am travelling to Jerusalem to meet up with some…um…friends. Yes…friends. Fellow travellers on the way, so to speak. I have had some startling news from them.
E: You speak of The Way. Do I understand you are perhaps referring to the one who was promised?
B: (hesitantly) Yes, I speak of Jeshua.
E: Ah, then this is all right. My dear Sir, my name is Erebekka, I am from Samaria, but my family and I are all followers of Jeshua. I am from a village that has become famous for its faith. And such a coincidence – here we meet at a well in the same fashion that one of our women met Jeshua at a well.
B: (reservedly) Yes, Erebekka; I have heard of this woman. And her, ah, questionable morals. A serial monogamist, I have heard. Living with someone not her husband, sneaking to the well at noon, such an odd time…you can see the problems, surely? I am not sure that I would put much trust in what she had to say about her encounter with Jeshua.
E: If Jeshua was happy to speak to her, then what is your problem? Who says she was morally deficient? Just put yourself in the place of us women. We live in a world where we have little, if any, say about what happens in our lives or what happens to our bodies. What if the poor woman was barren, and divorced as a result? What if the series of husbands that she had, came as a result of the death of her first husband? What if she was caught in a situation where her family passed her around from brother to brother, to find someone who would take her on and care for her? In other words, weren’t they just obeying the Levirate laws? Baruch, you place great value in these laws, don’t you? So surely you should be prepared to listen to the story that this woman told us? And you must know, also, that meetings at wells are common in our scriptures. Jacob meets Rebekah at the well of Haran, remember? and Moses and Zipporah meet at a well in Midian.
B: My point exactly. I've heard all the old stories about Jacob's well – everyone goes there to find someone to marry, right? So what is your woman really doing there? Was she planning on finding a man? Imagine how the villagers must have reacted to that one when she returned – “I’ve been at that well and met a MAN”. She was clearly some sort of outcast.
E: I would remind you that she came to the well to draw water, and it was Jeshua who approached her for a drink. There could be many reasons why she was at the well in the heat of the day, and not at the normal times for drawing water, when the temperature was cooler. Maybe it had nothing to do with being an outcast, but had everything to do with the fact she needed water. Remember what it is like to be thirsty? Maybe her child was sick. Maybe the goat knocked over the last bit of water she had. If Jeshua didn’t judge her, why should you?
Have you ever thought that perhaps she was at the well during the most miserable part of the day because she was avoiding the judgement of people like you? Maybe she was thirsting for something that plain water could not quench. And Jeshua knew this – and her. He did not judge her; he accepted her and entered into conversation with her. He did not preach at her; he invited a response from her.
B: So, you are claiming that the law of Levirate marriage was the reason why the woman had five husbands? I am thinking that this claim is a little extreme. Imagine being passed through five brothers like that! I believe she may have been divorced five times. Adultery is a logical reason to divorce the woman.
E: If adultery was the problem, then I doubt that four more men would have married her. The likelihood of no one knowing about the adultery in a small village like ours is really rather slim.
If she was divorced, I expect it is because she is barren. Her current non-husband is probably her protector. Women do not fare well in our society without some kind of male presence in their lives. There is absolutely nothing that is said about her that suggests she is a bad woman, other than the fact that she is living with a man who is not her husband. It might be her brother. Or a brother-in-law who has taken her in. There is nothing at any point in the story, as it has been told to me, to suggest she was an adulterer, or a prostitute, or of dubious moral qualities – and yet this is the reputation you would give her.
B: That she was not married to the man she lived with at the present, is quite enough to raise doubts about her. No doubt this is why Jeshua mentioned this piece of information.
E: Maybe this woman was there looking for something else, as well as water. Maybe she went to this well seeking for the wisdom of Moses, of our ancestor Jacob, of all the others who had found comfort at the well. She was looking for something more than water to fill her. And Jeshua knew this –he offered her something special.
B: I grant you that this meeting between Jeshua and the woman of Samaria is unusual. The request he makes is somewhat shocking, as he is a lone male addressing a woman in public. Men normally only speak to women in public like that if they were related by blood. No wonder she was suspicious of him, just like you were suspicious of me earlier on.
Now tell me – I have heard that Jeshua addressed her as “woman” – the same term that he used to refer to his mother (John 2:4). This is astonishing! He meets a woman who is probably an outsider, and he receives her as an insider, an intimate who has no cause for shame. I am also told he raised her past, and her present situation, but that he did not shame her. Is this true?
E: I have already pointed out to you perhaps she actually had nothing to be ashamed about. You men are so quick to judge!
Whatever her situation – and I do not concede she had anything to be ashamed of – Jeshua received our Samaritan woman in such a way that she was profoundly transformed. He offered her living water. After talking to Jeshua, she reaches out and asks for that living water from him. By the end of the conversation, she leaves her water jar behind and rushes to the village, proclaiming what she has heard. And we know that many believed in Jeshua because of her bold testimony. That doesn’t suggest an outcast, does it? It suggests a woman brimming over with spirit! It suggests a woman of truth, accepted by her peers.
B: Well, it is clear she was affected by Jeshua. Very affected. So much so, that she left behind her precious water jar and the water in it – water that she must surely have needed, seeing she had ventured forth at noon to get it.
E: You forget what Jeshua offered her: Living water. Living spirit. True life. Perhaps she came spiritually empty, and then was filled to overflowing in her encounter with Jeshua. She didn’t need the jar any more because she became the vessel herself for the good news, and it overflowed and spilled out to everyone around her. Perhaps if I changed profoundly because I had my deepest thirst quenched, I might have a story to share too. Imagine, then, how really thirsty for water and for life this woman must have been when she went to the well.
B: (enthusiastically, he has grasped what E is on about) Ah, now I see what you are saying! What transformed this woman could transform our world, and our two peoples. Think of it. The Samaritan woman at the well was despised by Judeans, whose ancestors had been humiliated by Babylonians. It is simply the perpetuation of hatred that runs from people to people, and from generation to generation. Yes, I can see that humiliation, resentment, and violence have been passed down by people who are keeping score, just so that they could try to get even. Jeshua, with his acceptance of others and his offer of living water, has set aside this style of score-keeping. He treats her as if she were forgiven, and so he makes forgiveness possible for everyone – even for self-righteous people like us.
E: Speak for yourself, Baruch. Although, I do confess that I hear something of the prophet in you now. It is Jeshua’s unconventional attitude and behaviour that appeals to me – an attitude that can heal these historical rifts and create community. When we are dealing with Jeshua, we should expect the unexpected. And I like the relationship with God that the story implies. Even though Jeshua offers the woman living water, he asks her first for a drink from the well. He asks her to give him something, even though he offers something much more valuable to her. It is all about give and take. I think God wants that kind of relationship from us humans.
B: Imagine – a whole town full of people who could do that – who could reach out to each other in love and acceptance. Who could, in spite of a centuries-old hatred between these two peoples, accept that they are all equally loved by God, and that their faith and worship could be shared and celebrated together. This is indeed a miracle. What is to stop it happening now?
And I can see that this story symbolizes so much. When we are thirsty, the natural thing to do is to ask for a drink. This simple human act of asking for a drink of water should not be a problem. Why is it that we all just cannot talk to one another and help one another? Why is it that race or gender or religion should determine how we treat each other?
E: Perhaps if we all allowed ourselves to be filled with the living water, we might all live life in the way that God intended. Like the Samaritan women, we all need to acknowledge that we come empty before God. We too can become the vessel for the good news, and spill it out to everyone around us. A living world needs living water. Where would we be without water? Where would we be without living water?
Now, about that drink for you……
As we return in our imagination to the twenty-first century, we focus on some issues for consideration today:
As water is essential to physical life, so Jesus, the living water, is essential to spiritual life. That much is obvious from the story of Jesus and the woman of Samaria, which is recounted in John’s Gospel. But there are other dimensions in this complex story for us to consider.
The Samaritan woman at the well is not just a passive recipient of what Jesus offers to her. She is aware of the potential barriers and boundaries created by her society, all of which make sure that she stays in her place: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (4:9). Yet this does not stop her challenging Jesus' authority and tradition: “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” (4:12).
At the start, the woman is uncomplimentary to Jesus; she uses the word “Jew” in a derogatory way. Her respect for Jesus increases as the encounter proceeds – she addresses him as “Sir” in verses 11, 15 and 19. By the end of the story, it is clear that the woman is quite dazzled by Jesus’ insight into her personal history; as she said to the people in her city, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” (4:29). The concept of “living water” becomes intertwined with what Jesus knows about her; she becomes a vessel of living water because of the relationship she has formed with Jesus, and his insight into her gives her insight into him.
Nevertheless, she is not at all certain that Jesus is the Messiah. When she asks the question, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (4:29), the way that the question is posed in the Greek text clearly leads us to expect a negative answer. However, she does not let this uncertainty stop her from leaving behind her water jar, going into the city, and inviting the people to their own encounter with Jesus: “Come and see this man”, she exclaims (4:29). As her enthusiasm spills out, she demonstrates what can happen when we actually engage in conversation and questions about our faith.
Later in this Gospel, Jesus is reported as speaking about this overflowing of enthusiasm as he quotes Hebrew scripture: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (7:38). This living water is not simply a gift which Jesus offers to us; it becomes our gift to others who are encountered along the way.
The woman at the well shows us that faith is about dialogue, about acceptance, about asking questions, and about growth. It is not about having all the answers, but about believing in the possibility of revelation. Faith is not contained within certainty, but is fostered by curiosity. It is not governed by stark absolutes, but is encountered in exploration and discovery.
The Samaritan woman at the well responds to Jesus in such a way that leads Jesus to reveal his true identity to her, and in doing so, her own identity evolves. She becomes aware of who she is – and she becomes different as a result of this. This then leads to change in others. She tells them, and they in turn learn, and grow. We learn from the Samaritan woman that when we encounter Jesus, when we accept the living water, not only are we changed, but that revelation has the capacity to change others as well.