There is so very much richness for us in the familiar story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. In fact, there is just plain so much happening in this lengthy account that it is easy to get distracted before one comes to the larger point or final conclusion of the story. I, for one, am considering breaking this story up into smaller narrative pieces this Sunday… reading a portion and reflecting on it and then reading the next one and reflecting on that one and so on before concluding with a brief homily which wonders at its meaning for us now. I offer now some of what comes to mind as I make my way through this well told story.
First, this: Certainly part of what makes this story interesting from beginning to end is the layers of misunderstanding, and to be truthful, one can’t blame the Samaritan woman or Jesus’ disciples for not ‘getting it’ the first time through both as Jesus talks about ‘ living water’ and then ‘food to eat.’ One could not have really blamed either the woman or the disciples if they had walked away shaking their heads. Sometimes I am right with them in their confusion, which is perhaps another argument for taking this story piece by piece.
In this first section the story is set up. The first hearers story would probably have been able to picture just where it was that Jesus met the woman. More than that, there is this:
In her lectures on the Old Testament for Great Courses, Dr. Amy Jill Levine helped me hear this story in a new way — perhaps in a way those first hearers would have heard it. She makes the case that the story is of a ‘type’ — in that as soon as you hear the introduction you would anticipate what is coming next. Indeed, throughout the Hebrew scriptures it seems that when a man meets a woman at a well a marriage proposal is likely at hand. For instance, think of Jacob and Rachel. (Genesis 29)
And then consider this. When something is amiss in the ‘type story’ that means something. One remembers, for example, that Isaac did not travel to find his bride. Rather a servant was sent in his stead to find Rebekah and bring her home to him. (Genesis 24) And so one wonders what’s up with that?
Or this. Saul met a number of women at a well — and was more interested in finding some lost donkeys than he was in them. (1 Samuel 9) And again, what’s up with that and what does that tell us about Saul?
It is into this shared expectation of what happens when a man meets a woman at a well that Jesus enters the scene now. When they hear that Jesus met this woman at a well, listeners may well have wondered if there was a marriage proposal in the offing. OR they may have been prepared to have their ears open for what will be amiss in the story.
And of course, there is this: Jesus is in conversation with a woman, which was highly unlikely in his time. And this: He was in extended conversation with a Samaritan woman — one considered an enemy of the Jews.
Perhaps it is only of side interest to note that while Jews and Samaritans were separated from one another in many ways, they are also closely related. In fact, some would say they are more alike than not, except this important detail about where they should worship.
- Again, maybe not that interesting, unless one hears this as a call to consider how much more alike than different we are from our enemies? And maybe that is at least part of the point of the story?
And finally, this: the misunderstanding in this section centers on water. Water. Water which is essential to human life. One does not have to search far in the news these days to find examples of controversy over water:
- Think the Dakota Access Pipeline.
- Or the Flint, Michigan water crisis.
- Or the critical need for sources of clean water all over the world.
It is surely fitting that Jesus speaks of himself as the source of water that eternally quenches thirst, for that is precisely the gift of God for us. Only not in the way we first hear it. It is worth our time to wonder here what it means that Jesus quenches thirst.
- Indeed, how would you describe the sort of thirst that Jesus quenches?
- And how central is this water to our very existence in the same way that ordinary water is?
Back to the observation that people would have been expecting a particular outcome when they heard that Jesus met a woman at a well. Could it be that she expected it as well? Might we hear her response, “I have no husband,” as flirtatious or coy? And yet even that would not justify the fact that at one point or another we have all heard this woman referred to as evil or at least morally lax in some profound way. For, in fact, the story does not tell us that. Even with the certainty that she had, in fact, apparently had five husbands — it is possible, of course, that all of her husbands had died. It is also possible that one or more than one of them divorced her, and if that was the case, she would have had no say in the matter for she would have had no legal status in the time of Jesus. Either way, Jesus is making no moral judgment here. He is simply using this point of reference to convince her that he is more than she thinks he is.
And this is worth noting, as well: In the end, perhaps too much has been made of the fact that we hear she traveled to the well alone at about noon. While it is so that given the fact that typically women traveled to get water in groups and not in the heat of the day, one wonders if she was, in fact, ostracized, from the rest and why… Could it be, instead, that she hadn’t planned ahead and simply ran short of water, resulting in her oddly timed journey alone to the well?
Again, it seems important that Jesus engages in a lengthy theological conversation with a Samaritan woman. It is no wonder the disciples were ‘astonished’ to return to this. And yet, in the end it is not the theological conversation which is the basis of the woman’s witness. Indeed, when she gets back to the city her witness is not polished. One does not even get the sense that she completely believes her own words herself, but that doesn’t stop her from putting it out there. This certainly is testament to the truth that our witness does not have to be complete or powerful nor does it have to be something we necessarily whole-heartedly believe ourselves for God to use it. And isn’t that a source of comfort?
But here is another reason why I’m not certain the woman was necessarily ostracized from the rest of her community. When she returned to her city with her invitation to “come and see,” they did. In fact, their seemingly instantaneous response brought to mind an example offered by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point. There he offers his theory about the Law of the Few. In particular, he uses the example of Paul Revere’s midnight ride. If all one knows of Paul Revere is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s telling of that night in his poem, Paul Revere’s Ride, one may not know that Paul Revere was very well connected. Simply put, people responded to him because they knew him and trusted him.
- Could this have been the same with this woman? In fact, having been married five times, she was likely at least tangentially related to a whole lot of people, it seems to me. And perhaps she was, in fact, held in high regard by members of her community!
These verses seem to serve as a kind of prophetic space holder. The disciples have returned. They are astonished at what they see. They start wondering about what Jesus has had to eat. And Jesus starts talking about the harvest. A harvest they are about to witness.
Finally, the story ends with a whole lot of Samaritans showing up, professing belief because of the woman’s testimony. It continues with them urging Jesus to stay with them a while. And it ends with them believing that Jesus is ‘truly the Savior of the World.’
Once one wades through the details, it does appear that there is one larger point to this story and that is this:
You and I are called to bear witness and we are called to do so even or especially among those who are different from us, with whom we disagree, yes, even among those with whom we have been enemies. As for how one does that, I can’t help but wonder if there is a clue for us in this last section where we hear that Jesus ‘stayed there two days.’ Jesus made himself vulnerable by agreeing to be their guest and in the resulting deepening of relationship, they were able to receive for themselves this marvelous gift of faith.
I wonder what it would look like in our communities if we could find ways to allow ourselves to be ‘guests’ of those to whom we are called to share this Good News? Especially those who are different from us? I wonder what we would learn about them or about us or about them and us together if we did so? And I wonder how it would shape the telling and the hearing of the gift we have to offer?
The folks at Church Innovations have already done some thinking about this. Check out their workshop on Hospitality here. We tried this on in our community a few months ago by allowing ourselves to be guests at the local Islamic Center. Our next stop will be as guests at an African American congregation in DeKalb. Our witness all starts with relationship, it seems to me: the sort of open, vulnerable, trusting relationship which Jesus forged with the woman at the well so long ago.
Of course there are other powerful ways to enter the story this week. Above, I have done so from the perspective of the disciples. One could also do well to wonder at when and where and how we have been more like the Samaritan woman or her community. One might well remember our own experiences of being the outsider or the enemy and to recall what it has been for Jesus to engage us in this way.
I’m not sure yet which way I will go in sharing this story in the days to come. And so I wonder now:
- How are you thinking about it?
- What details of this story capture you this time through?
- Where are you being called to land in this story this week?
I always appreciate your reflections. I especially like the idea of reading and commenting on the different sections.
ISTM that the engaging with other traditions parallels Jesus’ engagement with the Samaritans in that there is a history of each refusing to validate the other. That leaves scars and wounds – suspicion and mistrust. John’s text doesn’t have either giving in to the other, but Jesus shifting the ground from ‘here or there’ to ‘spirit and truth.’ There are basic realities about life that happen within each tradition (fear or trust, boundaries or centers as important) that cross those lines and open a way to see all our traditions as our inventions in the light of experiences that have broken in on us…
As always, thank you Bill, for your insightful comment. This is beautifully said.
Thank you for sharing your insights. I was searching for commentary on this scripture following the recent events in Charlottesville that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer. The “supremacists” kept saying they are doing God’s work. I was shocked at the “scholarly” references that left out key points of Jesus reaching out to the hated “neighbors” (Matt 22: 36-40) and emphasized his “rejections” of her community.
Maybe for my own marginalized state as autistic, I tend to believe this Samaritan was marginalized by her community. Even as a sinner, Jesus comes to me. Choosing the least of us is a thread throughout Jesus mission, used to highlight the sin of spiritual arrogance: Blessed are those poor in Spirit.
Taking the perspective of this Samaritan as a ostracized member of her community emphasizes the power of her passion in uniting community even in her own ignorance to what it all really meant. Igniting their curiosity to go to the source.
This means that there is none of us who cannot be a testament to God’s love for all of us.
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