THE SAMARITAN WOMAN AT THE WELL: A DISCIPLE OF AND AN EVANGELIST FOR CHRIST | Lenten Devotional, 3/2/21
THE SAMARITAN WOMAN AT THE WELL:
A DISCIPLE OF AND AN EVANGELIST FOR CHRIST
Read and pray through John 4:1 – 42.
Introduction | We are walking together through the Church season of Lent. Lent, which means “springtime or renewal,” began to be observed by the Body of Christ sometime during the 4th century. Lent spans forty days (not counting Sundays) modeled after Jesus’ time fasting in the wilderness before beginning his earthly ministry. Lent is a sacred time of remembrance, renewal, and spiritual preparation in our journey of faith with Jesus.
Over these next few weeks of Lent, we invite you to take up the practice of reading and reflecting on the women who first followed Jesus. We all know that the four gospels emphasize the twelve disciples whom Jesus called to “Come and see.” But several women also follow Jesus as he teaches, heals, offers miraculous signs, and purposefully makes his way towards first, offering himself on a Cross, but ultimately rising to a life beyond death.
Each week, we will look more closely at one of these women so we can better appreciate what they each saw in Jesus and how they learned to follow his lead with their lives. Each Tuesday, I’ll provide an overview and some brief reflection on the life of each of these women. On Thursday, a female member of our staff will offer their thoughts. Each Saturday, I will provide a Lectio Divina prayer exercise so that we can reflect more deeply in the Spirit in terms of each week’s devotional theme and focus.
Reflection | Today, we look at the longest, single conversation Jesus had with a person in New Testament. Recorded in the Gospel of John, it is a dialogue between Jesus and an unnamed woman. In the history of the Body of Christ, she has become simply known as the woman at the well. She’s also sometimes referred to as the Samaritan woman at the well.
Here’s how this encounter came to pass. Jesus left the Judean country and was traveling back to Galilee. The route usually followed by Jewish travelers going north from Judea to Galilee passed through Samaria. Given the long-standing ill will between Jews and Samaritans – more on this later – one might expect Jesus to find another way. However, the only alternative to avoid Samaria was to cross the Jordan River near Jericho, and then travel north up the east back through Gentile territory and then cross back to the west bank near the Sea of Galilee. Quite the detour! Therefore, as the ancient Jewish historian Josephus records, most Jews passing from Judea to Galilee or back went by way of the shorter route through Samaria despite the ill will between them.
Jesus and his disciples take this route and arrive in the small Samaritan town of Sychar at around midday. Exhausted from the journey, Jesus sits alone by the town’s main water supply while the disciples go into the town to grab lunch. More specifically, John tells us Jesus is sitting at Jacob’s Well. Way back when the ancient patriarch, Jacob, dug out this well, excavating limestone and rocky to a depth of some 164 feet. Then and still today, in the shadow of an unfinished Orthodox church, Jacob’s Well is fed by an underground spring that ensures a reliable, fresh supply of water. In the heat of the day, a woman comes to draw water from this well where Jesus is resting.
In the story of scripture, meetings at a well often have significance beyond retrieving a needed commodity. The servant of the Father of Israel, Abraham, prayed for the Lord to lead him to the intended wife for Abraham’s son, Isaac. The answer to his prayer led him to meet Rebecca at a well (see Genesis 24). Likewise, Isaac’s son, Jacob, also met his future bride, Rachel, at a well (see Genesis 29). Several generations later, Moses met his wife, Zipporah, at the local watering hole (Exodus 2).
When Jesus comes to this well, he isn’t looking for a spouse. All he craves is a drink. Here, John offers us another glimpse of the humanity of Jesus. He is tired, thirsty, and no doubt he is feeling the heat of the day. And so, Jesus does what any person might do if they were dehydrated, near a source of water, but without a means to slake their thirst. They’d ask the first person to show up with a utensil to extend them the courtesy of a drink.
But this is no ordinary encounter. The woman who has come to this well is astonished by Jesus’ lack of etiquette. She responds by questioning how he even could make such a request of her. John, in an aside, lets us in on why she is so shocked: “For Jews did not associate with Samaritans.”
Here’s a brief background on the tension between Jews and Samaritans in Jesus’ day in case we’ve forgotten or never really knew. After King Solomon’s death, a civil war broke out, which split the nation of Israel into two northern and southern kingdoms. (see 1 Kings 11:26 – 39, 12:1 – 24). The northern tribes of Israel were collectively called Israel, and their first king, King Omri, named Samaria as their capital city (see 1 Kings 16:24). Meanwhile, the southern tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon collectively became known as Judah, retaining Jerusalem as their capital city. Roughly, a distance of 31 miles separated Jerusalem from Samaria.
Much later, the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrian Empire in 721-22 B.C. (see 2 Kings 17:3-6; 18:9-11). When this happened, most of the Israelites were deported, and the five eastern foreign tribes sent by the Assyrians settled down to live in Northern Israel. These five tribes brought with them their own religions and customs. These eastern foreigners intermarried with the remaining, much depleted Israelite population. Out of these intermarriages and merging of cultures came the Samaritans.
After the exile, as Israelites returned to their homeland in the Southern Kingdom, Samaritans were viewed as the children of political rebels and were deemed, racial half-breeds. Their religion was perceived to be tainted by syncretism or combining different forms of belief or practice, (see Nehemiah 13). This bad blood even resulted in Jews refusing the Samaritans’ help in the rebuilding of Jerusalem – a decision that furthered the embitterment between these two groups (see Ezra 4:3 – 4).
In response, around 400 B.C., the Samaritans built a rival temple of their own on Mount Gerizim. The Jews, under the leadership of John Hyrcanus, the Hasmonean ruler in Judea during the Maccabean period, eventually destroyed the Samaritan temple in the 2nd century B.C. Nevertheless, the Samaritan religious community still survives today.
Most Jews regarded the Samaritans as ignorant, heretical, outside of God’s graces, and therefore took great pains to avoid contact with them. And yet, here is Jesus ignoring a centuries-old feud and reaching out for a little hospitality from a Samaritan. However, this is not the only social boundary he is crossing. As his intended host highlights, Jesus is making conversation with a Samaritan woman! Jewish custom and practice dictated that Jewish men did not initiate conversations with women – other than within their family.
To all of this, we’ve probably heard added – “And she’s a loose-living woman – an outcast in her community!” The purported evidence for this presumption comes from two elements in this encounter: the woman’s admission of having had five husbands (something we’ll address shortly) and the fact that she is drawing from the well in the middle of the day. The argument behind the latter observation being her shameful reputation ostracized her from gathering water earlier in the day when most others would have been at the well.
However, it is an unfounded assumption to claim because this woman was drawing water at noon, therefore she was a pariah within her community. Biblically, there is no suggestion whatsoever that persons did not draw water from a well in the middle of the day. We have scriptural examples – specifically of women – doing so at various times of day (see Genesis 24:10 – 16 or 1 Samuel 9:10 – 13). If we go outside of the Bible, we do not find any Ancient Near Eastern sources that assert separate times of day for moral and immoral people to visit the local water source.
Here’s what is factual about this encounter. As Jesus asks for a drink from a supposed outsider (a Samaritan) and a culturally perceived inferior (a woman), he demonstrates he is thirsty for more than water. He thirsts for unity between the children of Abraham as well as equality among the children of God. As Jesus hints, the Samaritan woman, in her response to him, stands on the brink of bridging a deeper gulf than the one which divides Jews and Samaritans or men and women. “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (verse 10).
At first, this woman misunderstands what Jesus is offering. She remains fixated on the singularity of the well and the water it contains – flowing water that Jesus cannot access. Hence, he is asking her for a drink. It’s hard not to hear a bit of sarcasm when she asks if Jesus thinks he is greater than the famed patriarch, Jacob. But Jesus is not offended by her question. He reasserts the “living water” he can provide does more than satisfy one’s thirst; it becomes “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (verse 14).
On the one hand, “living water” is water that bubbles up fresh from the spring as contrasted with the stagnant water of a cistern. This is likely what this woman initially believed Jesus was speaking about. However, “living water” also was an Old Testament image invoked by the prophets to refer to God’s faithful goodness – the abundant flowing of His grace. It is in line with this prophetic announcement that Jesus is extending an invitation to this woman. He is talking in metaphorical terms – speaking relationally. Jesus addresses humanity’s thirst for eternal life in the presence and knowledge of God – life with God. Using the image of water poured out, Jesus is invoking the divine promise of the life-giving and transforming presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
Even though she clearly still does not fully understand what Jesus is offering, this woman exhibits what Jesus elsewhere in the gospels describes as “a mustard seed of faith” (see Matthew 17:10 – 21). She trusts this stranger, this foreigner, enough to ask for and receive the gift presented to her. As demonstrated by this woman, mustard seed faith is our willingness to yield to God’s grace and trusting this initial move will be the beginning of an understanding that will mature as one follows Jesus.
Jesus extends his invitation beyond this woman to the rest of her household – particularly, her husband. What previously was abstract and theoretical now becomes specific and personal. The Samaritan woman replies honestly without getting into full disclosure as she admits she has no husband. Jesus affirms the truth of what she has shared. Then, without judgment, Jesus goes on to relay the story of her past — demonstrating he sees and knows her more completely than she realized.
This woman has had five husbands – unquestionably a high number of prior marriages. And yet not as uncommon as we might believe. Her five previous husbands either died or divorced her. Finding oneself a widow was a more frequent occurrence in a culture when women married at a very young age. Even though rabbinic opinion disapproved of more than three marriages, in the ancient world, legal limits in terms of divorce could be manipulated or generously interpreted for the husband’s sake. Either way, more than likely, the outcome of the Samaritan woman’s many marriages was not a result of her choice. And the more heartbreaking present reality for the Samaritan woman, as Jesus reveals, is she is now living with a man who isn’t willing to make her his wife.
Again, it is essential to notice Jesus does not condemn the Samaritan woman in this exchange. He does not give moral lessons to this woman. There is no talk of “Go and sin no more.” There is no talk of sin anyway in this passage. Jesus simply acknowledges “what you have said is true” (verse 18). I believe this reinforces that we should not assume this woman’s circumstances are due to some fault of her own. However, this does not mean she is not hurting or struggling in some way. Indeed, the loss of five husbands through either divorce or death reflects a series of tragedies for the Samaritan woman.
Her response to Jesus’ insight about her life does not come out of grief. Instead, believing Jesus to be a prophet, the Samaritan woman presses forward into a more in-depth theological conversation. Stating the contrasting and, in a sense, rival worship sites of Mount Gerizim and Jerusalem, she raises one of the main sticking points between Jews and Samaritans: Who is worshipping the Lord rightly?
To better understand her implied question, let’s briefly review the difference between the faith of the Jews and that of the Samaritans. Both Jews and Samaritans were familiar with the Lord’s command to their ancestors: “to seek the place the Lord [would] choose from among all [their] tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling” (Deuteronomy 12:5) Jews and Samaritans just disagreed as to how to interpret this command. Jews believed Jerusalem to be the place Moses was pointing towards based on David’s vision to build the Temple. Whereas Samaritans, only recognizing the first five books of the Bible (also known as the Pentateuch), did not accept David’s vision. Furthermore, they translated the above verse as “God has chosen” rather than “God will choose.” Looking within the Pentateuch, the Samaritans noted Shechem, overlooked by Mount Gerizim, was the first place Abraham built an altar once he entered the Promised Land (see Genesis 12:6 – 7).
Jesus refuses to be drawn into this debate. Although he does clarify: “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews” (verse 22). Nonetheless, a prolonged debate over Jerusalem or Gerizim is unnecessary as Jesus declares both locations are going to become irrelevant as the definitive places of worship. For with the coming of Jesus and the later gift of the Holy Spirit, the focal point of worship changes to Christ. No one comes to the Father except through Jesus. But the truth of Jesus is not limited to one people group or denomination. The Spirit of Christ is not bound to one location. In other words, Christianity is exclusively inclusive.
The Samaritan woman believes she is tracking with what Jesus is telling her. However, it is not entirely clear whether she is engaging Jesus from the Samaritan expectation for the Messiah or the Jewish one. The Samaritan expectation was for more of a teacher – Taheb, the Revealer, the one who would reveal the truth. We must again remember, the Samaritans only read the first five books of the Old Testament. Therefore, their Messianic expectation was for someone like Moses (see Deuteronomy 18:15) and not a ruler, a king from the Davidic line.
Jesus doesn’t debate expectations. Instead, he meets this woman exactly where she is. Jesus engages the Samaritan woman at her level of understanding and anticipation and reveals what she could never have imagined or hoped for as he declares, “I, who speak to you, am he” (verse 26). Jesus responds by saying, “egō eimi” (“I am”), a particular expression traditionally held to reflect the divine name of God (see Exodus 3:13 -14).
More explicitly, Jesus identifies himself as the long-awaited Messiah. And this is remarkable. For this is something that Jesus has not even disclosed to the twelve disciples yet. The Samaritan woman is in rarified air as for those who Jesus personally reveals who he truly is and his divine name. The Great I AM asks for a drink from a person who would have been written off by many because of her race and gender. John underscores this as he notes the twelve disciples’ surprised reaction as they return and find out whom Jesus has been keeping company in their absence.
In a bit of humorous irony, the disciples come back with food, but Jesus isn’t hungry anymore. It’s also worth noting Jesus doesn’t appear to be thirsty anymore either. He also doesn’t seem tired anymore. Jesus tells his closest followers, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” Amusingly, their reaction is to wonder if someone else brought Jesus lunch.
Jesus knowingly responds by replying, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” The words of Moses come to mind when he told the people of Israel long ago, “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3). In doing his Father’s will, in all that has transpired with the Samaritan woman, Jesus has found both sustenance and satisfaction.
Meanwhile, the Samaritan woman, her hunger and thirst quenched, abandons her water jar and runs to share the “living water” she has received from Christ. This woman is becoming exactly what Jesus proclaimed she would be – a new spring of water, a new source from which the waters of eternal life in God flow. The Samaritan woman transformed, returns to her town. In sharing her own experience with Jesus and inviting others to come and see him, she becomes the well that others draw from to get to Jesus. Before any of Jesus’ disciples could do it, she has told others that Jesus is the Messiah!
Throughout this conversation, this unnamed woman demonstrates a posture of discipleship – learning from Jesus. And now she becomes the first evangelist of Christ and the Gospel to the Samaritan people. In the end, John shares, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (verse 39). The legacy of the Samaritan woman’s witness extends far beyond this moment . For example, consider a few years later in the book of Acts, chapter 8, when we read about Philip proclaiming Christ to great response in a city in Samaria. Can we attribute the immediate acceptance of Philip’s message to the preparatory work done through this encounter? If so, Philip reaped the benefit of seed already fruitfully sown through the life of the Samaritan woman.
What do we glean from the witness of the Samaritan woman? Something powerful that many of us still struggle to believe. That Jesus really can change the world, one person at a time. Through someone others would have written off just from being included because of both her gender and her race, Jesus reveals both his propensity not only to save but to bring, through that person, salvation to others.
The Samaritan woman’s example shows us that the Gospel is not about trusting and following a doctrine about Jesus. The Gospel is believing and trusting in the person of Jesus and his words – opening ourselves to Christ and receiving the water he offers to us. Like the Samaritan woman, if we drink from the fountain the life that is God – the love and compassion of God; not only will we never lack love and compassion again, we will become fountains of His love and compassion for others. For to receive the Spirit of God is to give the Spirit of God. The life we receive in Christ is the life we have to share in Christ with each other.
Consider & Discuss | Jesus breaks the boundaries of religion and culture and even goes so far as to ask a favor of the Samaritan woman. How can you break the boundaries of religious and cultural biases to accept and learn from others different from yourself?
Jesus breaks through some significant cultural barriers and both racial and gender prejudices to engage with this Samaritan woman. Are there any cultural barriers or biases that are getting in your way – that need to be set aside for the sake of relating to and sharing God’s love and compassion with another person or group of people?
Jesus connected with this Samaritan woman but pointed not at her need for him but acknowledging his own need from her. Why do you think most Christians tend to engage others with the Gospel in the exact opposite manner? How might our conversations about Jesus and the Gospel with others go differently if this was our focus and starting point as well?
Prayer Focus | Lord, we thank You that You have always been willing to reach out in love and friendship to outsiders – to unlikely and surprising people, including us. We also remain grateful that you continue to pour Your “living waters” – Your Spirit into our lives through other believers. Through Your Word and Your Spirit, we ask You to make us into wells – conduits of Your mercy and grace. Inspire, empower, and guide our lives to flow out of Your goodness and compassion so that we may become channels of Your peace, Your grace, Your truth, and Your justice that pour into the lives of others. Amen.
Come, Lord Jesus, come!