The Woman at the Well

The Woman at the Well

The Radical Revelation of John 4:1?42

In the Gospel of John, Jesus revealed himself for the first time as ?I Am? to a woman that rabbinic law forbade him to interact with (Jn 4:26).

A Gospel Retelling? Part I:

He met her by a well ? Jacob?s well? in the Samarian town called Sychar, where he had come to rest on his journey from Judea to Galilea, his body weary and thirsty from traveling. (Jn 4:6) As he watched her fill her pitcher with water from the earth, he asked, ?would you give me a drink?? (Jn 4:7).

The woman, seeing he was a Jew, took an untrusting step backward, distancing herself from this stranger who addressed her so casually. ?How is it that you, a Jew, are speaking to me, a woman from Samaria?? (Jn 4:9). In response, Jesus did not speak, but he returned her gaze with kind eyes and wordlessly stretched his hand toward her, showing his desire to receive a drink. With a hesitant sharpness in her voice, she doubts him again: ?And you are asking me, a woman, for a drink??

To this, Jesus replied compassionately, ?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? (Jn 4:10, direct quote from NRSV).

Image for postJesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, by Giovanni Francesco Guernico, c. 1640 Credit: WikimediaCommons

Commentary ? Part I:

In the beginning of this revolutionary passage in the Gospel of John, the Samaritan woman questions Jesus? intentions on two points: (1) why is he speaking with a Samaritan, and (2) furthermore, why is he speaking with a Samaritan woman? Oftentimes these two questions get lumped into one: ?Why are you speaking to me, a Samaritan woman?? It is historically helpful, however, to look at them separately.

First, why would a Jew speak to any Samaritan (on friendly terms)? Jews and Samaritans were bitter enemies (Jn 4:9). Jews would normally avoid travel through Samaria, and any interaction that did happen between the two groups would be heavily charged by the geographic, ethnic, and religious conflicts that divided them. Jews did not recognize Samaritans as true Israelites ? a dispute going back to the time of the Exile and perpetuated by the Elite of Judea. Jews also accused Samaritans of false worship because they rejected Jewish claims that all proper worship to Yahwey must be made in the temple state of Jerusalem. Even so, Samaritans continued to worship in their own temple on Mount Gezarim ? in the land of Jacob, home of their ancestors? as seemed proper to them (Jn 4:19?20). It would be naive to think that the relationship between Jews and Samaritans was one of polite disagreement. The Samaritan experience was one of oppression by the Jews, marked by discrimination and violence against their people. In other words, the Samaritan woman at the well had every reason to be distrustful of Jesus. In the image above, artist Guernico seems to depict her emotional state very appropriately: her body is turned away from Jesus in a protective stance, and she clutches her jar, only turning her head to see Jesus with a distressed and wearied look upon her face.

Secondly, how would it be possible that a Jewish man would speak with a Samaritan woman? Jewish rabbinic laws were very strict on two critical matters: (1) Jewish men were not to have public and open contact with women, and (2) Jewish rabbis considered Samaritan women to be ?menstruants from their cradle,? and therefore perpetually unclean. By that same standard, Jewish rabbis condemned all Samaritans to be unclean because men were in contact with unclean women, and their ?purity rules could not be guaranteed.? The rabbinic warning against contact with women of any kind was extreme: ?He who talks much with womankind brings evil on himself. He neglects the study of the Law and at the last will inherit Gehenna.? If speaking with a woman can cast one into Gehenna, how much more will drinking from the same cup? According to Jewish rules, ?The spittle of a menstruant was contaminating to a very high degree.? So, in John 4:1?42, Jesus is doing much more than asking for a glass of water from a stranger ? he is very boldly breaking Jewish tabboos with a purpose. As theologian David Daube articulates it, ?By asking the woman to give him to drink, Jesus showed himself ready to disregard that hostile presumption respecting Samaritan women for the sake of a more inclusive fellowship? (emphasis mine).

Daube also notices a beautiful nuance in the exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman: ?When Jesus asked the Samaritan woman to give him to drink, she was surprised by his kindness. Why? Surely, for an unsophisticated mind, as a rule, it is the offer of a drink, not the request for one, which expresses love.? And yet, considering what we now know of the harsh political and religious conflicts that plagued Samaritan interactions with Judeans, that situation does seem to have been reversed. Jesus offers love and acceptance to the woman by demonstrating willingness to drink from her cup before offering her a drink from his:

?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? (Jn 4:10, NRSV).

Image for postChrist and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, Paolo Veronese, c. 1585, Public Domain, Source: WikiMedia Commons

A Gospel Retelling ? Part II:

The Samaritan woman laughed heartily at Jesus? offer and responded . ?Sir, you do not even have a bucket, and this well is deep. From where do you propose to get this living water?? (Jn 4:12)

Seeing that Jesus was unmoved by her jest, she continued with seriousness: ?You must know this is the well of our ancestor Jacob, who himself drank of it. This is the well that sustained his sons and their flocks, and now sustains us. Surely you do not think yourself greater than Jacob!? (Jn 4:13)

In his reply, Jesus reasoned with her that anyone who drinks of Jacob?s well will become thirsty again, but ?anyone who drinks the living water which God supplies through [me] will become a fountain.? (Jn 4:13?14, translation from Nyrimana & Draper- see side note for citation).

Astonished, the woman challenged him to fulfill his offer. ?Sir, give me this water, that I may drink it and never thirst again. Make it so I never have to return to this well.? (Jn 4:15)

Jesus said to her, ?First, go get your husband.? When she replied that she had none, he told her, ?You are right in saying, ?I have no husband?; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!? (Jn 4:16?18, direct quote from NRSV)

?Sir,? the woman said tersely, ?You make obvious that you are a prophet. My ancestors worshiped on this mountain. It is you Jews who claim that we must only worship in Jerusalem.?

To this, Jesus replied: ?Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.? (Jn 4:21?24, direct quote from NRSV)

She looked Jesus boldly in the eye, and told him, ?I know the Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will reveal everything to us.? (Jn 4:25)

Jesus nodded, approvingly. ?I am he.? (Jn 4:26)

Image for postAzulejo de meados do sculo XIX de uma fonte na Pvoa de Varzim, 19th Century, Source: WikiMediaCommons

Commentary ? Part II:

In John 4:26, Jesus reveals himself for the first time in the Gospel of John as the Messiah ?I am? ? and he reveals it directly to a woman of a ?rejected people.? The effect, as theologian Gale R. O?Day affirms, is powerful:

?Jesus breaks open boundaries in his conversation with the Samaritan woman: the boundary between male and female, the boundary between ?chosen people? and ?rejected people.? Jesus? journey to Samaria and his conversation with the woman deomnstrate that the grace of God that he offers is available to all.?

The importance of Jesus? revelation is often diminished by interpretations that hyper focus on the observation that the Samaritan woman was married five times and that ?the one [she has] now is not [her] husband? (Jn 4:16?18). Predominant theological speculations have led many Christians to assume that the Samaritan woman was a promiscuous sinner. However, Jesus does not treat her like a sinner, and we have no evidence within the text that suggests this to be true, either. We can consider at least two worthy alternatives: (1) historical possibilities that explain the marital state of the Samaritan woman, and (2) historical-scriptural possibilities that may have led for John to number her marriages as a literary device.

What historically appropriate situations would explain a woman having five marriages, and now ?having none?? The two most obvious starting points are these: (1) she may have been widowed, (2) she may have been divorced. Rabbinic law only allowed three marriages, but in the Samaritan society, up to five marriages might have been permitted by levitite law (a law that requires men marry the widow of their deceased brother). Gail O?Day and Teresa Okure also speculate that a sixth ?might have refused to marry her.? According to rabbinic law, a woman would not be able to divorce her husband of her own power, but he could issue a bill of divorce to her if she were barren ? or for any reason that might displease him. While obvious tensions existed between the Jewish and Samaritan communities, their laws were derived from the same ?Pentateuch Jewish law of the pre-oral law period.? The Jewish Women?s Archive reports that Jewish law on divorce is derived from Deuteronomy 24:1:

A man takes a wife and possesses her. She fails to please him because he finds something obnoxious about her, and he writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her and sends her away from his house.

As this makes very clear, a woman in a society governed by the Pentateuch Jewish law would not be empowered to follow a self-determined course of multiple marriages; in fact, history indicates precedence for death as penalty for Samaritan divorcees in past centuries, and the modern Samaritan sect continues to abide by harsh rules regarding marriage and divorce ?heavily weighted in favor of the male.? Furthermore, if the Samaritan woman in John 4:4?42 had been guilty of adultery, we would only have to look a few chapters later in John to know what the danger to her would have been: public stoning (Jn 8:1?11). So, by what right do we immediately suspect promiscuity and blame the woman for her misfortune?

What historical-scriptural possibilities would make John hint at promiscuity through the mention of multiple marriages? As it turns out, the theme of promiscuity in this passage may still be relevant if we consider it to be metaphorical rather than physically true. When we open ourselves up to this possibility, we can see that the woman?s five marriages are likely a reference to the ba?alim of the five nations of 2 Kings 17:24?41. Jesus? statement about the woman?s five husbands, therefore, was a direct criticism of Samaritan religious syncretism. Following this understanding, it is possible to imagine a hint of sarcasm in the Samaritan woman?s reply: ?Sir, I can see you are a prophet? (Jn 4:19). After all, would it take a prophet to point out that Judeans judged Samaritans to be religiously promiscuous? Cast in this light, perhaps her reaction to Jesus was not one of astonishment at his gift of prophecy, but one of biting sarcasm. This may explain why in her very next breath she questions ?the prophet? on the proper place to worship ?perhaps expecting him to recite the standard Jewish spiel and confirm for her that he is just there to cause her trouble.

However, this is not what happens. Jesus may have chosen to play the part of the common Jew by bearing witness to common prejudice, but after accusing her people of religious promiscuity, he delivers an uncommon response to her question. He tells her the time will come when she and her people will neither worship on the mountain nor in Jerusalem (Jn 4:23). This surprising answer indicates a major turning point in their conversation, from which Jesus will continue to build to reveal his incarnational message. As their dialogue continues, Jesus seems to formulate statements that elicit the woman to assert what she knows ? and in doing so, he empowers her to speak truth as she knows it.

When the Samaritan woman later comes to recognize the Messiah, we can understand her conversion to be authentic, because we know she is not overly meek or naive to persuasion. Instead she shows herself to be a willful woman of faith by rejecting Jesus? jabs. She is certainly unwilling to let a strange Jewish man insult the faith of her people and accuse them of worshipping what they do not know. When Jesus says that her people do not know what they worship, she quickly responds: ?I know the Messiah is coming ? the one who will reveal all to us.? Until this point, if we believe that Jesus? reference to the woman?s 5 husbands were symbolic of the gods of the 5 tribes and not about her particular living situation, we can see a new and critically important feature: Jesus was not the prophetic one. On the contrary, through his interplay with the Samaritan woman, she emerges as the prophetic one: the one who is ready to recognize the Messiah. And so it happens. As soon as she asserts her readiness, Jesus tells her: ?I am he.?

Image for postJesus und die Samariterin am Jakobsbrunnen, by Herrad von Landsberg, c. 1180, Public Domain, Source: WikimediaCommons

A Gospel Retelling ? Part III:

As soon as Jesus spoke the words, ?I am he,? the disciples, who had gone off earlier in search of food, reappeared to see him speaking with the woman. They were shocked at the sight, but they held their tongues. (Jn 4:17)

The woman did not delay in the presence of the disciples, but ? leaving behind her water jug ? made her way quickly back to town where she announced to many (Jn 4:28): ?Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?? (Jn 4:29, direct quote from NRSV).

Curious about the man she described, many townspeople made their way to the well to see for themselves (Jn 4:30).

At first, many Samaritans believed in Jesus based on the woman?s testimony: ?He told me everything I ever did.? Because of her words, they sought him out and asked him to stay with them in the town. For two days, Jesus stayed with them, and many more came to believe in him because of his words. (Jn 4:39?41.

When it was time for Jesus to go, the townspeople told the woman (Jn 4:42) ?We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world? (Jn 4:42, direct quote from NRSV).

Image for postChrist and the Good Samaritan at the Well, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1552, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Commentary ? Part III:

The overarching story of the Gospel of John centers around the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus: ?the word became flesh among us? (Jn 1:14). John?s gospel also emphasizes that the way to salvation is found by entering into personal relationship with the incarnate Messiah. The passage of the Samaritan Woman at the Well provides no exception to those key themes. In fact, in this text Jesus directly reveals himself to be the Messiah, the one who has come to reveal everything, the one who is ?I am? ? and he reveals it to the most unlikeliest of characters: a woman of a despised foreign people. Why would he do this?

Many scholars, including Okure, O?Day, Scaer, and Mukansengimana-Nyirimana agree that Jesus? radical revelation transcends stigmas of sexism and racism, serving as an invitation to all who believe in him to drink of the living water, the Holy Spirit. Not only does Jesus open the door of salvation beyond the rabbinic laws of Judaism, but through his conversation with the Samaritan woman, he alters the understood direction of divine relationship. As Okure puts it: ?it is no longer a question of worshippers seeking God, but of God seeking people who will worship him in the way God wants, ?in spirit and truth? 4:24.? We see this pattern of relationship clearly depicted in the interactions between Jesus and the Samaritan woman:

  • Jesus speaks to her in a context that no other man would*; she reponds with skepticism. ?You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?? (Jn 4:9).
  • Jesus offers her living water; she again skeptically asks from where he intends to draw it, and by what power. ?Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?? (Jn 4:10?12)
  • Jesus says the water he offers will produce ?a spring welling up to eternal life? for anyone who receives it from him; she asks to receive it. ?Sir, give me this water so that I won?t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.? (Jn 4:15)
  • Jesus tests her faith by asking her to call upon her husband, and furthermore accusing her people of religious promiscuity; she replies with conviction in support of her people, insinuating that Judaic rules for worship are rooted in political power, not tradition. ?Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.? (Jn 4:19?20)
  • Jesus tells her a time is coming when the proper place for worship will no longer be in a geographic location, but in the Spirit. He then tests her faith one more time by accusing her people of worshipping what they do not know; she replies: ??I know that Messiah? (called Christ) ?is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.?? (Jn 4:25).
  • Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that he is ?I am,? the Messiah; she believes and goes to tell others, bringing many more to have a personal encounter with the Christ ? that they, too, may believe.

Through the above interplay, we can see how Jesus draws her into conversation. Through Jesus, the incarnate God seeks out one who will worship ?in spirit and truth.? She is not looking for him at the well, but he is looking for her. Through his questions, he tests the source of her spiritual convictions by laying forth arguments that he later dismisses, i.e. that her people are inferior to Jews on matters of worship, and that they worship what they do not know. When she provides the answers grounded ?in spirit and truth? by arguing that Judaic law was more concerned with politics than tradition, and that ?she knows? the Messiah will come, Jesus rewards her conviction by revealing that he is the Messiah, the one who will reveal everything. Because of her readiness to receive this message, she leaves her water jar by the well and hurries to call others to meet Jesus.

When we read the story this way, we find that it is a story of incarnation, revelation, and discipleship. Jesus makes a powerful statement to his own disciples by witnessing to the Samaritan woman. He does not hide his intention to open up God?s salvation to all who will believe. Gail O?Day speculates that the gospel writer, John, includes this story as a radical illustration of how we are all called to live: ?He calls his readers to do exactly what Jesus did- live one?s faith and love of God publicly.? He also calls us to defy social stigmas and not be fools thinking (like the Jews thought of Samaritans and women) that we are superior in faith or intellect. By engaging with the Samaritan woman, and by John?s depiction, we are allowed to see how intelligently and faithfully this marginalized woman defended her faith and came to know the Messiah, in truth. When we allow ourselves to be carried away with unsubstantiated myths that she must have been promiscuous or somehow morally inferior, we miss out on the grander picture: that we are called to be just like her ? a judicious and faithful seeker of God.


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