So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to 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!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “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.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him. Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” John 4:5-42
The story John tells of Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well is an interesting one on many levels. As with the conversation with Nicodemus about being born again, the reader is likely to find humor in the woman’s literal take on Jesus’s metaphorical language about living water. But unlike Nicodemus, the woman was not respected in her community due to her multiple failed marriages, and has developed an even worse reputation over the intervening centuries. Like Mary Magdalene, she has often been portrayed as an especially bad sinner, with the blanks scripture leaves in her story filled in by prurient imaginations. But consider that it’s entirely possible that she may have been more victim than sinner. In this place and time in history, divorce was something that could be done only at the initiative of the husband. Therefore, her five husbands must have either died or divorced her. And at this time adultery was punishable by death, so I doubt she was guilty of marital unfaithfulness.
The fact that she had come to draw water from the well at high noon rather than in the cool of the early morning or evening is an indication that she had reason to want to avoid people. Why would that be? Perhaps she was tired of hearing unkind gossip or speculation about her marital history or status. Perhaps she had begun to doubt her own character as a result. What was wrong with her that five husbands had either died or divorced her, and that she wasn’t married to her sixth partner? Was she cursed by God? Some kind of jinx? I can’t help help but think of the story of Tamar, who had lost only two husbands, and consequently wasn’t allowed to marry Judah’s third son because Judah thought he might die too. In their cultural milieu, neither Tamar nor the unnamed woman at the well had any good options without a male relative to support them. Perhaps she, like Tamar, made the best choice she could in a no-win scenario.
In the Genesis story, Tamar isn’t condemned for tricking Judah into impregnating her; in fact Judah admitted that it was he who had done her wrong. Interestingly, although usually only paternal ancestors are named in biblical genealogies, Tamar shows up in Matthew’s genealogy as an ancestor of both David and Jesus. And it’s similarly interesting to note that while Jesus acknowledges the facts of this Samaritan woman’s life situation, he doesn’t condemn her for it either. He doesn’t say “go and sin no more” or “your sins are forgiven” as he does in other situations. Instead, he engages her in a robust theological conversation about the nature of God!
Another interesting point about this story is that Jesus apparently didn’t have a problem with meeting alone with a woman thought to have a questionable reputation for fear that doing so might damage his reputation. Not only that, she was a Samaritan woman, and he asked to drink from her water jar. John’s parenthetical comment about Jews and Samaritans not sharing things in common reminds me of the white and colored water fountains I remember seeing in my youth. Jesus wasn’t concerned about catching Samaritan cooties by drinking from the same water jar, and he wasn’t worried about being falsely accused of inappropriate behavior by the woman.
Following her conversation with Jesus, the woman is so excited by what she has learned about God that she abandons social restraint along with her water jar and runs into town to share what she understands to be very good news. She turns out to be a rather successful evangelist, and because of her words, many of her neighbors come to know God and follow Jesus. This last piece is especially meaningful to me because I’ve been told that certain roles in the church are biblically proscribed for me as a woman. It took me a long time to get to the place where I understand that just because someone tells me I shouldn’t teach or (gasp!) preach about what I believe to be good news- that doesn’t mean that God thinks that way. I guess that’s why I can empathize so much with my nonbinary friends who have had church doors slammed in their faces, and who think God must reject them too.
The woman at the well may have been a victim of gaslighting by her community and by history, but that’s not the end of the story. Jesus offers himself as “the way, the truth, and the life” out of entanglement in the web of lies spun by others as well as that of our own self-deceptions. The truth is that God doesn’t reject anybody, and God can use anybody who is willing to share God’s love. The metaphorical well of living water is freely available to all who ask for a drink, and there are no “white” and “colored” fountains there.
And that’s good news to me.