A Provocative Conversation: The Woman at the Well

I have always loved this Gospel story.  And often thought that preachers I have heard in the past were always so much more stuck on what they thought they knew about this woman than on what was actually written about her in the Gospel of John.

As I began to study the story in preparation for this homily, I noticed what’s clear in the text: 

  • Nowhere in the narrative is the Samaritan woman described as promiscuous.  
  • Nowhere does Jesus call her a sinner (sexual or otherwise), or tell her (as he tells so many others) to “go and sin no more.”  This is not a story about morality.  
  • It is not a story about Jesus liberating a woman from her own sex life.  
  • It is a story about Jesus revealing himself as the Messiah to a fellow human being in whom he sees genuine spiritual hunger, a learned and engaged mind, and a tremendous gift for preaching, evangelism, and apostleship.
Christ & Samaritan Woman, Odilon Redon

So let’s begin with what the story actually is.  Jesus’s dialogue with the Woman at the Well is his longest recorded conversation in the New Testament.  He talked to the Samaritan woman longer than the Gospels show he talked to his own twelve disciples, or to his accusers, or even to his own family members.  She is the first person (and the first ethnic/religious outsider) to whom Jesus revealed his identity in John’s Gospel.  And — this might be the most compelling fact of all  — she is the first believer in any of the Gospels to immediately become an evangelist, and bring her entire city to a saving knowledge of Jesus.  

By the time Jesus meets the woman at the well, the hatred between Jews and Samaritans is well known.  The two groups disagree about everything: 

– how to honor God, 

– how to interpret the Scriptures, 

– and how and where to worship.  

They practice their faith in separate temples, read different versions of the Torah, and avoid social contact with each other whenever possible.  Bottom line: they hate each other’s guts. 

In the culture of the day it is not customary or appropriate for Jesus — a Jewish man — to converse alone with a Samaritan woman, much less to ask her for a drink of water.  That sort of thing is simply not done.

To put this in more contemporary language, the Samaritan woman is the Other.  The alien.  The stranger.  The foreigner.  She represents all the boundaries observant religious people must not cross.  All the spiritual taboos that must not be broken.  But Jesus breaks them all, anyway.

The differences between the Jews and Samaritans are not easily negotiated; each is fully convinced that the other is wrong.  So what Jesus does when he enters into conversation with a Samaritan woman is radical and risky; it stuns even his own disciples, because it asks them to dream of a different kind of social and religious order.  A different kind of kingdom. 

Jesus’s willingness to break the social rules of his day means that we, his followers, must live into the truth that people are more than the sum of their political, racial, cultural, and economic identities.  Jesus calls us to put aside the stereotypes we carry, the prejudices we nurse, the social and cultural lines we draw.  He invites us to look at the Samaritan woman and see a sister and an apostle, not a harlot, a heretic, a foreigner, or a threat. 

As John describes the scene, Jesus is sitting by a well in the desert heat at high noon.  He’s “tired out” from his long journey, and he’s all by himself.  Along comes a woman with a water jar, and the first thing Jesus says to her is, “Give me a drink.”

I had to sit with this moment in the story for a long while before its irony and strangeness really struck me.  Think about it.  The Son of God is thirsty at the mouth of a well, and it’s the outcast with whom no one else wants to interact who provides the water he needs.  How long, I wondered, did Jesus sit there with his parched throat and dry lips, longing for water?  The wilderness at noon is no joke; people die of thirst out there.  He waits.  He waits so that when the woman appears, she can recognize the incarnate Messiah in his vulnerability, his humanity, his need.

Jesus wins the woman’s trust by humbling himself.  By naming his own thirst.  By asking for something she can give.  There is no triumphalism in his approach, no smugness, no arrogance.  He’s thirsty, and he says so — and she responds.  Jesus’s disarming honesty opens the door for a spiritual seeker to find new life, and then share that new life with her entire city.

The conversation between Jesus and the woman pivots when he tells her what he knows about her life: “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 either. What you have said is true!”

Of course, this is the “sordid” revelation commentators often point to when they try to make a case for the woman’s sexual immorality.  There are any number of reasons why the Samaritan woman might have the past she has.  Perhaps (and very likely) she was married off as a teen bride, then widowed and passed along among her dead husband’s brothers, as was the cultural practice of her day.  Maybe her various husbands abandon her because she’s infertile.  Maybe she’s a victim of abuse.  Maybe she has a disability.

Whatever the case, we know for sure that in the first century, women didn’t have the legal power to end their own marriages — the authority to file for divorce rested with men alone.  

So there’s a great deal we can’t know about the woman’s history.  What we can infer, though, is that she prefers to be invisible.  That she goes out of her way to avoid the other women in her town.  For whatever reason, she doesn’t feel that they like her, accept her, or understand her.  She doesn’t feel safe so she heads to the well in the scorching heat of the day, instead of in the cool of the morning.  She hopes to come and go, undetected, carrying around in isolation whatever trauma, wound, sin, fear, or desperation her complicated history has left her with.

But then Jesus comes along and sees her.  He sees the whole of her.  The past.  The present.  The future.  Who she has been.  What she yearns for.  How she hurts.  All that she might become.  And he names it all.  

But he names it all without shaming or condemning her.  He sees and names the woman in a way that makes her feel not judged, but loved.  Not exposed, but shielded.  Not diminished, but restored.  He doesn’t shy away from the painful, ugly, broken stuff in her life.  Instead he allows the truth of who she is to come to the surface.  “Let’s name what’s real,” he tells her.  “Let’s say what IS.  No more games.  No more smokescreens.  No more posturing.  I see you for who you are, and I love you.  Now, he says to her, see who I am. The Messiah.  The one in whom you can find freedom, love, healing, and transformation.   Spirit and Truth.  Eternal life.  Living Water.  Drink of me, and live.”

During this Lenten season, Jesus invites us to see ourselves and each other through eyes of love, not judgment, not condemnation.  Can we, like Jesus, become soft landing places for people who are all alone, carrying stories too heavy to bear?  To see brokenness without shaming it is not easy.  But it’s what we’re called to do.  Salvation begins with clear, tender, and unconditional seeing.  

When Jesus tells the Samaritan woman who he is, she leaves her water jar at the well, runs back to her city, and says, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  

There’s so much to love about this moment.  I love that in her excitement, the woman forgets all about her water jar and leaves her burdens behind.  

I love that her sudden need to share the good news overwhelms her desire to remain anonymous and invisible.  

I love that her history — once the source of such pain and secrecy — becomes the evidence she uses to proclaim Jesus’s identity.  

Most of all, I love that Jesus honors her.  John writes that Jesus stays in the woman’s city for two days, so that everyone who hears her testimony can meet with him directly, and see that the woman is a reliable witness. She, like John the Baptist, like the Apostles, like Mary Magdalene, like Paul, “prepares the way of the Lord” — and Jesus encourages her to do so.  “Many Samaritans from that city,” the Gospel writer tells us, “believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.”  

So what’s in it for me, priest?  What’s the application to our lives?

God wants to include us in the spreading of Good News.  No matter how flawed or broken we may think we are, God rejoices in working with – and through – us.


Peace, chuck

Lent Spirituality The Episcopal Church

eecvoices View All →

The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

%d bloggers like this: