Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well is too rich for a few hundred words. A single sweep over the details would hardly touch the surface. In the well-known story, Jesus talks to a Samaritan woman at a well in Sychar (John 4: 1-26). It’s an amazing little narrative, bristling with drama, heavy with significance. I’ll spend some weeks with it. The back and forth is worth close examination.
This woman explains (as if Jesus doesn’t know) that Jacob himself and his sons drank from this well, his livestock too. This is the setting of the story. The well is deep, requiring a pulley and something to bring up the water. Jacob gave the well, a valuable asset in a hot, dry country of sheep-raisers, to his favorite son, Joseph. This interesting history is well-known it seems, especially in Sychar, but John records the woman-‘splaining, one of the unusual parts of the story. Who expects a woman to be lecturing a man? Not in the first century!
Another detail of the setting is the time of day. It’s the sixth hour, noontime. This means serious heat. Travelers in Israel will remember that heat. Tourists hear it as a litany, Drink water! In fact, water becomes central in this story, a part in the action almost.
The first of two principles is Jesus, tired from his journey—tired and thirsty enough to do something unexpected. He is alone. This cheeky woman of Sychar, the second main character, apparently has a reputation. What sermon on the passage ever fails to mention her reputation? The time of day she comes for water gives it away. No woman (the water-carriers then) lugs a heavy vessel of water at noon unless they’re avoiding people. The disciples have gone for food and return later. The townsfolk also appear briefly at the end, but we’ll let them remain in the background. That Jesus’s interchange with this woman involves only these two is significant. One final setting fact: A journey from Judea into Galilee, Jesus’s current itinerary, means the road through hated Samaria. A detour across the Jordan isn’t his choice
The action in this story showcases the love of Jesus—self-forgetting, not intrusive but determined and intense. It’s expressed in action but isn’t threatening. I’ll look at the details, and it will take some time. Today, just the first look.
The drama begins when Jesus asks for a drink of water. At the distance of two thousand years, we may find this a simple, perfectly reasonable move. Not so for the people of the time. Even now, Jews don’t think much of Samaritans. They’re apt to label them “half breeds.” I’ve heard the expression, in fact. First century Jews loathed the Samaritans. Samaria was Israel–the ten northern tribes, famously or infamously ruled by Ahab and Jezebel at one period, idolatry habitual and institutional. The Ten angered God, and he allowed their defeat then deportation by the Assyrians (722 BC). Having conquered the country, they brought in other peoples to repopulate. The few Hebrews who were left intermarried with them and became the Samaritans. By Jesus’s time, avoiding anything Samaritan was de rigueur.
Jesus asks the woman for water. He’s smashing convention. First, any practicing Jewish male would consider it inappropriate to talk to a woman, especially in this setting—no one else around. The Pharisees didn’t speak to women at all in public, and every Jew gave wide berth to Samaritans. The opening action is like a small detonation. Is “Give me a drink” a pickup line? Cynical even to think it? Probably not. The bad reputation attributed to this woman of Sychar is supported by facts—her five previous marriages, the current companion not her husband. Locals would say, “Of course that’s what she thought. She would expect it.” But a Jew? The detonation gains a second little blast as definite as an echo when we think again: A Jew making a pass at a Samaritan woman? But why is this man talking to her?
The intensely dramatic opener is prelude to a close-up view of the kind of love that offers life itself for the sake of a friend. “There is no greater,” Jesus said. In this Sychar encounter, he fully abandons social norms in pursuit of the spiritual life of one who seems to model sinner. This woman appears to be a self-fulfilling seeker of satisfaction. At whatever the cost, she’s openly and habitually ignored every verboten. She has already smashed convention, and Jesus walks right onto her turf. He does want her. But bring to mind what he told Nicodemus. The loving God wants the world! Isn’t that what John 3: 16 says? Jesus will reveal himself as the source of the spiritual life this woman wants. So doing, he will reveal his purposes—not just to her but to us and for all time. What she says next will tell us a lot.
from the Edgefield Advertiser, oldest newspaper in South Carolina, November 2, 2022
the great image from istockphoto-495455300-170667a.jpg