Note: This is a longer article than normal. While writing I found myself chasing what I assumed were tangents only to find that they were actually an intricate thread that wove back into the classical story of the Samaritan woman at the well. I have considered splitting this into two parts for ease of reading but I did not want to lose any stream of thought from the first half into the second. Also, there are many “common” points and details I gloss over for the sake of minimizing the length. I might turn this into a short e-book for “funsies” down the road so I can develop more on what I glossed over or left out. If you would like, you can subscribe to receive regular updates, including when the e-book is finished. Until then, I hope you are blessed by this.
When you think of the Samaritan woman from John 4, how do you perceive her? For most, she was a promiscuous woman who had been shunned by her community. For much of church history, this is how she has been taught: a woman whose sexual escapades had been brought into the public spot light. This is how I have been taught my whole life, from middle school Sunday school lessons through bible college courses. You will find no shortage of commentaries and blog posts affirming this conclusion:
The Samaritan woman at the well is no angel. Mixed up with a wrong crowd, this poor woman from Samaria has quite a reputation. She had been married five times and was living in sin with a man who wasn’t her husband. Through her story comes the lesson that people shouldn’t live by carnal pleasure . (John Triqilio and Kenneth Brighenti, Women in the Bible for Dummies)
“She is of mature age, and has had a not altogether reputable past. She is frivolous, ready to talk with strangers, with a tongue quick to turn grave things into jests; and yet she possesses, hidden beneath masses of unclean vanities, a conscience and a yearning for something better than she has.” (Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture: St John Ch. I to XIV)
I have now come to the conclusion that this is the wrong view of this unnamed woman. The Samaritan woman at the well has been severely misunderstood. With a preconceived notion from our traditional assumptions of who this woman was, one automatically reads into the story an idea that really is not there and, as a result, is distracted from the ideas the Text wishes to communicate. At a minimum, I hope to at least rekindle your intrigue for this story. At most, I hope to show some of the ideas the Text has left for you to discover.[tweetthis twitter_handles=”@dredzs”]The Samaritan woman at the well has been severely misunderstood.[/tweetthis]
Midday Immoral women
The argument that this woman was an adulterous or promiscuous woman is built upon two details in the story. The first premise is developed from the time of day she came to well, which was “about the sixth hour” (John 4:6). The general flow of this argument is that because the Samaritan woman comes later in the day she would have been a woman of ill reputation since the normal village women would have come to the well during the morning or evening when it was cooler and she was not “welcome” to come when the others did. There are two assumptions leading to this conclusion: the nature of the “sixth hour” and when women would have come to the well.
The assumption is that the sixth hour would have been around noon or early afternoon. This assumption has two major flaws. First is that if John was using the Roman method of computing time, which was two sets of twelve equal hours, the sixth hour would either have been approximately 6:00 am or 6:00 pm. In this case, the Samaritan woman would have arrived during the same time when most women would have gone to the well. If John is using the Jewish computation, which separated the hours from sunrise to sunset into twelve equal parts, the time would have been around noon. So there are two options for when Jesus meets with this woman. Even if it was noon, it does not necessarily imply that it would have been a hot day. It could have been during the winter that she came to the well. If it was a sweltering summer day, then what of the assumption that proper women do not come to the well during the heat of the day?
While it makes sense to make the long walk to the well and to return carrying a heavy load during the cooler part of the day, does this axiomatically imply that a woman would never go to the well during mid-day? What if she was running low on water? Perhaps she spilt some or a sick friend needed some or she wasn’t able to carry enough during her first trip. An article I read on Christianity Today by Lynn H. Cohick discusses similar village cultures in Africa where women must walk to a well to obtain their water and it is not uncommon to find women at the well even in the heat of the day. To assume this Samaritan woman was some how immoral because of the fact that on this particular day she happens to be at the well is a large logical leap to make.
The second premise of the argument that the Samaritan woman was a sexual promiscuous woman is derived from her past marriages and current living arrangement. In the middle of the conversation Jesus has with the woman, we read,
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” 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 now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.”
The assumption is that because this woman has been married five times and that the man she is living with now is not her husband, she must be an adulterous. This has been the view I have long held. However, there are some blaring complications with this assumption. The first is that Jesus does not specifically state that she was divorced. It is completely reasonable that some of these separations from her past husbands could have been caused by the death of her spouse. During this time, it was common for women to have been widowed at a young age. They were often married as young teenagers to men 10 or 15 years older than they. In a time when the average age of death was 10-15 years earlier than ours, a woman would commonly have been married more than once during her lifetime. Also, just as Jesus did not mention divorce, he doesn’t specifically reference any sin as He did with the lame man at the pool of Bethesda and the woman caught in adultery (John 5:14, 8:11). One quick side point: if this woman had such an awful reputation, then why did the whole town listen to her and come out to see this person she spoke of (John 4:29-30)?
Divorce in the middle east.
In the middle-eastern patriarchal society, women did not normally have the option to divorce their husband. It was the man who decided whether or not the marriage would end. Hillel, one of the two prominent rabbis at the time of the New Testament, taught a husband could divorce his wife even over trivial matters such as burning of a meal (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Gittin, 90a). While Shammai (the other prominent rabbi) taught that a husband could only divorce over serious matters, the power of divorce still laid almost solely with the male. The one exception was that a woman could appeal to the courts to force her husband to release her if her husband was abusive. One might point out that this woman in John chapter 4 was not a Jew. While that be true, the ethnic groups of the middle east shared similar cultures, especially in the realm of family and marriage. Consider the middle-eastern islamic states of today: divorce initiated by the woman is almost a non-option. The Samaritans and Jews shared borders and common ancestry. The Samaritans were even devoted to the Torah (at least, their version of it). The rules governing marriage and divorce would have been extremely similar between the two.
The options to explain the woman’s many marriages can be summarized into three possibilities: she was abused or abandoned which led to her suing for divorce, she was divorced by her husband and not by her initiation, or her husband had passed away. Since it is unlikely that all five marriages ended the same way, the Samaritan woman most likely experienced all or at least two of these. If she was divorced by her husband, it would have been doubtful that it was due to adultery since a woman caught in adultery could have been subject to capital punishment or was simply abandoned and unlikely to find another spouse, much less 4 more of them. If one of her husbands had passed away, perhaps she was taken by her husband’s relatives, a practice called the levirate law. It was a common ancient middle east practice and we see it practiced in Genesis 38 with the widow Tamar. What would have been a possible cause for her being divorced was that she was barren. In a culture where one’s offspring was the key to passing on your legacy, your wealth, your traditions, and your religion, a woman who was unable to bear a man a son would often be divorced.
Given what we know of the culture, it would be more likely that this woman was the victim rather the woman with the scarlet letter. But what of the man she was currently living with? Literally, in the greek, Jesus said to her, “whom you have now is not your husband.” To “have”, ἔχω in the greek, simply means that: this woman had a male. It could have been a family friend, a relative, a son, or a sexual partner. Most Christians have been taught the last option without being taught that there are other options just as likely, if not more so. In this middle-eastern culture, widows were often assimilated into a patrilocal, the patriarchal living space called the bêt ‘āb (father’s house). These patrilocal living spaces commonly housed several family units as a whole extended family under one patriarch. A woman was utterly dependent on the men in her family: first her father, then her husband, and then her sons. If she was ever without any of these, she would have been in a desperate separation. If a widow was left without some male family member to be housed with, she might be taken in by another family under a different patriarch. The Samaritan woman “having” a male could have meant that she had a male who had taken her in but was not her husband.
One other possibility is that she was in what we would be called today a “common-law marriage.” This would happen if a widow was past the child-bearing age and no longer having a male representative and/or the financial backing to induce a marriage. She then would live with a male and after a set period of time (often 2 years) would be considered his spouse. This was risky because there was no legally binding contract, called the ketubbah, so the male could divorce her without any paper work or legal obligation to the patriarchal family she came from. Although less than ideal, this type of arrangement was not considered sinful. If the Samaritan woman, having been married 5 previous times, found herself in this situation, Jesus’ words would have made perfect sense: “the one you now have is not your husband.”
The final point of evidence that convinced me this woman was most likely not a sexually immoral woman was the teachings of the early church fathers. I have yet to find one church father who taught this woman as an immoral person (that is not to suggest that there is not one). Instead, they consistently teach her as an honorable and honest seeking woman who treated Jesus with respect and was the first to recognize him as messiah in the Gospel of John, even before the Jews. John Chrysostom (347-407 AD) highlighted the great respect and patience she extended to this member of the Jews, with whom her people had a centuries long feud with. He contrasts her openness with Jesus to the oft closed-mindedness of Jesus’ own people. For Chrysostom, this woman was one to be emulated for her evangelical work and spiritual sensitivity. The first to teach her as possibly being immoral was Augustine. He suggested that she might be in an illegitimate marriage, which is much different than saying she was an adulterous. Augustine elevated her as a symbol of the church and one to be praised for her conversion. While he spoke of her being ignorant in her conversation with Jesus, he also spoke of Nicodemus, the Teacher of Law, being the same.
Perhaps it was divine providence that the woman was at the well that day. The household she was living in could have been running low on water and, as a widow with no other responsibilities, she volunteered. It could have been that at an older age and no longer being able to bear children, she had been adopted into another bêt ‘āb and she was simply doing her best to be useful. The reason she came to well could have that she was in search for hopefully the last marriage she would need. This woman’s past marriages were full of abuse, abandonment, barrenness, or death. Perhaps her last hope of security was to enter into a two year living arrangement in order to obtain a common law marriage. Even if all these other possibilities were not true and she was indeed living in an immoral relationship, it would have been likely that she felt her only option to obtain some income to live by was to prostitute herself. I doubt she would have been worth much. Her income would have been barely enough for a functional shelter or a filling meal plan. What is true no matter what the real situation was is that this woman had experienced years of brokenness, abandonment, and loss. As she set out to draw one last bucket of water, she passed a group of Jewish men heading into town. They too, like all the other men, having skirted to the side of the path, stared at the ground, refusing to even grant her the dignity of acknowledging her existence. When she approaches the ancient well of Jacob, there is yet another Jewish male sitting on the well’s wall. Surely he too would flee from her presence. Little did she know that this man would not just acknowledge her but rather this single Jewish male would give her the fulfilling relationship she had thought impossible.
BUT WAIT, there’s more!
For the rest of this article, I would like to focus on what John 4 is about. We often make the character of the Samaritan woman to be of such significance that we miss the real riches of John’s message. Jesus giving life to an ostracized widow/divorcee is a great message…BUT WAIT, there’s more! The Gospel of John is beloved for its beautiful simplicity and straightforward narrative. It is often the first book suggested for people who are just starting to read the Bible. However, the simplicity of John is just a mirage for his intertextual references, his literary complex structure, and his wide use of symbols and allusions. John writes his gospel so that the common bystander can understand it but also that scholars will study his literary genius and message for thousands of years. And John 4:1-45 is a perfect case study of John’s employment of threading several ideas into a simple narrative. While my hope is to pull on some of the major threads, a book could be written on all of the literary devices and implications of the fourth chapter of John. So I will have to focus just on a few. My goal is to set John 4 in the greater context of the book of John, its societal culture, and biblical history so that one might be able to see for themselves the 4K resolution of all John is illustrating for you.
So let’s set the scene a little heading into John 4 since Jesus’ interaction is a part of a larger narrative. In doing so, we will see John’s first thread that he has woven in to the narrative of the woman at the well. John 3 begins with Nicodemus, the teacher of the Law, coming to Jesus secretly at night to investigate further. There is a dialogue back and forth which finishes with a monologue from Jesus and the scene with Nicodemus ends without conclusion. In Jesus’ monologue, Jesus uses the bronze serpent of Moses being lifted up as an allegory for the Son of Man being lifted up. He then states, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
What is striking about setting the Samaritan woman in context of Nicodemus is the many correlations and contradistinctions between the two (reference the chart below). One chapter centers on a male, “the teacher of the Law,” a highly respected Jewish leader, a Pharisee and member of the of the Sanhedrin, and one skilled in the tenahk (the canonical Hebrew scriptures). The next chapter centers around a common female of the Samaritans, a hated people group. John juxtapositions these two characters so closely together that it is no surprise there might be some similarities in the discussions Jesus has with these two… but more on that later.
|John 3 – Nicodemus||John 4 – Samaritan Woman|
|Status||The Teacher of The Law||Woman of a hated people group|
Immediately after Jesus’ monologue, we read about a discussion among John the Baptist’s disciples and a Jew over purification. They then go to John and point out all the people going to Jesus to be baptized. John then replied,
“A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”
John the Baptist then finished his response with, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36), which echoes Jesus’ statement in verse 16 to Nicodemus. A central message in John 3 is that eternal life belongs to those who have faith in the Son. Wouldn’t it be surprising if eternal life came up again in Chapter 4?
John 4 starts with an allusion that Jesus was under threat from the Pharisees so he must flee to Galilee but first “he had to pass through Samaria” (John 4:4). As has been frequently discussed in many a sermon, no Jew ever “had” to go to Samaria. The Jews and Samaritans had hundreds of years of religious and ethnic dirt throwing. The Samaritans were viewed by the Jews as half-bred, ethnically impure, and cheap knock offs who had sullied the Torah and the Lord of Heaven. The animosity between the two parties permeated their cultures and hailed from the time of when the united kingdom of Israel fractured into two. Though Israel was only about 120 miles from north to south, Samaria was smack in the middle of it. If a Jew wanted to go to northern part of their state, they would always take the journey around Samaria even though it doubled their travel time. So, why is Jesus, a Jew, purposefully going through Samaria? It’s conceivable that his disciples assumed that he might pronounce judgement against them. Why else would their rabbi be so intent on having business in Samaria?
Coming to the town of Sychar, Jesus sat on Jacob’s Well. Sychar was the ancient town of Shechem. It was nestled in the valley between the mounts of Ebal and Gerizim. It was at Shechem that Abram made his first stop in Canaan and received the promise from the Lord, ““To your offspring I will give this land,” and built an altar (Genesis 12:6-7). It was in Shechem that Joseph’s bones were buried on a parcel of land purchased by Jacob (Genesis 33:19; Joshua 24:32), hence the reason John reminds his readers in 4:5 that Jesus came “near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.” After the Israelites finally entered and conquered the Promised Land, Israel reestablished its commitment of the Law by half of the tribes standing on Ebal and shouting the curses of not upholding the law and while the other half on Gerizim shouted the blessings of upholding the law (Deuteronomy 27:11-13; Joshua 24:23-25). It was at Shechem that Rehoabam was to be inaugurated as king but instead split the nation (1 Kings 12:1, 16). Afterwards, the northern kingdom would build their own temple on Gerizim, claiming it to be the true place of worship, not Jerusalem. Later (110 B.C.), after the successful Maccabean revolt against Greece, the Jewish king and priest John Hyrcanus led a campaign against Samaria, during which he destroyed the temple on Gerizim and sacked Shechem. It is here that the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman unfolded. In the near distance stood silent witnesses of the conversation that was about to unfold: Abram’s altar, Jacob’s well, Joseph’s bones, Gerizim, Ebal, the ghost of those who first took God’s promised land, the ancient capital of the rebellion, and a city reduced to a village by the Jews. The story is set in contrast to Nicodemus, a Jewish expert in the Law. This discussion would be flowing out of a discussion of eternal life and Jesus being the bridegroom coming for his bride.
And as Jesus rests at the well, after sending his apostles into town, a woman approaches the well. Even without the subtle hint John dropped at the end of the previous chapter, any Jewish reader of John’s gospel would have raised their eye brow at this scene. There have been three other stories in the Old Testament of a man coming to a well and meeting a woman: Abraham’s servant and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, and Moses and Zipporah (Gen 24:10-61; 29:1-20; Exodus 2:15- 21). Every time these stories ended in someone getting married. The western reader might shrug this off as much to do about such a little detail. Observe the similarities all of these stories share: a male is traveling to a foreign land, he comes to a well, he meets there a woman, water is provided, the woman hustles home, and the man is invited to stay. What is more is that John drops in some extra details to tie his story to each of the uniquenesses of the others. Jesus is fleeing and rests at a well, as had Moses (Exodus 2:15). It is mid-day, as it was with Rachel and the Samaritan woman asked if Jesus was greater than Jacob (Genesis 29:7), which offers more of an explanation to when she comes to the well than does her moral character. Jesus asks for a drink, just as Abraham’s servant did (Genesis 24:17). To make it more implicit, John started Jesus’ signs with turning water into wine at a wedding in chapter 2 and calls Jesus a bridegroom looking for his bride in chapter 3. Jesus is looking for a bride.
The Dating Game
What I would like to do now is to quickly work through the conversation Jesus has with the woman at the well. If Jesus is looking for a bride, Jesus will be using some pick-up lines. I will not be thoroughly exegeting the discussion but will be highlighting some of the key details and the overall movement so you and I can learn from the Master. I will stick with this dating/courtship motif to keep us in the context of what we just discussed. As I do so, I will be making some implications for you and I.
John 4:7 – Jesus: “Give me water.”
A classic pick-up line. Demand a favor: works every time.
Notice Jesus doesn’t have anything to draw water with (John 4:11). This wasn’t by accident. John explains that the reason Jesus requests water is because “…his disciples had gone away into the city…” (John 4:8). If you are traveling a distance, you bring something to draw water with. However, Jesus purposefully puts himself in a situation that he needs the assistance of this woman.
The woman responds with a “you talkin’ to me?!” and it’s understandable. As John points out, Jews don’t have dealings with Samaritans, much less Jewish males with Samaritan females. In fact, Jewish males hardly ever had public interactions even with Jewish females. As William Barclay points out in his commentary of the Gospel of John,
“The strict Rabbis forbade a Rabbi to greet a woman in public. A Rabbi might not even speak to his own wife or daughter or sister in public. There were even Pharisees who were called ‘the bruised and bleeding Pharisees’ because they shut their eyes when they saw a woman on the street and so walked into walls and houses!”
The Daily Study Bible, The Gospel of John Pt. 1
So here is Jesus breaking social conventions and fraternizing with a questionable female of sketchy background…and definitely not a “Christian.” This is what Jesus so often does; He takes social boundaries and purposefully turns them around on us. Who is it that you (and I) are unwilling to even look at? What people group have you judged as being unworthy of grace? Jesus’ actions challenge us to go out of way to the people we and (church) society would normally avoid.
John 4:10 – Jesus: “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.”
If the demand of a favor doesn’t work out, then play coy and throw in a bait-and-switch.
Jesus doesn’t use any eloquent segways here. He quickly drops the “God card” and starts to move the conversation from a simple request for water to something more profound. He flips his need of assistance around to offering the woman assistance.
John 4:11-12 – Samaritan Woman: “our father Jacob…He gave us the well”
Well, my daddy is…
Many commentators have claimed ignorance on the part of the woman in this conversation, as if she isn’t getting it. This may stem from the assumption that she is an immoral woman or that they don’t see what she is referring to. “Living water” was a term for spring water. A well was hole dug in the ground until you hit a spot where water pooled up. Living water was active and gushing. She is asking if Jesus had the ability to give her (and her neighbors) this type of water, a water source Jacob wasn’t able to give them.
Also, notice that she refers to Jacob as “our father.” A typical Jew during this time would have freaked out over this.
John 4:14 – Jesus: “The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
If playing coy doesn’t work, offer them something nice and fancy.
Jesus, ignoring where the typical Jew of his time would have been side-tracked (“our father Jacob”), moved directly to clarifying his ambiguous statement earlier that drew her in. This water source will actually be something she will have in herself so she won’t thirst again. And this water source will not only guarantee that the individual will not thirst again but that they will be welling up “to eternal life” (remember chapter 3?). Don’t miss the “welling up” part. This is a visual anyone at the time would have grasped. A water source such as a well just sat there. If you want water from it, you have to go to it and draw from its depths. A spring (aka “living water”) wells up and gushes forth. It spreads to its surrounding environment and enriches it.
John 4:15 – Samaritan Woman: “Give me this water… “
He has her now…
At this point, I have no idea if she has any idea where Jesus is heading with all of this. Maybe she thought Jesus was just toying with her. I can’t for the life of me think that she actually thought this crazy, lonely Jewish guy was serious. But, that’s just me.
John 4:16 – Jesus: “Go call your husband.”
Make sure she’s single…
This could have been a polite suggestion to make this conversation between male and female more kosher; not so with Jesus. He’s been manipulating this conversation and he’s bringing it in for his big punch line. He knows this woman doesn’t have a husband. Again John is calling our attention to the marriage motif he has been painting.
John 4:18 – Jesus: “…you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband.”
If she is single, show off your prophet skills.
This is where I would normally talk more about how modern Christians insert the assumption that this woman is an immoral person…but I spent almost 3000 words doing so. What remains to be pointed out though is that Jesus tells her something he should not have known: she had five husbands and is living with a male who isn’t her husband. Perhaps this is the moment that this woman is actually interested now.
On a side note, there is a theory and I’m not sure what I think of it other than it is intriguing. Jesus may not be referring to 5 literal husbands but rather five pagan deities. In 2 Kings 17:24-33, we read of five ethnic groups that are moved into the northern part of Israel (i.e. Samaria) and how they both worship their own gods and the Lord. Raymond Brown observed that “husband” was used to describe pagan deities during this time. Perhaps, through divine providence, Jesus was using this individual woman’s story as a deeper allegory for the people of Samaria, that though they had five “husbands” in the past, they were living with someone to whom they did not have an official marriage with yet (Yahweh). While I could not commit to this, it is seriously intellectually stimulating.
John 4:20 – Samaritan woman: “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain…”
She calls him out.
Perceiving this man as a prophet, she doesn’t ask him some individual question about her life but rather a question that has long divided the Samaritan from the Jew. This woman was more than familiar with the heated disagreements between the Jews and Samaritans, and, having recognized the role Jesus was playing, asked the question that will bring this cryptic conversation to a head: Which mountain is the right place for worship? If this Hebrew is going to persist in his cryptic proses, then she is going to call him out. This question is built around the long volatile history between the two ethnicities that these two standing in the shadow of Mount Gerizim have found themselves to be representatives of. Surely Jesus, being a Jew, will be forced into admitting his disapproval for her people. Also Jesus, being a prophet, would be obligated to correct this woman’s erroneous theology.
John 4:23 – Jesus: “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.”
Drop some profound statement.
Jesus acknowledged the woman’s point but quickly capitalizes on the moment to bring her to a deeper truth than the one she wants to debate. Jesus doesn’t give her the “correct” answer but rather moved the conversation to “the Father is seeking.” This echoes back to Abraham, the father of Isaac, seeking out a bride for his son. Both the Jews and Samaritans had forgotten the location of God’s House was not the point. It was meant to be mobile so that it could go with the people. Within one generation of creating an “official” permanent location for the church…er, temple, the nation splits into two, each half claiming to have the right answer of proper worship and theology.
John 4:25 – Samaritan Woman: “I know that Messiah is coming…”
When she drops the Jesus card, just say you are Jesus.
The Samaritans were waiting for the Ta’eb, the restorer and the fulfillment of the a prophet like Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15, to come and restore his people and proper observance of the Law. To this expectation, Jesus literally said, “I AM the one who speaks to you.” This is the first “I am” statement of the book of John. Through the the cryptic turns and tunnels, Jesus had manipulated the conversation from a simple request for a drink to this moment. The galactic Mover of the universe had covertly coerced this woman to admitting her need of the Messiah, unaware he sat on the well she drew from. And, so, his big reveal…
John 4:26 – “I who speak to you am he.”
At this, she dropped her water. Apparently she had been drawing water while talking with Jesus and, perhaps, had given him some to drink. After strutting back from town, the apostles gawked at the audacity of Jesus dabbling with a Samaritan woman…at a well. The woman raced home to tell all of this man she had just met. The townspeople, intrigued with what she had shared with them, come out to investigate for themselves. Then Jesus is invited to spend a couple of more days with these half-breed heretics and he does. By the end of his stay, 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 indeed the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). Two observations about the conclusion of this field trip. First, in the Gospel of John, the Samaritans were the first, aside from John the Baptist, to realize who Jesus was. Second, the people praised the woman for her witness. At first, they trusted her word (which I doubt they would have trusted that of a morally loose woman) but now they trust because they have experienced Jesus as well. The woman at the well has become an evangelist, an angel to the previous capital of Samaria now called Sychar.
I love the way Ephrem the Syrian describes the character development of the Samaritan woman in Kevin Bailey’s book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes:
At the beginning of the conversation he did not make himself known to her… but first she caught sight of a thirsty man, then a Jew, then a rabbi, afterwards a prophet, last of all the Messiah. She tried to get the better of the thirsty man, she showed her dislike of the Jew, she heckled the rabbi, she was swept off her feet by the prophet, and finally she adored the Messiah
Piece it all together
Piece it all together: Nicodemus, Shechem/Samaria, Wedding.
The Samaritan woman at the well, whom the Eastern Orthodox named Photini after her baptism (which means Enlightened One) is contrasted with the educated male of the correct theology and moral aptitude. Nicodemus’ journey only starts in chapter 3. We do not bring a resolve to his questioning until he publicly retrieves the body of Christ much later in the book of John. Nicodemus did not get it right away. The Samaritan woman got it in one conversation. This woman quickly came to the resolution of the identity of Jesus and evangelized a whole village the same day. Right education, right ethnicity, right position, right status, right career, and right religion are not guarantees that you will recognize Jesus when he shows up. The woman at the well challenges us to realize that God is presently working among even the heretical Samaritans…and Muslims, homosexuals, and __________ (John 4:38).
Jesus travels to Shechem, a city smothered in history and baggage, to reestablish the promise given to Abram, that all the nations will be blessed. Through Jesus’ visitation of Shechem, John invites his audience to look over at the tomb of Joseph, to drink from the well of Jacob, to watch the people of God finally taking the promise given to them, to hear the echoes of the shouts of the Covenant ring against the mountain sides, to see the revolt of a nation dividing in two, to gaze up at the rubble of the Samaritan temple on Gerizim destroyed by the Jews, and to strain under a thousand years of ethnic and religious tension as the Jewish Messiah entertains a common Samaritan woman at a well. Jesus came to heal the divide and reunite these two estranged siblings so they can reclaim their blessing as Abraham’s descendants. Jesus’ “first sign” in the Gospel of John was the turning of water into wine at a wedding in chapter 2. Chapter 3 concludes with John the Baptist calling Jesus the bridegroom coming to get his bride. Then John inserts a plethora of “easter eggs” through the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman that all scream that this is the retelling of three other stories of a man coming to a well where he meets a woman. The ending was always marriage. The story of the woman at well in chapter 4 is then Jesus coming for his bride. Jesus, being greater than Jacob, has come to bring back his bride, one deemed lost and worthless by his own people. Jesus blows through ages of hate, social-convention, and partisanship to start a movement to bring divided peoples together as one. Ignored are the years of education and religious vernacular against the other group who teach this and practice that. It is to that other group that Jesus must go.
John has stitched an amazing story together from a handful of threads. On the surface, the Samaritan woman is easily relatable and compelling but, as you dig through each layer, levels of color and definition are uncovered lying just underneath the black and white. Black and white photography enabled still scenes to be captured forever that only words and crude drawings could attempt to characterize. Then moving film made those black and white scenes become alive. Then color made The Wizard of Oz a legend in the movie industry. I remember when DVDs were just coming out and how people clamored about the clarity they delivered. Today, Blu-ray is old news as 4k is just starting to take the market. Don’t miss the 4k depth and details lying just underneath the simplistic story of John 4.