The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans)
-John 4:9 (NIV) [Italics mine]
This is a story that I have heard countless times, in many churches, throughout the course of my Christian life. I have heard it preached from just about every version of the Bible known to humankind, and in each instance emphasis has been placed on how this passage alludes to spiritual rebirth and new life in Christ. We always hear about the more “spiritual” aspects of this story.
That isn’t necessarily wrong. (The Bible is a rather spiritual book, after all.)
Here we find the Pharisees trying, as usual, to make life difficult for Jesus and His disciples. He certainly seemed to get under their skin! Like spoiled children they spent every waking hour seeking out a means to His end. So, Jesus quietly bid adieu to Judea and headed for Galilee. Although our passage tells us that Jesus “had to go through Samaria” [John 4:4], this is not patently true. [Jews normally went well out of their way to avoid passing through Samaritan borders.]
But Jesus of Nazareth was not your typical Rabbi.
Instead of walking the long way around the region of Samaria as most “upright” Jews would have done, out of an intense dislike of the Samaritans, Jesus elected to journey directly through that very region. He set His face for Sychar, to go where the need was greatest, giving little credence to what the religious leaders required. He preferred to do what God required. [Micah 6:8 “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”]
Jesus arrived at the town of Sychar at about noon, when the heat of the day would have been most unbearable and most people would have been taking refuge under a tree or in their. He came upon a part of town, not too far from the very plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph (Genesis 33:19). It was here that our exhausted and parched Lord sat by Jacob’s Well, in need of rest.
Now, it probably would have made more sense for Jesus to wait at the well closer to sunset, when the women of the town normally drew their water. But Jesus, as always, was a Man on a mission, and He chose His own time and place. He found Himself awaiting a visit from a woman when the sun was at its zenith.
A Samaritan woman (we never do learn her name) came along to draw some water. The time of day is worthy of note, as women usually came to draw water when it was cooler. This woman is probably well aware of her tarnished reputation and deliberately chooses the least popular time of day to draw water, careful to avoid the whispers, jeers and clear disgust of her “neighbors.” What a sad way to have to go through ones’ life, tried and convicted in the eyes of ones’ own people – not deemed worthy of their love or consideration.
As a Rabbi, Jesus arguably had the most reason to avoid contact with her. Any “decent” Jewish Rabbi would not deign to even acknowledge the existence of a woman, except as a servant or handmaid. Never as an equal. Talking to a woman was considered taboo. Fortunately Jesus was no slave to tradition. [See Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30 for the story of the Faith of the Canaanite Woman. Jesus treated women far better than was ever expected of a Rabbi.] The Samaritan woman had three strikes against her above and beyond being a woman. She was a Samaritan, a half-breed race despised by Jews of good standing, known to be living in sin [several husbands and a live-in one now], and this was a public place — a veritable town center. A respectable Jewish male would NEVER talk to a woman under these circumstances.
Oh, but there is One who found her worthy of great love, who treated her as one of God’s own children (for such she was). Jesus looked into her eyes and quietly asked, “Will you give me a drink?” to which the woman replies that she is a Samaritan and He is a Jew. How could He be asking her for a drink of water? (Jews and Samaritans despised one another with the same vehemence of today’s Irish Protestants and Catholics, or the Jews and Arabs of the Middle East.)
Jesus calmly told her that if she 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.” [John 4:10] She must have been quite puzzled. Jesus had no bucket or rope and Jacob’s Well was probably 100 feet deep at this time, there was no way He was going to be able to offer her water. Besides, a Jew would have never offered anything to a Samaritan, and the feeling was quite mutual. She may well have thought He was playing some sort of cruel trick on her.
While the woman mistakes His offer as one of truly unique physical water (the Evian of her day), Jesus is of course speaking of “eternal life”, or the promised Holy Spirit, but this is not understood at the time. In the Old Testament, God is referred to as the “fountain of Life” and as the “spring of living water.” By telling this woman that he could bring living water, Jesus was in effect claiming that he could quench a person’s thirst for God. Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah!
The woman would have understood this.
When she asked Jesus for this special living water, He tells her to go and to return with her husband. She had no current husband, but five had come and gone, and she was not married to the man she was now living with. According to Jewish law, a woman could be married two, or maybe even three times without losing face, and it is likely that Samaritan law was similar. When Jesus tells her of her five husbands and current lover, she calls him a prophet and then tries to steer the conversation away from this rather uncomfortable subject to “this mountain” [Mount Gerizim] [You see, Jews and Samaritans had long debated whether it was Mount Gerizim or Mount Ebal from which Moses had blessed his people so many centuries before.]. It is likely that this woman hoped to get Jesus’ attention on debating this matter and not her current sinful state.
Most of us would do likewise, would we not?
As I studied the fourth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, I could not help but notice that Jesus spoke to this woman not as an underling or a servant, but as another human being, of equal value to men and Jews. He could have, and by all cultural rights should have, treated her with disdain or simply ignored her altogether. He chose not to do either, but instead went the proverbial extra mile to meet with her at the well where He made His first real claim to be Messiah (see the Living Water reference above) to a woman. A Samaritan woman. A Samaritan woman with a rather sordid past and present.
Is this not amazing? Is it not radical? It was a staggering a thing for the Jewish Rabbi to treat a woman as though she were worthy of such incredible compassion and to share with her an important spiritual message. This point is driven home by the reaction of Jesus’ disciples when they return and find Him engaged in such a serious spiritual discussion with “the woman.” Reading in verse 27, we find the returning disciples earnestly surprised that Jesus was speaking with her.
She didn’t hear their reaction however, as she was far too busy running around her town telling everyone she met along the way “Could this be the Christ?” In verse 39 we learn that a large number of her fellow Samaritans came to a belief in Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, all because someone they didn’t care about cared enough to bring them the Good News.
This forever nameless woman from two thousand years ago became a powerful evangelist for Christ. She clearly did not return hatred for hatred, but instead was eager to share the Good News that Messiah had come with those who had shamefully treated and despitefully used her. We remember her to this day, a woman no one wanted to know and even the Disciples didn’t bother to name in their Gospels.
People, including yours truly, have spoken and written at length about how the personality of Jesus drew men, women, and children to Him. Much has been said about the way his infinite love and compassion, and how they appealed to the lost and hurting people around Him. I believe this is something that clearly set Jesus Christ of Nazareth apart from the other religious leaders of His time. It is said, and rightly so, that He was God Incarnate and yet fully human in one Person. I think that the human part of Christ was far more human (read: humane) than the Pharisees and Sadducees. While they plotted his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus was reaching out to those branded “unclean” and weeping over the state of Jerusalem.
As I read the story of the Samaritan Woman, I found myself wondering what it was that drew Jesus to her. He sought her out; this was not a case of some lost soul chasing after Jesus for help or forgiveness. He sat at Jacob’s Well and waited for her to come for water, knowing that she would. Her human neighbors did not want to be seen near her, but the Son of God went out of his way (literally) to spend time with her. Not only that, but He actually told her that He was the Messiah [John 4:26], the only time He admits this to anyone before His appearance before Pilate upon His arrest.
He traveled on foot through what was clearly “enemy territory” to bring the Good News that Christ had come in person to someone most people took great pains to avoid!
It is this innate compassion, empathy, and love Christ demonstrated toward others that draws me to the One who has always been. He didn’t sit around under a shady tree spouting off insincere platitudes while his underlings ran themselves ragged fetching Him food and wine. He fed everyone at the Sermon on the Mount and provided miraculous wine at the wedding in Cana [1 John:2]. Jesus knew that many were actively seeking his death, yet he continued reaching out to people — individually and en masse — every day. All the while His closest friends were preparing to betray him.
Christ loved them anyway.
Staring down from Calvary’s bitter cross through eyes blinded with his own blood, Jesus used what little air was left in his aching lungs and called out to God, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” [Luke 23:34] That was the epitome of love, lived out by a Man who personified true agape love. Surrounded by those who nailed his hands and feet to the cross, as well as by the crowds who cried out “Crucify him! Crucify him!” and those who orchestrated his arrest, conviction and crucifixion, Jesus forgave them. He could have come down from that cross in a veritable whirlwind of awesome power and final judgment. He could have struck everyone dead where they stood.
He could have.
He probably should have.
Yet He did not.
He always went where He was needed, regardless of how it “looked” or what others may have thought. Repeatedly throughout the Gospels we are given examples of Christ’s infinite love for those who were considered infinitely unlovable and unworthy by the society in which they lived. In this, Christ was so very much unlike us. Where we would have called down the wrath of God Almighty on our persecutors, Jesus earnestly called down God’s forgiveness.
Where others would have avoided contact with the Samaritan Woman, Jesus intentionally sought her out. This is one of the main reasons I admire Jesus, His love for every single one of us. It’s also why I am most puzzled by the feminist detractors who claim that Christ and the religion which bears His name were (and remain) steeped in misogyny. Compared to His contemporaries, Jesus was a women’s rights advocate! Think about it. He talked to them and actually listened to what they had to say. He taught others by His own example that women were to be valued as individuals, as equals. They may have had different work than men, but their work was as important. Their thoughts were important too, and Christ made that clear. If you doubt that, have a little look at the story of the adulterous woman [John 8:1-11].
He reached out and touched lepers, healing them of their disease, while all others scurried off in the other direction.
He spent time with those society cast aside, and was often criticized by the Sadducees and Pharisees for His habit of hanging out with the “scum of society.” His reply was that the healthy had no need of a physician, but the sick did [Matthew 9:12]. Jesus knew that His breath would be wasted on the religious and people of “good standing,” but that the poor, the sick, and the sinful were starving for the healing touch of His hand. For the look of pure love in His eyes. They wanted to know the Truth, to experience the outstretched hand of forgiveness the religious leaders would never think of extending to them. Jesus never thought of society’s outcasts as worthless, but as important members of the family of God.
We have all heard the Golden Rule, which states: So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. [Matthew 7:12] Most of us may not be able to give its exact location in the Bible, but we can quote that verse pretty well. Jesus did more than that, He lived it every single day.
The Samaritan woman was open to receiving the message that Jesus Christ was bringing to her, and He loved her as a child of the kingdom for that. Where the religious leaders and the so-called “cream” of Judean society thought someone like her was not worth the breath they drew, the very Son of God made a special trip just to offer her a place in His coming kingdom. He reached out to her and she reached back.
She didn’t say “No, Lord, you can’t be telling me this. I’m no one, I’m not worthy enough to even fetch you water.” She didn’t say that it was beneath a Samaritan, even a Samaritan woman with a tarnished reputation, to talk to a Jew. Instead, she said, “Could this be the Messiah? Come and see!”
And so we remember this dear woman to this very day.