God in the Details: The Samaritans (Part III) – The Woman at the Well
Our last two discussions have taken us on a brief journey into the strained relationship between the Jews and Samaritans of Jesus’ day. First, we examined some of the historic, cultural and theological details of the Samaritans. Second, we took a look at one of Jesus’ most famous parables, The Good Samaritan, found in Luke’s gospel. We examined the parable under the lens of what we previously learned about the Samaritans. The goal was to gain a deeper appreciation of the scandal that would have been felt by those listening, including the lawyer and Jesus’ own disciples, as Jesus told this parable. Jesus’ teaching was more than just to create a shocking effect, as if he were content to leave people in their own state of disequilibrium; he was deconstructing wrong-headed religious assumptions about God’s Kingdom while simultaneously reinforcing the right ones.
This brings us to the breathtaking encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman that we find in John’s gospel. The entirety of this story can be found in John’s gospel, in the fourth chapter. To summarize, Jesus in traveling back to Galilee and has to pass through Samaria to get there. Upon arriving in Sychar, exhausted from his traveling, he stops at a well that was in a field that had been purchased by Jacob and given to his favorite son, Joseph. Jesus asks the woman for a drink of water.
One of the most provocative details of the life of Christ was his social behavior. He frequently dined with “sinners” and often invited himself over to the homes of people of ill repute. In proclaiming the availability of God’s Kingdom to all who would respond, Jesus often confronted social conventions with the greatest of ease, affirming the marginalized by declaring them fit to be members of God’s family.[i] So Jesus asking the woman at the well for a drink is simply Jesus keeping in step with his scandalously gracious behavior. While the Samaritan woman was surprised that Jesus was asking her for a drink, Jesus takes it as an opportunity to engage in a more meaningful discussion by taking something immediate, like the need for water, and turning the subject to himself, where water becomes the metaphor for something transcendent. Jesus does this by immediately telling her that if she knew who was asking her for a drink, she’d be the one asking him for one.
Like Nicodemas in an earlier encounter with Jesus, the Samaritan woman seems to misunderstand the scope of Jesus’ statement. Her perspective, at this point, is primarily temporal; she wonders how Jesus plans on giving her water when he has no bucket to draw water with. How then, can he have access to ‘living water?’ Jesus never asks the question of how this is possible, only that he is the source of that water and those who take it are satisfied in ways previously unknown. Intrigued, the Samaritan woman asks for this water so that she neither experiences thirst again or has need to return to the well. This is interesting, given that she had just made the point that this watering hole was the same well that had sustained their ancestor Jacob and his family generations ago. Perhaps her desire to never return to Jacob’s well had to do with fact that her visits to there were taken midday, in the absence of other women, who may have had a thing or two to say about her sordid reputation. This detail, which does not go unnoticed by John, is the next matter to which we will now turn.
“Go and get your husband.” What an interesting request. Yet, two ideas emerge: Jesus begins to establish his Messianic identity in clearer terms and the brokenness of the woman’s life comes into full view. Craig Keener, commenting in The IVP Bible Background Commentary, makes an interesting observation that the woman’s reply to Jesus, “I have no husband,” could have easily been taken to mean, “I am available.” In the midst of her insistence of the sacredness of Jacob’s well, her attention turns to a more immediate longing that had long been compromised by tragic choices. Jesus’ reply to her, demonstrating his keen insight into her personal life, cements in her mind that Jesus is a prophet. If her answer to Jesus’ question was suggestive in nature, that inclination was gone almost as soon as it was spoken.
Now that she has a Jewish prophet’s attention, she brings her complaint to Jesus’ attention. The religious practices of her people had always occurred on Mount Gerizim, but their temple, destroyed two centuries earlier by Jewish leaders, no longer existed. Instead, the ruins of the once proud building now served as a reminder of the religious zeal that the Jews had for Mount Zion, their temple and Israel’s place in God’s story. By referencing Jacob, Joseph and his sons, the Samaritan woman is supporting her point of view by tethering it to the significance that these sacred spaces had come to signify in the religious history of her people. Jesus does not dismiss her concerns as unimportant; however, he takes her concerns and weaves it into a larger story, one that both Jews and Samaritans had largely missed.
Jesus affirms the place that the Jewish narrative has within salvation history; however, in presenting himself as the embodiment of that narrative, he turns the question of salvation on its head. By telling the woman that God is looking for those who will worship God in Spirit and truth, he is saying that authentic worship has nothing to do with ethnic identity and little to do with sacred spaces (although they are still important symbols within our religious lives).
Perhaps unconvinced, but definitely intrigued, the Samaritan woman sums up her position by saying that Jesus may very well be telling the truth, but when the Messiah arrives, he will sort this out once and for all. Jesus’ self-disclosure, “I am he, you don’t have to wait any longer or look any further,”[ii] reveals his true identity, which the Samaritan does not question. She is convinced and responds to Jesus accordingly. The disciples return from their errands and are shocked to see this episode unfolding. Yet, it was in these types of moments that Jesus prepares their hearts for their vocation that was to begin after his ascension.
How often has this story been read or a sermon preached from behind the pulpit with little to no attention paid to the details of this conversation? The tension of a fractured life resonates with many of us. However, hunger for the eternal is not simply reserved for the pious and it can become a tragic cycle when we attempt to fill our deepest longings for the transcendent with the temporal, only to be disappointed at its lack of staying power. That being said, our failed attempts can actually become the canvas where God prepares our heart for his love, bringing life into a more meaningful view. This encounter, like the many others found in the four gospels, serves as a microcosm of God’s larger story.
What can we learn from the details of the Samaritans? I’d like to suggest a few things in closing. First, studying the details of scripture provides the necessary pieces to help see scripture as a whole. It gives light to insight that may have been previously ignored. We are reminded that the more we learn, the less we know, and that’s a good thing. It is an open invitation to discover a clearer picture of who God is and why he still matters. When scripture fails to challenge those who claim it to be God’s word, then something is amiss and an opportunity to engage culture is lost.
Second, how do I respond when faced with the challenges of loving those I consider to be my enemies (including those closest to me)? Those who belong to God’s Kingdom are called to love and show compassion to their enemies. This will express itself in many different forms, including disagreeing with others on matters of conscience, but what if others hold to what they think are justified reasons to believe what they do? We all should aspire to become more attentive listeners and not be so eager to dismiss those who may view the world differently. Tell the more compelling story, even to those whom you may consider your enemies.
For the Christian, by loving those we see as our enemies, we lay the groundwork for God’s Kingdom to be birthed in ways that we may have never suspected otherwise. It also means that we, from time to time, will be shown mercy by those whom we consider our enemies. Do not ignore the activity of God’s presence in the lives of those whom we may assume cannot “possess the truth.” There are many among us, including myself, who identify with the Samaritan woman. In the midst of our religious frustration, our lives are often marked by one destructive decision after another. In the midst of this fragmentation, the apologist needs to hear the longing, join the discussion and embody the hope of participating in God’s Kingdom with a newly discovered life.
In working out the details of their conversation, we see that the Samaritan woman found God himself. Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well are just as true today as they were then. If anyone is frustrated, conflicted and wondering how to make sense of what authentic worship is, living in a culture where the options are many, but fulfillment is lacking, “You don’t have to wait any longer or look any further.”
A scandalous story indeed.