Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)
The Samaritan woman said to him “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)
Jesus answered her “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”.
Read John 4:1-10
The Other Good Samaritan by Dianne Armstrong
I once heard that the conversation Jesus conducts with the Samaritan woman at the well is His longest with anyone. Curious as to why this might be so, I determined to find out more about her. What had drawn him to that place, to her? As they are presented to us, women of dubious reputation were part of His inner circle, or he interacted with them. In this episode from John 4, Jesus breaks at least three taboos, religious, cultural, and social: 1) He speaks to a woman in violation of rabbinical law, which prohibited the teaching of scripture privately to a woman; 2) He speaks to a Samaritan woman, considered a “half-breed” by Jews because of the Samaritans’ intermarriage with Assyrians in the historical past and their consequent deviation from orthodox Jewish religious practice (Jesus would be a “purebred” in such a nomenclature); 3) The woman’s history of multiple marriages marks her as morally and socially degraded. Again, that Jesus converses with such a woman is suspect, not only to the disciples but to the religious community of their day. That she comes alone, in the middle of the day when the village is napping and draws her own water, are signs of her lowly status. She apparently doesn’t want to be seen.
But superseding these suggestions that Jesus is in a hostile and alien situation are the implications of common ground that ultimately enable both Jesus and the woman to overcome the barriers to inclusiveness. They meet at Jacob’s Well, symbolic of their common ancestor, a patriarch and founder of the tribe of Benjamin, and affiliated with the tribe of Judah from which Jesus comes. Jesus is even depicted as breaking another taboo, drinking from a common cup; and finally, there is the symbolic mention of water, which permeates the account of this significant encounter. As Jacob meets his future wife Rachel, so the meeting of opposites here in Jesus and the Samaritan woman constitutes a kind of “marriage.” Jesus is the Water of Life, spiritual nourishment, while the Samaritan woman embodies the physical, human need for the substance and, at the same time, the offering of hospitality in giving a thirsty Jesus a drink. Thus, the symbol of water, also a metaphor for “rebirth,” unites the two, cleansing them of any “sinfulness,” in the case of the woman, and in Jesus the onus associated with the crossing of boundaries or breach of custom.
Just a few words about the woman’s abject status: many cultures maintain a “purity” code, based on the notion that the gods are insulted by the debasing of the sacred. Associated with such codes is the idea of pollution. It therefore behooves the society to draw lines around such areas in their culture and do what they can to defend them. They do so by drawing up rules. One of these is that pollution is associated with sin and with evil, and must be ritualized in rites to reduce its power or potency and to remove it through exorcisms of the victim. Women were and are particularly vulnerable as examples of the insidiousness of sin and evil, epitomized in the idea of contamination because of their bodily functions (menstruating woman in any number of cultures are set aside, sometimes in a specific space, until they are ritually clean). Thus, defiled persons are also seen as dangerous in that they may spread evil but also because of their contact with demons and other evil creatures who may attack the unwary.
These are among the cultural superstitions according to which the Samaritan woman is marginalized, not only in her own society but as Samaritans are to Jews. Jesus, however, would seem to prefer the company of outcasts (it may surely be said that one of the Samaritan woman’s avatars is Mary Magdalene). Nonetheless, as we watch in amazement, we see his hostess’s transformation from ignoble pariah to disciple as she evolves from rapt listener to the Good News, to belief in Jesus, to apostle status, spreading the word about her chance meeting with the Messiah and celebrating her new life in Him. Her story, then, represents not just one of God’s embrace of us despite our “sins” or our waywardness but our remaking in His mold, becoming creatures of His love.
Thus, the incident at the well assures us that no matter where we hide or how unworthy we feel; God will eventually come looking for us, with open arms, offering His divine, unconditional love.