This is probably a very familiar story for many of us. I remember singing with great gusto a chorus about her as a young person: Jesus gave her water that was not in the well, She went away singing she came back bringing others for the water ….that was not in the well. This wonderful piece of drama has multiple meanings. What sort of woman was she really? There are three points that I’d like us to share. 1st she was an ostracised woman,2nd she was a mistreated woman, and 3rd she was a woman who experienced a life- saving dialogue. This woman had three things counting against her: she was a Samaritan, a ‘sinner’ and a woman
Before we launch into that let’s think about the position of this story in the gospel according to John. Last week our lectionary set down the story of Nicodemus for us to think about. He was of course very different to this woman. He was a Jew and a Pharisee a man of authority and status. He was the one who sought Jesus out under cover of darkness where he would be out of sight probably in case any of his colleagues saw him talking to the rebel preacher. And he went away not sure what to do.
The woman by contrast is unnamed, she meets Jesus in the middle of the day, and has no status or authority as she is one of those people who the Jews looked down – a despised Samaritan and a woman. She went away excited by what she had heard and brought other people to meet Jesus. We also have other stories in the gospel about Jesus calling a Samaritan a hero. The story of the Good Samaritan or the 10 lepers where the one who came back to say thank you to Jesus was a Samaritan. Jesus was obviously saying something to the people of the day that was completely against the common thinking.
So, let’s look at this Samaritan woman more closely.
1st she was an ostracised woman. She was a Samaritan hated by the Jews, looked down on, she knew what prejudice was like. The ultimate outcome of prejudice was the way the Jews regarded the Samaritans. In the Jews’ eyes the Samaritans were, and I quote: “half breed heretics worthy of only being despised. “Racial or even local barriers are formidable dividers in human lives. Prejudice diminishes our humanity.
When Jesus was going back to Galilee he chose to go through Samaria, whereas many travellers would have taken the longer way to avoid going anywhere near Samaria for fear of encountering some of the people there.
And this person at the well was a woman. Women and children in those days were the lowest of the low in society. They had no standing they did not even realise that women had a part to play in the reproductive process but rather it was all the man’s doing! What would have been the normal reaction of a Jewish man to a Samaritan woman? In our way of talking he would have run a mile to avoid her.
But not so Jesus. He was relaxing in the shade by the well waiting for his disciples to come back from getting some food, when she approached and I imagine that she came very tentatively as she must get water. Fancy coming in that hot climate to draw water in the heat of the day, but she had no choice for she was ostracised because of her moral status even by her own people. Can you imagine how she felt? Or the questions that were going through her mind as she carried her water jar and got nearer and nearer to the well.
Now we need to think of the second point: she was a mistreated woman. In the past she had had 5 husbands and we don’t know if they died or had divorced her. Divorce in those days was the man’s prerogative and divorce left a woman in great difficulty financially and morally. And now she was living with a man who was not her husband. As a widow she needed a man to simply live. There was no widow’s pension in those days and a woman without the support of a man was open to all sorts of insults as well as poverty. She was the lowest of the low among her own people.
There was rabbinic precept that said: “ Let no one talk with a woman in the street, no not with his own wife.” And they also said: “Better that the words of the law should be burned than delivered to women.” If she had come to the well in the early morning as most women did so as to avoid the heat of the day no one would have walked with her or spoken to her so she chose to come in the hottest part of the day to avoid the terrible feeling of being shunned. Can you imagine how she felt when Jesus asked her for water? Shock horror, disbelief ! Were her ears playing tricks? Was it safe to approach the well.? By Rabbinic standards Jesus could hardly have done a more shatteringly wrong thing than to talk to the woman.
Thirdly, then the life- saving dialogue begins with that question. Is this the messiah? She is full of curiosity: how is it ……..? First of all she took the talk of water literally, pretty much like Nicodemus did when he first spoke to Jesus. She probably wanted this special water as relief from the daily grind of going to the well for water. But then Jesus told the woman of new ways of thinking of God, of love and openness, non- judgemental, non- prejudiced and a way to live life to the full. Just like drinking fresh cool water on a hot, hot day.
He spoke to her as an equal and gave her new hope in her barren life. Jesus was disregarding the cultural barriers. Jesus the barrier breaker had come to offer her life in a way that she could never have dreamed of. I think in the record in this gospel we have very little of the real dialogue – we have just a precis, but we get the idea. And of course the woman’s response was wonderful.
She went home to bring others to hear this radical new message of love, compassion and of barriers of all sorts being broken down. And what a surprise the disciples got when they came back to find Jesus talking in public to this despised, ostracised woman. Perhaps in his writing the author of the gospel of John also wants us to celebrate Jesus as the giver of the water of life, the new holy space, which transcends all prior religious claims and aspirations, including legitimate ones. And perhaps this is at the root of the woman being so enthusiastic in her response to Jesus – Nicodemus certainly did not seem to be so keen when he left Jesus on that dark night.
The conclusion is that the people the woman brings become convinced for themselves of Jesus’ new message. Her actions witnessed to and empowered these others to see Jesus in the same way that she had. Then we see the poor disciples, so slow to get the message, that Jesus has to go on and explain to them how he operated ; that food was a metaphor for the task and mission … some sow, others reap.
In his time, Jesus courageously talked of a new way of knowing, worshipping and living. In his time the temple authorities, the powerful regarded him as a trouble maker probably muttering to each other: How dare he try to change the way things have always been. Perhaps there are several messages for us today in this. Perhaps we need to really look at our Christian lives and see if we are biased, or prejudiced or judgemental about others.
Perhaps it is time we looked at our faith in different ways, both in relation to our own personal faith and that of our life, and the community life of the church. Perhaps we are stuck in a rut and the Spirit may be prompting us to explore new ways of worship, of service and of relating in this 21st century to those around us. Some churches have taken the stand that their church is more than a Sunday Church which includes all who enter its doors for some reason or another. Perhaps old ideas have to change in order to bring the good news of the water of life that means people will never thirst again. I find myself often thinking about all this.
I think if we are committed to the gospel we need to think, and sometimes be brave enough to step out in new directions.