What happens when you talk to the wrong kind of people? You may end up surprising yourself, and your neighbors.
This week’s text tells of an unlikely encounter between two people who have no business talking to each other. But the transformation follows in the wake of their meeting. It’s the story of Jesus and the Woman at the Well.
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” 2—although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— 3he left Judea and started back to Galilee.
4But he had to go through Samaria. 5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The 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.) 10Jesus 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.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” 16Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
27Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30They left the city and were on their way to him. 31Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?”34Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” 39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They 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 truly the Savior of the world.”
To start with the obvious: this is a long story! Someone has claimed (I can’t seem to run down the specific citation) that this is the longest one-on-one conversation that Jesus has with anyone ever. That makes it all the more surprising, because Jesus should not be talking to this person at all. There is a lot of transgression in this text.
It begins with Jesus on the wrong side of the proverbial tracks –in Samaria. Preachers often allude to the fact that 1st century Jews hate Samaritans but rarely explain why. It has to do with Israel’s history. Many centuries before the birth of Jesus, after the death of King Solomon, a succession struggle among his sons divided the kingdom of Israel in two. The southern kingdom was called Judah and had Jerusalem as its capital. The northern kingdom was called Israel and had the city of Samaria as its capital.
In the year 722 BCE, the northern kingdom (Israel) was conquered by the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrian policy was to resettle subjugated people –so the Israelite population was forcibly removed and replaced with people from other parts of the Assyrian empire. But those newly arrived took some elements of Israelite religion and began to intermarry with Israelites who had been left behind.
Put all this in a pot, sit and simmer for about 700 years. The result? In the eyes of faithful Jews (like Jesus and his followers), the Samaritans are a despised class of racially amalgamated and religiously confused people. It’s a potent cocktail of racism and heresy-hating.
But Jesus has to go through Samaria. They stop at a well, about noon. The disciples go into the village to find some lunch and Jesus is alone when a Samaritan woman comes to the well.
Let me just count some of the ways that Jesus has no business talking to this woman: she is a Samaritan, he is a Jew; she is a woman, he is a man; she is a lay person, he is a rabbi. No one would expect them to talk to one another. It isn’t the done thing.
But Jesus strikes up a conversation. He starts by asking a favor –“Give me a drink.” The woman seems taken aback, and reminds him of at least one of the boundaries he is crossing. But Jesus pushed right on ahead into what turns out to be a deep theological conversation.
I will have more to say about the give-and-take in Sunday’s sermon. For now, I would simply note a couple of things.
First, I have heard many sermons that suggest Jesus is somehow shaming of this woman in verses 16-18. Then verse 19 as her trying to change the subject, steering the conversation somewhere less personal.
For my part, I can’t see it that way. She does not react as someone who has been shamed. And in the ancient patriarchal culture of the Near East, a woman would have very little agency in the matter of who her husband(s) would be. She may have been widowed many times. She may have been abandoned or mistreated by men. But I just don’t see how Jesus is shaming her in this story.
Second, verses 27-38 seem like a digression. There is some good stuff here about Jesus’ food being God’s will and the need for more harvest workers. But that material interrupts what matters most to me: the woman’s character arc.
When she rejoins the story at v. 39, we discover something remarkable: she preaching! Her testimony about Jesus leads many in her village to belief. (Remember how critical the word “believe” was in last week’s text?)
In this encounter, the Woman at the Well is transformed. She ends up preaching the Gospel.
And Jesus? I think Jesus may be transformed as well.
Maybe I’ll say more about that on Sunday.