This post is a long one, folks—the longest I have ever written. Sorry about that, but I couldn’t find a good breaking point. I hope you will bear with me to the end.
For the last several posts, I have been outlining the history of the Samaritans and how the bad blood developed between them and the Jews of the Second Temple Period. In recent posts, we’ve examined the origins of the Samaritans; the troubles that started when the Jewish exiles returned from Babylon; and how those troubles came to a head with the Seleucids. As I have attempted to show in these posts, there was plenty of blame to go around for the problems. Neither side was blameless in their actions. If you haven’t read them yet, it might help to read them before reading this post.
All of this background helps us better understand and appreciate what happened when Jesus and his disciples made a stop in Samaria on their way from Jerusalem/Judea to the Galilee. The very fact that they chose to pass through Samaria was remarkable in and of itself.
In his book, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, Dr. Kenneth Bailey has many cultural insights into this interaction between Jesus and this Samaritan woman. I have found his observations very helpful in writing this post.
An Unusual Route
As mentioned in the previous post, the bad blood between Jews and Samaritans was incredible at the time of Jesus. So much so, that Jews—especially pious Jews—would avoid traveling through Samaria, even if it meant adding a couple of days to their trip. So when Jesus and his disciples set out to return to Galilee, his choice of route would have certainly raised some eyebrows among his followers. The account of what transpired on this journey is recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter 4.
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.John 4:5-6, NRSV
Jesus and his disciples arrive in Sychar at mid-day. In the Old Testament, Sychar was known by a different name, Shechem. The ruins of ancient Shechem were nearby. Today, this is the town of Nablus in the Palestinian West Bank. The city sits in what was the tribal territory of Manasseh, the firstborn son of Joseph—the favorite son of Jacob. The traditional site of this well is still there today, flowing with fresh water. As a side-note, of the two main cities in the area of Samaria (Samaria and Sychar), Sychar was historically the more religiously conservative. The city of Samaria was decidedly more pagan, including a temple to Caesar Augustus built by Herod the Great.
A Shocking Conversation
In any event, Jesus and his disciples make a stop in the heat of the day to rest. The Text actually says that Jesus sat on the well. Here’s what happened next:
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.)John 4:7-9
There is so much to unpack from these very few sentences that it is easy to miss with a casual reading of the Text.
First, John has already told us that it was around noon. Getting water from a well is not easy work. It’s generally not done alone. Women tended to go for water a couple of times a day—in the morning and late afternoon. They went in groups to help share the work and socialize. I have experienced this several times in remote villages in Africa that rely upon wells for their water. The fact that this woman is coming to the well at noon tells us something about her. Either she was not welcome when the other women were there, or she was there for some illicit purpose. To find a man sitting alone at the well during the middle of the day was also socially questionable. Anyone that happened to walk by would get the impression that something improper was happening.
The second shocker is the Jesus asks her for a drink. Now, to our modern, western ears that doesn’t sound like such a big deal. John provides a clue as to the issue. “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” No respectable Jew—especially a Jewish rabbi would dare use the bucket of a Samaritan for drinking water. That would result in ritual impurity.
On top of that, there is some indication in Rabbinic literature that rabbis would conversations on any level that they were not related to. Personally, I think this is more pronounced in later periods than during the time of Jesus. The New Testament places women front and center in Jesus’ ministry. He is criticized by his contemporaries for a lot of things, but talking to women is not one of them. Nevertheless, given the time of day and that they were alone at the well together, this conversation has the outward appearance of being socially questionable.
Given the history between Jews and Samaritans and the social mores of the time, the woman’s reaction was to be expected. “How is it that you, a Jew [male], ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” In case we had missed all of the social, religious, and political backgrounds, she sums it all up nicely in this one sentence.
But Jesus has deftly used this situation to his purposes. Going against the years of hostility between Jews and Samaritans, he made himself vulnerable and made the first move. Jesus needed water, and she had the means to provide it. Furthermore, he was actually willing to drink from her “defiled” water bucket! By putting himself at a disadvantage, making the first move and showing a willingness to “defile” himself, he opens the way for meaningful dialogue with the woman.
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.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”John 4:10-12
Jesus’ statement to her seems purposefully ambiguous to me. He claims to have access to “living water.” We tend to jump right to the spiritual meaning of what he says. Yet, there is a very real meaning to his words that help explain her response. In Hebrew, the phrase “living water” is mayim chayyim [מַיִם חַיִּים]. This is used to refer to perpetual flowing water from mountain streams, rain, or spring water that bubbles up from the aquifers in the local limestone. It’s the best water—as opposed to stale water stored in cisterns. Incidentally, I believe that Jacob’s well is not a cistern, but is sourced with “living water” from a spring.
The woman still appears to be in shock that a Jewish man is talking to her, let alone asking for her help. She is still stuck in the morass of modern problems. Notice her response: “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Her answer is framed in the hurt and hatred of her people. There are a couple of ways to read what she says. In one sense, she could be saying that we Samaritans are descendants of Jacob just like you Jews (yet you claim we are worse than Gentiles). Or, she could be saying, we Samaritans are the true Israelites. We have claims to this well and land (and you Jews don’t). I am not sure it really matters which way her response is taken. What is important is to see that she, like her people, are deeply impacted by the 500+ years of mutual hatred between their peoples. What’s even more telling is that Jesus doesn’t take the bait. He continues on with his line of thought.
Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but 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.” The 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.”John 4:13-15
Yet, the deeper meaning of Jesus’ statements is still lost on her. She remains focused on her physical problem. Here, I think she touches on her personal, social issue. For her, going to this well was a twice-daily reminder that she was an outcast in her village. She was shunned by the women of the community—the reasons for which will soon become evident.
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”John 4:16-18
Now, we understand why this woman was coming to the well at such a strange hour. She is on man #6! In a Middle Eastern honor-shame culture, this is a HUGE shocker. In our western society, for someone to have been married twice is not uncommon. Three times is rare—and might raise eyebrows in some places. Five marriages and shacking up with the sixth is incredible! There is no situation in an eastern honor-shame culture where this woman comes out clean—no matter the circumstances.
Here’s another way to look at this. How many people lived in Sychar? How big of a place was it? I have not found any data on the actual population. However, I think it is safe to say it was well under 1,000 people—possibly just a few hundred. In a small town like this, a woman with six men in her life would have been a public disgrace. It was not uncommon for small towns to be made up of several large family groups. As such, her progression through five husbands and living with a sixth man would have touched a large number of extended families. I am not sure it is possible for most of us to imagine the shame this woman felt or the degree to which she may have been isolated from village life.
The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But 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. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”John 4:19-26
The woman’s view of Jesus has changed—partially. He has seen truth in her situation. To her, he is now a prophet. So, this enables her to engage in the central issue of her people: where is the approved place to worship God: Jerusalem or Mt. Gerizim? In one sense, she is correct. Mt. Gerizim pre-dates Jerusalem as an acceptable place of worship by at least several hundred years.
Jesus finally takes the opportunity to bridge the gap and answer her question directly. His answer is pretty amazing. He tells her that location no longer matters. God is seeking those who worship him in “spirit and truth.” Before we just move on from that statement, it’s worth thinking about what he told her. Location was code for ethnicity. Jerusalem was the only acceptable place of worship for Jews. For Samaritans, it was Mt. Gerizim. Jesus tells her that ethnic divides no longer matter. What’s even more important is to notice the grammatical structure of the sentence. God (subject) seeks (verb) these (direct object). Jesus says that God is out actively seeking for those who desire to worship Him.
In Spirit and Truth
I come from a Christian tradition that grew out of an earnest desire to break away from the hierarchical structure of denominational and “orthodox” Christianity. The goal was to be more like first century Christians in our practices and beliefs. As with many good motives, when carried to their extremes, they create problems of their own. I have heard some from the ultra-conservative end of our movement use Jesus’ phrase, “in spirit and in truth” to mean that to be acceptable to God you must do things in the “right way” (truth) with the “proper motives” (spirit). Of course, their next logical step was to claim that they alone were the possessors of the “right way.” Yet, this type of thinking is EXACTLY what the Samaritan woman asked Jesus. She wanted to know who had it right. Jesus’ answer to her was pretty shocking. He said it’s not about doing things in the “right way!” God is actively seeking anyone that has an earnest desire to worship him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength!
A Different Kingdom Approach?
There is a lot that I think we can learn from this interaction and how we should relate to one another. For Christians, there are some valuable lessons about how to share the Good News of Jesus ways that positively impact lives.
Serving by Being Served
Most Christian mission activities are focused on serving others. I’m not knocking it. There is clear Biblical command to serve and help those who are in need. Yet, consider what might happen if you put yourself in need. I think putting yourself in need helps break down the barrier that can be built when Christians go to “serve” others in need. Sometimes the best way to build a relationship with someone—on equal footing is to put yourself in need of their help. That is the first takeaway. Jesus made himself vulnerable to the woman. He needed water and wasn’t afraid to put himself in an inferior position.
Taking Crazy Risks
Jesus took a lot of risk in this encounter. That’s actually putting it mildly. He blew the doors off any sort of social, religious, or political norms when he talked with this woman. We get a small sense of this in verse 27: “Just 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?'” The disciples were dumbfounded by what they saw when they returned. So shocked, they couldn’t speak. Jesus, a pious Jewish Rabbi (it’s unclear if they knew he was the Messiah yet) was engaged in religious discourse with a Samaritan woman—and they probably had no idea exactly what “sort” of woman she was!
What would happen if we took such bold risks when we reached out to others. Imagine taking the sort of risk that would have others in your church looking at you like you had just lost your mind. The call to God’s Kingdom is about serving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, no matter how crazy it might seem to others.
Don’t Take the Bait
This woman did her best to get Jesus to “take the bait” to argue over the things that divided their people. He flat out refused every opportunity to engage on that level. He focused on what was important and gradually led her around to the conversation that had to take place. When that conversation finally takes place, the debate was not “I am right, and you are wrong.” His response was being a Jew or Samaritan doesn’t matter. What matters is that God is seeking those who want to worship him in spirit and in truth. I wonder how our world might be different if Christians took the same approach to political and social issues. Perhaps the world might see real and meaningful change. Maybe we might actually start to look like the Kingdom of God here on earth.
White for Harvest
When Jesus’ disciples return to the well, the woman hurries back to town to tell everyone what happened to her. Jesus refuses the food they offer him, making odd claims that he has a different source of food. Not surprisingly, the disciples were just as confused as the Samaritan woman had been earlier.
Then something amazing happens. The woman returns with a whole bunch of people from the town—people that probably would typically not speak to her. They all wanted to see for themselves.
Jesus says something to his disciples that struck a chord with me after a recent visit to Mt. Gerizim to witness the Samaritan Passover sacrifice.
Do 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.John 4:35
I’m not sure if Jesus is quoting a common folk-saying about harvesting. If it were four months, then that would mean this event took place in December/January. What I am more interested in is the word “ripe.” This may be another one of those places where our translators have done us a disservice. The Greek word really means white, whitening, or growing white.
I met someone in Israel that was growing an ancient variety of wheat whose heads turned white when they ripened. He believed that this is what Jesus was referring to in this passage. Maybe. I think there could be something simpler happening. As I mentioned in my post on the Samaritan Passover, Samaritans tend to wear white. Now, I have not been able to find a source that tells me when this tradition started. However, if we assume that the wearing of white was practiced by Samaritans in the first century, then Jesus’ statement takes on real, tangible, and visible meaning. Here comes a group of Samaritans, dressed in white, all to hear the Good News! “Look around you, and see how the fields are white for harvesting.”
I am at over 3,000 words in this post. But, there is so much more I could write.
Let me close with this thought. For me, the most incredible thing about this encounter is what I see when I look at the broader picture. Jesus started his dialogue by telling her, “if you knew who I was…then…” Of course, she really had no way of knowing who he was at that point. The amazing message he really has for her is “I already know who you are…and I still want that drink!” That is the Gospel of Jesus in a nutshell. As God’s people, we are called to live out the Gospel in the same way.