Read the Gospel text here:John 4:5-42
"Of Wells and Tents" - The Samaritan Woman at the Well - John 4:5-42
Within the first two weeks of Lent we have the opportunity to hear two wonderful stories from the Gospel of John and to meet two people with whom Jesus has an encounter early in his ministry. Last week we heard the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisee Nicodemus. This week Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well. The contrast between them could not be greater. Nicodemus is very much an insider – he is a leader among the Pharisees, he is educated, he is established; he comes to Jesus at night to discuss Jesus’ teaching, which try as he might, he just cannot understand. The unnamed Samaritan woman is very much an outsider – she is a Samaritan (Judeans like Nicodemus would have had nothing to do with Samaritans) and she was a woman; she was uneducated and she seems to be somewhat of an outcast from her own community. She comes to the well at noon, which was the worst time of the day to draw water. By noon the sun was high and it was hot. Most women went to the well early in the morning or in the evening – not at noon. This is why she and Jesus are alone. No one else wants to be out in the heat. She and Jesus then engage in a dialog that is much deeper are more probing than the one with Nicodemus. Why? Well, simply put - Nicodemus didn’t get it. The Samaritan woman does get it – slowly – but still she gets it.
It is important to address a very popular interpretation that has tended to affect the interpretation of the passage. In verses 16 through 18 Jesus asks the woman to go and fetch her husband. She replies that she has no husband and Jesus affirms that, adding that he knows she has had five husbands and that she is living with a man who is not her husband. Many preachers and commentators down through the years have interpreted this to reflect badly on the moral character of this woman – and thus distracted by this non-issue end up missing the important part of the story. Please note – Jesus does not condemn her and neither does he offer her forgiveness. Why? She has nothing to be forgiven for. The fact that she has had 5 husbands would not have been her choice or her fault. Women in 1st century Palestine had no choice over those kinds of things. She was a victim. She was either widowed or divorced – which would have all been done without her input or assent. If anything she deserves our compassion.
At the center of this encounter is a question that the woman asks about worship. She asks – where is God to be found? On Mount Gerizim in Samaria or in Jerusalem? This question lay at the heart of the Gospel of John – where do we find God? Jesus takes the question seriously and gives her an answer that I am sure she was not expecting: neither place – you must worship God “in spirit and in truth.” In other words – open your heart, God’s dwelling is not in any particular place – it is with and among God’s people: people just like you. Even though you may be excluded by the society, you are not excluded by God – God is open to all who open their hearts and believe in the Son of Man. In John 1:14 we read: and the Word was made flesh and dwelt (tabernacled / tented) among us. God is no longer remote. God is available through the Son. And if that was not enough Jesus finishes off this section with a confession: I AM – Jesus says. (The phrase that appears in the NRSV translation – “I am he” is incorrect – there is no “he” in the Greek. It is just “I AM.”) This of course is the name of God, and unlike the Pharisees the woman doesn’t flinch when she hears this. She accepts and believes.
Ultimately this passage is about identity and belief. Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Messiah – Jesus is the Word made flesh – the I AM come into the world. And to whom does Jesus come? To all who have open hearts – to all who believe. You don’t have to be a certain class or ethnicity or believe the right dogmas or be perfect or be male – God is open to all who follow and believe in Jesus the Christ. In a real way this story reflects the famous passage from John 3:16. For a Samaritan woman represents the outsiders of the world to whom the Son has been sent to love. And her faith and action mark her as one who is a child of the light and who has been given the gift of eternal life. Like her we too are called to open our hearts and allow our belief to be reflected in the way we live our lives – for we too are children of the light to whom God has given the gift of Eternal Life.
An excellent discussion of this text and the background of interpretation is by David Lose and can be found here: Misogeny, Moralism and the Woman at the Well
I find the comments - especially by those who claim to be Christian - to be really appalling. Are American Christians really that close-minded, judgmental and biblically illiterate? None of us has all the answers and it seems to me that we Christians are called to openness, humility and to graciousness. Note Luther's explanation of the 8th Commandment:"We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbour, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way."