As I write this, I’m cleaning toddler fingerprints off of my glasses. Smudgy lenses make for an awful experience, don’t they?
When viewed through smudgy lenses, things are unclear; you might miss important details in a document; you might miss the beauty of a picture.
For some biblical stories, we have a smudgy set of lenses — preconceived notions and ideas that we bring with us that can cloud our perception. The story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well is a smudgy-lens story. So before we dive in, I’d like to try and clean off some smudges.
What this story is not
A “shady lady” goes to a well in the middle of the day because her bad reputation has made her an outcast from society. Jesus, the hero, calls out her sinful lifestyle and offers her living water. Convicted and moved, she repents, converts, and is washed clean.
What this story just might be
A woman — strong, smart, and savvy despite her vulnerable location in the world — becomes an example of someone who crosses boundaries to encounter Jesus in a real way. Refusing easy answers, her exchange with Jesus presents a powerful image of who Jesus is — a tired man without a bucket asking for a drink, and the Messianic giver of water for life, eternal and abundant, Savior for the world.
Why we assume the worst about this woman
She’s known as a “bad girl of the Bible,” a “lady of the night.” Why? The fact is, we are conditioned to label this woman, as we are conditioned to unfairly label most women who find themselves in unfortunate and vulnerable situations. This is the result of patriarchy, of centuries of socially constructed ideologies of gender, of bad theology painting Eve as the prototype of women who — if not kept in bounds — will be the downfall of men everywhere. We read the Woman at the Well this way for the same reasons that we call Bathsheeba an adulteress instead of a victim of rape. We have some very strong smudges on our lenses.
As Gail O’Day writes:
The reasons for the woman’s marital history intrigue commentators but do not seem to concern Jesus. Nor does Jesus pass moral judgment on the woman… All such judgments are imported into the text by interpreters.1
If we approach this story without these preconceived notions about the woman, we can see that she plays a powerful role in the story as a positive model of encountering Jesus and sharing his message that makes us reconsider who’s in and who’s out.
The Samaritan woman and the man of the Pharisees
Several features of the text invite us to recall John 3 and compare this woman of Samaria with the man of Israel, Nicodemus.2
male (respected, powerful)
female (vulnerable, disregarded)
unmarried woman/low status
comes to Jesus at night
approached by Jesus in daylight
level of understanding
misunderstands Jesus initially
engagement in conversation
no sincere dialogue
engages in extended dialogue
response to Jesus
ambiguous faith, private demonstration
bold faith, public declaration
In her own context, she is powerless and vulnerable, a person on the margins. She engages Jesus in an extended conversation (the longest in the New Testament!). While Nicodemus’ continues to misunderstand, this woman’s awareness develops over the course of the dialogue. While Nicodemus subtly and secretly sides with Jesus; this woman recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and becomes an evangelist for his message!5
The two stories share John’s affinity for word-play, this time it centers on “living water.” The Greek phrase hydor zon can refer to what we might call “running water” — water from a spring rather than water sitting still in a vessel. The phrase can also have a metaphorical meaning — water that gives life. Jesus employs this double entendre to move the woman’s focus from the literal level of meaning to the spiritual level.6
This image is best understood by looking ahead a few chapters where Jesus reiterates “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink (John 7:37-38a). The claim, loaded with Messianic imagery, is two-fold. 1) Jesus is the Messianic source for the water of life. 2) Those who drink from the source will themselves become springs of living water! Jesus’ words continue, “As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:38b). These words find a close parallel in the promise from Isaiah 58:11:
and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
The context of Isaiah says more about how to be a spring of living water:
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. (Isaiah 58:9-11)
The Samaritan Woman’s response is a narrative picture of the description in John 7. As Robert Goss explains, “That living water bubbles into her life, and she goes back to her village… She outs Jesus as God’s prophet and herself as a disciple to the Samaritans.”7
Learning from John’s Good Samaritan: the lesson of boundary-breaking
The context of Isaiah reminds us that living water comes when we acknowledge and repair the systems that promote injustice and division. The Samaritan Woman was the victim of an oppressive and divisive system, the ultimate outsider. By the end of the story, Jesus and this woman have overcome the intersectional boundaries of gender, ethnicity, and religious affiliation as well as a history of violent conflict.8 Jesus, the Jewish teacher provided living water for an unmarried Samaritan Woman. And a generous Samaritan woman left behind her water jar for a weary Jewish man.9 This final gesture of hospitality to the thirsty Jesus serves as one final sign of the boundaries that they had breached together.
What boundaries will you breach today? What unexpected conversation will you invite?
1. Gail R. O’Day, “John” in Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carole A Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley (Louisville: WJK, 2012), 521; cf. Jo-Ann Brant, John, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 82.
2 O’Day, “John,” 521. Chris Skinner, Reading John (Eugene: OR, 2015), 82-83.
3 Suffice it to say, there was lots of bad blood between the Jews and the Samaritans. Driven apart by theological and doctrinal disputes the relationship between these two groups was so fraught with ethnic tensions and violence that Jews did not associate with Samaritans — to do so was considered unclean. O’Day, “John,” 521.
4 “By and large, characters that remain nameless in John are presented as models of greater faith than those characters whose names are given.” Skinner, Reading John, 127.
5 Jaime Clark-Soles, Reading John for Dear Life (Louisville: WJK, 2016), 43.
6 Skinner, Reading John, 84-85.
7 Robert E. Goss, “John” in The Queer Bible Commentary (London: SCM Press, 2006), 553.
8 Brant, John, 84.
9 See 4:11, 28. On the potential sign of hospitality see Brant, John, 87. As Jaime Clark-Soles would say “John doesn’t include pointless details, I assure you.” Clark-Soles, Reading John for Dear Life, 41.
God of life,
Shower us in your living water, bringing us to new life, fresh and clean. Walk with us as we share the knowledge of your living water with others, so that all might live. Amen.
For all the faithful women ELW 419 Take my life, that I may be ELW 583, 685, H82 707, UMH 399, NCH 448 O sons and daughters ELW 386
Give me Jesus, Larry Fleming