Woman at the Well, Part 4: Changing the Subject, Avoiding the Issue

by admin

SilhouetteWe are finally returning to a series I started a fair time ago.  The story of the Woman at the Well has always fascinated me for the many layers that are there, embedded in a simply recounting of Jesus meeting a woman while on a hot, dusty trek from Jerusalem up into Galilee, where He spent the bulk of His ministry.  The encounter is at once intensely countercultural, incredibly affirming, shockingly political, and startlingly irreligious.  In this story Jesus tears down walls of race, class, gender, religion, and even shame, hopelessness, isolation and despair.

Check out Parts 1, 2, and 3.  Now, we turn to a fascinating interchange that takes place as Jesus forces the woman to confront who she is and where she has found herself.

The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”
(John 4:19-20 ESV)

This woman snuck out of her home at midday, the hottest part of the day, trying to avoid the judgement and condemnation of her fellow villagers.  She got to the well and ran into this strange Jewish man who talked to her like she wasn’t what everyone knew her to be.  But the crazy thing was, He did.  He somehow knew her exact situation in life.  He knew HER.  And the bizarre claims  He was making didn’t seem so strange anymore, once she realized there was much more to Him than the strange words.

Now, this was not an ordinary peasant woman.  She was a woman of intelligence, of education.  She hadn’t been kept barefoot and pregnant, she was different.  The facts of the situation Jesus describes her life as tell us a number of things.  First, she had been married 5 times.  Why?  We have speculated before, but here are a few more clues that give us some insight as to the kind of woman she is.  The fact that she is drawing water herself tells us she is likely childless.  This alone may have been cause for divorce, if not multiple divorces.  It was deeply shameful for a woman to be barren in 1st Century Judea and Samaria.  She might have kept this secret from one or more of her husbands, each time she married hoping that this one wouldn’t care, that he would love her for who she was not how many children she could bear.

Having gone through several periods of time in her life without a husband – in a culture where singlehood was almost nonexistent, she had to fend for herself.  She would have cultivated merchantable skills so that she could be self-supporting.  To have lasted so long through so many broken marriages these were what she would have had to do to survive.  We don’t know what she did but whatever she did it was profitable, and likely so valuable it allowed her to attract men to her.  The monetary gain from a connection to her was enough to encourage men to look past her history and see gain despite the negatives of association with a woman who, even if her multiple marriages were not all the result of shameful divorce, would still have carried doubt and uncertainty.  If they weren’t all divorce, why were her husbands dead?  Why didn’t she have any children from any of them?  These are all doubts that men would have had to convince themselves were secondary to what she did bring to the table – intelligence, industry, profitability.

Also, education.  Without children to care for, she would have had time to study, to learn more than most women.  She would have been attending synagogue, she would have had time to listen to teachers as they passed through town.  This gave her insight into issues that many wouldn’t have time to ponder.  This was what uniquely positioned her to be ready to ask this question when she began to feel the pinch of what Jesus was asking her to confront.  To change the subject by asking a difficult question of a learned man, and distract Him with a philosophical question instead of being forced to address the patterns in her life that took her far from God.

All this paints a very different picture from what most people see when they read the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.  This woman is in many ways to be admired: strong, skilled, educated, tenacious, interesting.  Fully capable to challenge Jesus with this question.  Where should we be worshipping?  Are the Jews right, or are we, the Samaritans right to worship God on the mountain nearby?

And Jesus has an answer, but not the answer she is looking for.  She is looking for a binary answer – are the Jews right or are the Samaritans right?  Jesus says they are both wrong.

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 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 is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” – John 4:21-24 (ESV)

God never intended for people to splinter into groups and argue about who was right.  In fact, it was never even the point to limit people to only interacting with Him at approved locations – the Temple in Jerusalem, or whatever high place the Samaritans set up, mixing the traditions of the various religious traditions of the Middle East with Judaism in a pastiche that gave nods to their Jewish ancestry but also to the many cultures and religious backgrounds of the other sides of their family.

What God really wanted was for all people to know HIM.  Jesus, the Son of God.  When you knew Jesus, you were knowing the Father.  You knew God by knowing Jesus.  He wanted all humankind to know the real God that created them.  And He was telling this Samaritan woman that the time for this to be revealed was now.  Right there.  At the well.

And that was the issue He was getting at all along.  He was gently bringing her to the place where she could see Him for who He really was – not a prophet.  All this living water talk sounded philosophical and learned, and that appealed to her, but it didn’t make Him special.  His miraculous knowledge of her life was astonishing, and enough for her to acknowledge that He spoke with the authority of a prophet, just like people like Elijah, Elisha, Samuel, and many other prophets that even the Samaritans acknowledged as having come from God.  But He was more than that, and He wanted her to know.

The Samarian woman was intelligent, educated, skilled, tenacious, lovable, but with brokenness.  She had lived through the loss of 5 marriages and it had shattered her trust.  She felt like her only value was in what she did or what she could give.  Jesus didn’t care how many kids she had.  Jesus didn’t care why she had lost 5 husbands.  Jesus cared about HER.  Jesus wanted her to know HIM.  To know what was coming and what had arrived.  For her to be a permanent, eternal part of His family.  This story speaks so much value, so much hope to women who feel like they don’t have it all together.  Who aren’t like other women.  Who have messed up, who have given up, who don’t take the same roads as their sisters, as their high school classmates, as their sorority sisters.  Jesus loves them all, and has a place for them all.

In Part 5, we are going to look at the life-changing claim that Jesus is about to make.  And just how much impact it has on not just this woman, but the entire town she represents.


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