( John 4, 5-42)
It’s one of those situations you dread, isn’t it? You pop out on a domestic errand, in a hurry, perhaps, or feeling low, so you deliberately choose a time when nobody much is about – and some stranger starts talking to you. It starts off relatively innocuously, with pleasantries, but, before you know it you’re into the really deep stuff – discussion about the ultimate questions – what ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ calls the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything.
That’s what happened to the Samaritan woman who went to draw water at Jacob’s well at Sychar. We don’t know why she went to the well at noon. Most women went early, while it was still cool; and they went in a group, for safety, because the well was about a mile out of town. So, the woman was putting herself at risk by going alone in the middle of the day. Perhaps her marital history gives some clue as to why: as a much married woman, living with someone out of wedlock, she would rather run the gauntlet of strangers and wild animals rather than face the hostility of her more respectable sisters.
And when she gets to the well, she finds someone already there. An unknown man, who starts up a conversation with her. And from his accent, she knows he is a Jew. She has got herself into a situation where she could be in real trouble. And so begins an encounter that will change her life.
We hear of this encounter only in John’s Gospel. We don’t know why John includes it. Perhaps because his community included Samaritans and Gentiles as well as Jews, and other Jewish Christians disapproved; perhaps because his community allowed women to act as missionaries to both men and women, as other communities did not; perhaps because his community had the reputation of welcoming people with doubtful pasts, and were criticized for it. We don’t know.
The encounter between Jesus and the woman is obstructed by misunderstandings, as are many of the conversations recorded in John’s Gospel. In part that is a literary device, the way in which the author of John presents the teaching of Jesus. In part it is because the conversation is full of ‘double entendres’ – not of the rude kind, but because it is being carried on at two levels, the spiritual as well as the practical.
But the encounter is also obstructed by the preconceptions and prejudices the woman brings to the situation. We don’t know the full details of the woman’s past, but it is clear she has not had an easy life. She has had 5 husbands already. This doesn’t mean she was immoral; life expectancy was short, particularly for young males in an occupied country, and few women could exist on their own, so remarriage was necessary for survival; but even if she had been widowed 5 times rather than divorced, she would be regarded by others, and would regard herself as unlucky. Now she couldn’t find anyone else willing to risk marriage to her, so she was in an extramarital relationship. No wonder she was wary of men.
And this man was a Jew. She knew the longstanding hostility between Jews and Samaritans, so she probably went into the encounter expecting problems. Perhaps, if she had thought, she might have realised this man was different. Most Jews would not have travelled from Judaea to Galilee through Samaritan territory. They would have taken the long way round, along the Jordan valley, to avoid even getting Samaritan dust on their feet. Jews would not have taken the three day journey through Samaria, because they would have had to buy food on the way – and observant Jews would not eat Samaritan food, or drink Samaritan water, or use crockery touched by a Samaritan. But Jesus had come into the area, and sent his disciples to buy food in her village. Perhaps the woman had passed them (and been ignored by them ) on her way to the well. She should have realised even before he spoke to her, that this man was different.
Most Jewish men, particularly not respectable rabbis, would not have spoken to a strange woman, let alone asked for help from them. Yet Jesus treated the woman with courtesy, and opened the conversation by asking for her help. The woman should have realised from the way he treated her that this was no ordinary man.
But the woman is so hidebound by her own lack of self-esteem and her own preconceptions that she answers his polite request with a rude question of her own “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan, for a drink?” Perhaps she thinks it is a trick question. Perhaps she is waiting for the put down that will follow.
But Jesus moves the conversation onto a new level, by saying if she knew who was talking to her, she could ask him for living water. This is one of those moments when the conversation is on two levels; Jesus could just mean running water, like that from the mountain streams in his native Galilee; but on another level, he is talking about spiritual water, the water of life.
The woman however, is stuck in the practicalities. “You don’t have a bucket’ she objects, ‘and the well is deep. How can you get water without the right equipment? Are you greater than our common ancestor, Jacob, who had this well dug for us?”
What can we learn from this encounter?
We can learn first of all from Jesus, from the fact that he approached the woman at all, and from the courteous way he treated her. She was three times over an unsuitable companion for him – a woman, a Samaritan, of doubtful reputation. Who are the outcasts of our society? Do we, as Christians, always approach such outcasts of our society with a similar courtesy? Jesus began by asking the woman for help, before attempting to give his teaching. Do we approach those we wish to evangelise in that way? Would we consider it dangerous, or beneath our dignity, to speak, let alone to ask for help from, a person of another faith, or with a dodgy past? If our Lord, who was and is truth could ask for help before rushing in with his message, why can’t we?
But we can also learn from the woman. She came into the encounter blinded by her own prejudices and trapped in her own sense of failure and lack of worth. Because of this, she was unable at first to receive the grace that Jesus was offering to her.
The Catholic writer, Gerard Hughes, suggests that we all have our well moments, and our bucket questions. We are constantly laying down criteria for God to measure up to if we are going to listen to his voice. Jesus found this constantly, not just in Samaria, but also in Judaea, and even among his own people in Galilee. Can anything good come from Nazareth? Isn’t this a carpenter? Isn’t this just the son of Joseph – or even (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) of Mary! No way can he be acceptable as a messenger of God. So often, if the reality doesn’t fit our mental filing system, we ignore it.
Hughes suggests we make a list of all the ‘You have no bucket’ phrases we employ to avoid hearing God’s word to us when it comes from unexpected quarters. How about, ‘How can a gay person be a minister of the Church?’ ‘Why should I accept teaching from a woman?’ ‘How can any sensible person be a Roman Catholic?’ ‘Or a fundamentalist?’ ’What have we got to learn about faith from Muslims, or Jews, or Hindus?’.
Then, says Hughes, we should pray to be delivered from the prejudice, bigotry, snobbishness, the attachments to religious traditions and personal preferences which blind us to the gifts God is offering to us, and makes us reject the people he chooses as messengers.
We need to do this, both as individuals and as churches. So many of the unnecessary disputes between churches come because we categorise people as unacceptable ministers or members for some reason. This encounter warns us against doing this in Jesus’ name – because it is not something that seemed to bother him.
But we can also learn from the woman about how not to receive God’s free gift of grace. On the outside, she was a strong and feisty woman. She engaged in witty chat with this stranger, and replied to his mysterious pronouncements with a ready answer. But she was hiding behind strong defences; when he started to get personal, and talked about her marital situation, she quickly changed the subject and started a conversation about the relative merits of the Jerusalem Temple and the Samaritan Temple on their holy mountain. It didn’t matter how gentle and gracious Jesus was; she had been hurt too much in the past to risk going down that path.
We very often hide behind our defences and refuse to accept the gracious forgiveness and unconditional love that God offers us in Christ.
There are no preconditions to an encounter with the Living Word, no price on the reception of the Water of Life. It is offered to us through Christ in love, and we receive it in faith, and allow it to do its healing and inspiring and transforming work in us. Once we let down our defences, the Living Water which Christ offers us will become part of our very selves, and as it bubbles up out of us will bring life and salvation to others.
We can prevent this happening by our own defences. But we can also get in the way of it happening to others by the way we receive them in Christ’s name. The woman had such strong defences because she had been bruised in her encounters with those around her, who judged her because of her marital history. The Christian Church has a sad history of passing adverse judgements on people because of their gender, or sexuality or marital misfortunes, denying them their dignity as children of God and their place in the redeemed community. Many such people have been deeply hurt by the judgements – spoken and unspoken – which church tradition and authorities has passed on them. I read of a Christian leader who was giving advice on a TV show, and was asked by a man whether he should marry a woman who had been married 4 times before. The Christian answered, “No. Steer clear of her. She is a 4 times loser”.
Can you hear Jesus speaking of a person in such terms? On the contrary, his encounter with the woman at the well shows us him asking for help from a 5 or 6 times loser, and using her as his messenger to the people of her village. She came to the well a battered and guilt-ridden outcast; she went back the first woman evangelist, charged with telling of her encounter with the long-awaited Messiah. God will not be happy with us if our attitudes prevent others whom he wishes to use as his messengers from coming close and hearing his words of grace.
The final section of the woman’s meeting with Jesus is a conversation about worship. And here again, Jesus invites us to break lose from our preconceptions. The Samaritans worshipped God on in a Temple on Mount Gerazim, the Jews in Jerusalem – but both temples are about to become redundant. The only way to worship God after an encounter with his Messiah is in spirit and in truth.
Where doesn’t matter. Samaritan Temple or Jewish; plain chapel or ornate cathedral, ancient holy place or modern school hall, it’s just simply irrelevant, so long as we are open to the Holy Spirit. How doesn’t matter – Common Worship or BCP, modern worship songs or Gregorian chant, robes or ordinary clothes – it doesn’t matter so long as they are used to convey the truth which came to us in Jesus Christ.
And the most important message of this encounter is that ‘who’ doesn’t matter either – 5 times married woman or male disciple, they will both need to divest themselves of their prejudices and preconceptions in order to encounter Jesus and allow the Spirit to guide them into recognizing him as God’s Messiah and the one who brings us life – and so will we!