Shopping Cart


The Woman at the Well: An International Women’s Day reflection on John 4:5-42

Thursday, 16 March 2023  | Cameron McAdam


Last week our world marked or celebrated International Women’s Day. Our family celebrated and prayed for the women in our lives. International Women’s Day imagines a gender equal world; a world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination; a world that's diverse, equitable and inclusive; a world where difference is valued and celebrated. That’s a world full of what we Christians might refer to as kingdom values.

Sadly, in many expressions of the church today, women are still not viewed as equal and there remains a significant gender gap. In my own community we recently elected a new church council that lacks diversity, something we will work to rectify. The Lutheran Church in Australia voted in February to not extend ordination to women.

Also last week, the results of the largest ever survey of Catholic women was released. Over 17,000 women from 104 countries participated - a huge sample. Not women on the edge of the church, but women who are central and active in their parishes and diocese.

  • Nine out of ten respondents said that their faith was important to their identity.
  • 84% supported reform within the Church, with almost two-thirds saying that ‘radical reform’ was necessary.
  • 29% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: ‘Without reform there is no place for me in the Catholic Church’.
  • Many of the respondents highlighted the sexual abuse of women, children and other vulnerable people, with eight out of ten saying that church leaders were not doing enough to address abuse.
  • 79% said that women should be fully included at all levels of church leadership, and 68% said that women should be eligible for the priesthood. (See here and here.)

The survey was presented at the Vatican on Wednesday as a submission for the upcoming Synod of Bishops who, of course, are all men.

There is a long history of misogyny in Christian institutions and theology that stands in sharp contrast to the role women play in the gospels themselves. Women play a huge part in Jesus’ ministry and the establishment of the early church. Crucially, it is women who remain present at the tomb after Jesus’ death and the men who have fled. And it is women who are the first witnesses to the resurrection.

Why I think this is important to name now is that, last Sunday, loads of Christian churches read the story of the Woman at the Well found in John 4. Traditionally this woman has been portrayed in churches as a prostitute or as being immoral, loose.

Some historical background on Jews and Samaritans might be helpful. Jennifer Garcia Bashaw writes:

For centuries, Samaritans and Jews occupied neighbouring lands and practiced similar religions while actively expressing feelings of animosity toward one another. The origin of the Samaritan people remains a mystery, but suffice it to say that ancient Jewish explanations of Samaritan origins were overwhelmingly negative. The Jewish-Samaritan enmity climaxed in 128 BCE when [the] high priest and ruler of the Jews, destroyed the capital city of Shechem and razed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerazim to the ground. It is not surprising, then, that these groups remained bitter enemies at least until the first century CE.

So, Jews and Samaritans don't get along, and women and men in this culture generally keep a safe social distance. This Samaritan woman is therefore understandably surprised when Jesus asks her for a drink, and responds, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ In response Jesus offers her ‘living water’. Confused, but clearly intrigued, she asks about this miraculous water and eventually Jesus invites her to call her husband. When she replies that she has no husband, he agrees: ‘You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband’.

And that's it. That's the sentence that has branded her as sexually immoral. I read a sermon and then, not really believing what I was reading could be true, I sat through some of the same sermon on YouTube where a pastor describes the Samaritan woman as ‘a worldly, sensually-minded, unspiritual harlot from Samaria’ and as a ‘whore’.

How do you come to that interpretation from what is there in the scripture? Neither John as narrator nor Jesus in the story provide that information. Jesus at no point invites repentance; sin is never mentioned. She very easily could have been widowed or have been abandoned or divorced. Five times would be heartbreaking, but it was a brutal society, with early death likely, so it’s not impossible.

She may also have had what was referred to as a Levirate marriage, married to her deceased husband's brother in order to produce an heir, yet not always considered the brother's wife. There are any number of ways – widow, infertility, abuse, disability, divorce – that one might imagine this woman's story as tragic rather than scandalous.

And so, the woman is at the well in the middle of the day, ostracised by or fearful of the rest of the community. That is of course until this encounter with Jesus. And then she tells her neighbours, now with courage and passion to speak: ‘He told me everything I have done’. He sees her. He sees the whole of her. Past. Present. Future. And she knows it. Who she has been. What she yearns for. How she hurts. All that she might become. And he names it all.

Jesus names it all without shaming her. He sees and names the woman in a way that makes her feel not judged but loved. Not diminished and dragged down but restored, whole. ‘I see you for the loved child of God you are. And in the depth of this moment, you can now see who I am. The Messiah. The one in whom you can find freedom, love, healing and transformation. Spirit and Truth. Eternal Life. Living Water. Drink of me and you will live.’

As a pastor myself, I struggled to find the ‘Lenten’ message in this text. But this is the message, isn’t it? This invitation Jesus gives us to see ourselves in the safety of a relationship with him, to see ourselves through eyes of love rather than judgement.

That’s the calling for us Christians, to hold that space for others. To be the hands and feet of Jesus, bring people living water, eternal life (that’s life now in John’s gospel). To encounter people in conversations and relationships, and allow Jesus to be present. What a great spiritual discipline for us all – to see ourselves, to see others and to see Jesus in others and as present in this moment of connection and relationship.

Having grown up in the Christian Reformed Church (US) and been a pastor in the CRC for 30 years, Keith Mannes recently wrote about his painful decision to leave his congregation due to religious Trumpism. He says that ‘Donald Trump revealed the heart of white evangelicalism’:

The bottom dropped out of my faith in “organized Christianity”. There was no truth for me in the church any longer. I didn’t know where Jesus was, but I was pretty dang sure where he wasn’t. Bereft, I went into the desert wilderness, and there beheld the bleached bones of my former beliefs, practices, and identity. I can tell you: Disillusionment sucks.

At the same time, he retrains in chaplaincy, and it’s in this new work, in the daily encounters, conversations, relationships with people, that he re-finds his faith in Jesus.

I remember weeping with a Muslim family at the bedside of their deceased loved one, with as deep a sense of fellowship as I had, over so many years, with my most beloved church members. Another time, I was present with a Hindu family during the death of their elderly mother. After she died, I escorted the family to the hospital exit, and there, in the dim and empty hallway of the early morning, suddenly one of her sons turned and hugged me, full-on, and we held each other. I believed, in that moment, Jesus was there, between us. Admittedly, this did not happen in every meeting with every person. Some days of chaplaincy were just normal workdays, and sometimes my heart remained unmoved. Yet at frequent and startling moments, as I met with all sorts of people, I regularly saw flickering images of Jesus in them.

These people were sent to me while I was still in the desert, and it was as if God showed me a little stream, or had uncorked within me an overflowing fountain. I found myself lavishly distributing Jesus in ways that were outside the limits of my church teachings and practices. I splashed water for baptisms in ways that stretched and broke my previous definitions. I rummaged around in staff break rooms for crackers and sugary grape juice, offering these bargain-basement elements as holy sacraments to people with only the slightest impulse of faith. I helped organize spiritual rituals for people of completely other faiths. I flung God’s love around like the wild sower in Jesus’ parable, trusting that God would grow things anywhere God wanted. I saw that so many of these people were like seeds trampled underfoot already, stripped and beaten by hell. It anguished my heart to see, especially, that many of my suicidal patients had been abandoned, cast out, and rejected by harsh, authoritarian, and law-based religions of all sorts. In those moments it came down to this: here, the water. Here, the … cracker, and the grape juice: the gifts of God for the people of God — for any humble, suffering, desirous soul. Oil and wine for their wounds. My hands, my heart, promptly offered up, and touching the flesh of humanity.

What a great spiritual discipline for us all – to see ourselves, to see others and to see Jesus in others - to see him as present in this moment of connection and relationship.


Cameron McAdam is Minister at The Village Church in Mt Eliza, Victoria. He’s married to Georgie and they have two daughters, Ruth and Esther, and a son William. Cam is keen on the small, faithful encounters with others that bring transformation and fulfilment.


Image credit: Lavinia Fontana Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well. Public domain at Wikimedia Commons.

Got something to add?

  • Your Comment


Online Resources

subscribe to engage.mail

follow us

Latest Articles