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Man, Woman and Well

Monday, 10 April 2017  | Barbara Deutschmann

I love British crime dramas. When you watch them a lot you start to notice patterns and begin to get good at reading them. For instance, it is always the least expected character who does the evil deed, and there are some surreptitious clues, seemingly incidental details, that turn out to be very significant at the end.

So it is with John’s story in chapter 4. In the story is a seemingly irrelevant detail – a water jar - that turns out to hold the clue to the whole thing. As we consider this story, think about why John has recorded that detail in v.28. We know that nothing in John’s narratives is incidental. There is no padding, and words often have multiple meanings. At the same time, there are gaps and some questions designed to invite you in. Gospel writers don’t write just to entertain, unlike British crime drama writers. They write to engage us, mind and soul, in what they are telling us.

There are some things that the first hearers of this story would have understood that we don’t, so let’s fill in the background a little. Samaritans were an ethnic group whose pure Jewish line had been mingled with those of five other peoples. They did not worship in Jerusalem, but on their own mountain, Mt Gerizim. They believed only in the first five books of the Bible, so did not acknowledge the historical books, the prophets, the psalms or other writings. As well as antagonism with their neighbours, the Jews of Judea, they were oppressed by the Roman Empire. Their biggest town, Sebaste, contained a temple to Caesar Augustus, and another Roman city had been established right below Mt Gerizim.

The other thing that is hard for us to grasp is the place of women in first century Palestine. Men controlled positions of power and owned most property. Women kept to private places in homes and had little control over aspects of their lives like marriage and sexuality. They had a strictly defined sphere of influence within which they could move. They controlled the domestic sphere, and their duty was the collection of water and preservation and preparation of food. The water jar, then, is a symbol of what women did. The water jars were valuable and would not be left behind lightly.

It is common to hear the Samaritan woman presented as a loose woman, or, as one commentator puts it, ‘a five-time loser currently committed to an illicit affair’. Yet there are many reasons why a woman may have had multiple marriages. She is more likely to be a victim than a seductress. She may, for instance, have had to marry successive sons as they died one after another (levirate marriage). She may have been unable to conceive, a common cause of marital break-up in some societies even today. This reminds us of how important it is to read the Bible with those of other social locations. Here is how one Dalit (formerly called ‘untouchable’) woman from India reads the passage:

She is not allowed by both law and the culture to divorce her husband. However, her first husband divorced her on account of her bringing an insufficient dowry. Another came forward to marry her but divorced her since she was unable to bear a male child. The third man who married her was an alcoholic who beat her black and blue every night, and she ran away unable to tolerate the violence. The fourth man was much older than she was and was poor and sickly. He died. The fifth husband divorced her for a younger woman….

Let’s hold fire on judging the woman and see what Jesus made of it. The conversation gets off to a feisty start (vv.7-10). The woman’s strong response to the request for water shows that she is well aware that gender and ethnic boundaries have been crossed. Jesus sees in her a woman able to hold her own in conversation. Where some women would lower their heads and quickly move on, she is immediately engaged in the encounter. But there is a difference between them: where she thinks she is just talking to a thirsty Jewish man, Jesus shows that what he wants is not just water but for her to recognise that she is the thirsty one:

11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”

13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”. 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water”.

People who live in lands like Palestine know about water. They know the difference between intermittent water sources that only flow when it rains and the deep springs that well up eternally. The woman is proud of her ancestor Jacob’s well. We know about that well from the Old Testament and it must have seemed a miracle that, hundreds of years after Jacob dug it, it was still producing fresh water for her to collect with her water jar every day. Jesus is pushing her to make a link between the fresh, eternal spring water and the kind of life that springs forth so vibrantly that it brings life to all with whom it comes in contact. He wants her to want it badly enough to pursue it. Then he introduces another theme that jars on our ears:

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 

17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.”

Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 

Ah – the sudden leap into the personal! Jesus reveals that he knows her in His divine way, more deeply than she thought. He knows her most intimate history. There is no condemnation in His words. This conversation is not about her bedroom but about bigger things. He knows all that has happened to her and why. What must that be like: to know there is someone who discerns our deepest secrets – not just what we have done, but why; someone who understands not just why women do things but understands the pressures on them, the things they cannot control and the pains they endure. She begins to see that this one she is speaking with is not just a thirsty Jew:

19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 

21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem”. 

A prophet – a bold assessment of Jesus and one that only a few people were brave enough to suggest. She is getting closer. A cynical view is that the woman deflects the conversation into safer topics. A more balanced reading is that she is a genuine theological enquirer and seeks an answer to a life-long question. Perhaps he will be able to resolve the centuries-old debate between Samaritans and Jews about where to worship? Jesus whips out the rug from under her by pointing to the imminent end of both Gerizim and Jerusalem. Neither will have much meaning when ‘the hour’ comes:

25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us”.

26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you”.

The climax is reached. They have come to the end of the conversation. She shows that this heretic, this marginalised woman, has all along harboured a knowledge (and a hope) in the Messiah, and through the conversation she has been brought face-to-face with the very One she has been waiting for. Jesus declares Himself ‘I am’ – the name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush.

What will be the woman’s reaction? Will she believe him? Or will she simply fill her water jar and go home? At this point we don’t know.

Then the disciples returned and were horrified that he was speaking with the woman. They don’t question him – don’t wonder about what the meaning of this confronting event might be. But the woman cannot be seen for dust! She leaves her water jar and heads off to the marketplace to gather the people and tell them what had happened. The most significant thing for her is not the answer to her theological questions but the knowledge that Jesus had of her. How do you feel about that? Is the thought that God knows you that deeply disturbing or comforting? I think it is one of the deepest human needs – to be truly known by someone. But as important as this is, John also wants us to know that, to her, to this Samaritan woman living on the edge of polite society, to her has been given the first revelation that a turning point of history has occurred: the expected Messiah has come, and has done so in the form of a thirsty Jewish man who has deep knowledge about the most marginalised people.

The Samaritan woman is deliberately contrasted with Nicodemus, the figure in John 3. He comes at night voluntarily; she encounters Jesus by day, involuntarily. He is a male, orthodox, Jewish teacher and a theologian; she is a nameless female, heterodox Samaritan of no status. He makes no decision for Jesus and leaves in silence; she comes to faith and brings others to Jesus.

She is also favourably contrasted with the male disciples. Those would-be followers cannot get beyond the fact that he talks with a woman to see what it signified. They, too, are silent and judgmental.

In contrast, the woman leaves her water jar, heads for the marketplace and tells everyone she can find what has happened. And from her testimony, John tells us later in the chapter, many Samaritans believed in Jesus and declared Him ‘savior of the world’ – a title that deliberately recalls Roman Caesars.

I am a woman who feels deeply that the Bible so often is indifferent to me. Women are rarely the authors or narrators and rarely the ones addressed by the stories. Too often they are depicted as mere accessories in the plans and projects of men. But every now and then there is a gem like this story where a woman is the star – in fact she is a model to challenge the powers of men. In doing so, women like this nameless ‘woman at the well’ prepare us to receive the astounding news that the saviour of the world will be seen not in a powerful male, but in a broken person upon a cross.

So, why did John tell us that she left her water jar behind? It was because she was now the vessel of living water. She would still need her water jar but her life had been changed from a stagnant pond to a bubbling fountain that was irresistible in its force. This was my challenge as I reflected on this story. At this stage of my life, I hope that somehow my life would be sufficient witness to what Jesus has done. But this woman, who is not afraid to go into marketplaces and proclaim that she is changed, that a gale-force wind has picked her up and turned her around, is a rebuke and challenge to my world-weariness. John wants us to know that we can all be people who leave static water jars behind and become vessels spilling over with life for ourselves and others.

Barbara Deutschmann is a PhD student researching gender relationships in the Garden of Eden story of Genesis. She is a TEAR Australia Board member, a founding member of Christians for Biblical Equality, a mother and grandmother and a member of St Mark’s Spotswood Anglican Church, Melbourne.

This blog is based on a sermon given at St Mark’s Spotswood Anglican Church on 19th March 2017.


Kathy Hoffmann
May 24, 2017, 1:30AM
Thanks, Barbara. I thoroughly enjoyed this and have found much to think about.
Jason Bolster
June 14, 2017, 7:47AM
I loved this article. Thank you! Very eye-opening and insightful. I hope that I'm not so much like the men who came back from the marketplace thinking that they did Jesus a favour by bringing Him some physical food, but rather, like this woman who went to the marketplace selflessly bringing people to Jesus.

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