“The Woman at the Well” Colchester Federated Church, March 12, 2023, (John 4:5-42) Third Sunday in Lent

As we continue on in this Lenten season, we find ourselves with Jesus and his disciples at a well in Samaria.  Jesus’ disciples go into the city of Sychar to buy some food.  Meanwhile Jesus stays outside the city because he’s tired from the journey.  It’s about noon, so he sits down at the well to rest.  Along comes a Samaritan woman—she had come to draw some water.  Jesus asks her for a drink, and a remarkable conversation occurs.  Once again, this is another amazing one-on-one encounter where Jesus extends new life.  (Just like Jesus did with Nicodemus last Sunday and just like Jesus will do next Sunday when he encounters a man born blind from birth.)

Biblical Preaching Professor Karoline Lewis wrote a fantastic Commentary on the Gospel according to John, and that’s the main source I used when contemplating this Gospel story of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well.  Professor Lewis reminds us that it’s not necessary (geographically speaking) for Jesus and his disciples to go through Samaria to get from Judea to Galilee.  Jews like Jesus and his disciples would most likely not travel out of the way to Samaria.  The history of the feud between the Samaritans and Jews is complicated.  Though to summarize, Jews considered Samaritans outsiders and even idolaters.  However, the Samaritans understood themselves to be descendants of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.[1]  The Samaritans (and yes, they are still around!) still hold as sacred the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  The Samaritans considered their place of worship Mount Gerizim not Jerusalem.  That distinction of sacred geography helped maintain this schism for centuries.  At the end of the day, Samaria would be the last place that Jesus as a Jewish man would ever be expected to show people the depth of God’s love for humanity.   

But there we find Jesus—in Samaria alone with a Samaritan woman who is also alone at this well.  Now we’re supposed to be a little nervous when we hear this story because so many boundaries are being crossed.  As Professor Lewis explains, “We have a man speaking to a woman, a rabbi speaking to a woman, a Jew speaking with a Samaritan, a Jewish rabbi speaking with a Samaritan, and now, we find out, they are alone.[2]  Plus it’s all happening in public in the middle of the day out in the open for anyone who happened to pass by to see! 

One of the boundaries not being crossed though are moral boundaries.  When folks hear this story the picture is sometimes painted as Jesus as the pure and sinless Son of God speaking to this sinful woman with a sordid past.  That’s not what this story is actually about.  Often people interpret this woman as having “loose morals” because she’s had five husbands.  Given sexism present in society (and definitely in the Church, let’s be honest), that interpretation is not a huge surprise. 

In actuality, the Samaritan woman was probably barren and had husbands either divorce her or die over the years of her own life.  Let’s remember that women couldn’t divorce men, and barrenness was always blamed on the woman.  When Jesus says in the story that she’s living with a man who’s not her husband that means that she’s most likely living with her dead husband’s brother which was stipulated in Deuteronomy.  Jesus’ conversation with her shows how vulnerable and marginalized this Samaritan woman happens to be.  But it’s hard for you and I to sometimes put the pieces of the puzzle together because our cultural context is different.

Though we can notice that Jesus doesn’t say to her (like the woman caught in adultery in John 8 for instance): “Neither do I condemn you.  Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”[3]  Jesus doesn’t have to tell the Samaritan woman at the well to not sin again because she’s the victim here.  The victim of this patriarchal society where she gets passed from one man to another because she’s “damaged goods” or viewed as somehow defective or less than other women for not having children. 

We have clues that this woman was living a hard life because it was the duty of women to get water for the family.  Women would typically go to wells twice a day—early in the morning and later in the evening when it was cooler.  Though water fetching is a communal activity that women would often do with other women, for safety and camaraderie.  Meanwhile, this Samaritan woman is by herself at the well at about noon.  In the heat of the day, she’s walking alone to draw water from the well.  There she encounters Jesus of Nazareth feeling tired out by his own journey. 

One can imagine this woman as marginalized within the community of Samaritans who were themselves marginalized within the larger Jewish context.  Other women were probably cruel—she’s had five husbands and no children, what’s wrong with her?  Do you think she’s cursed?  What a sinner!  Women sometimes do incredible damage when we tear down fellow women.  Lord, do not get me started!  So this Samaritan woman doesn’t deal with those mean girls and the town gossiping about her it would seem.  Instead, she walks to the well by herself in the heat of the day to get water in peace and go back home to an uncertain future awaiting her.

But one day, a remarkable Jewish man named Jesus is sitting there resting at the well.  Jesus sees this woman, truly sees this woman with his eyes of compassion.  Jesus talks to her and fundamentally changes her life by offering her Living Water.  Jesus startles her with this good news of new life.  She leaves her water jar behind and goes back to the city to tell people (yes, even those people who may have made her life a living hell): “come and see.”  These are the same exact words Jesus uses in John’s Gospel to call his own disciples: “come and see.”[4]  As Professor Lewis explains, “She leaves behind her ostracism, her marginalization, her loneliness, because Jesus has brought her into his fold.  She leaves behind her disgrace, her disregard, and the disrespect she has endured to enter into a new reality, a new life that is abundant life.”[5]

What a beautiful story, right?  My friends this Gospel story is one of encounter and relationship.  It’s a story made all the more compelling considering the many boundaries that were crossed in order to have this relationship begin in the first place.  Boundaries crossed to have the Living Water offered from Jesus to the Samaritan woman at the well.  And that new life extended by Christ was accepted by her so that she (this Samaritan woman whose name we will never know) received new life and new life in abundance.

As we sit here this morning together in Christian community here in person or online, we can challenge ourselves to see one another with the compassionate eyes of Jesus.  Just as Jesus truly saw this woman at the well as a beloved daughter of God.  As disciples of Jesus Christ out in the world, how do we offer this spirit of abundant compassion?  How do we stand in solidarity with those on the margins?  Because make no mistake, we are the hands and feet of Christ in the world.  We are called to show compassion just as Christ showed compassion to this ostracized woman in Samaria long ago.  Jesus gave us an example, let’s follow his lead.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries, 53.
[2] Lewis, John, 56.
[3] John 8:11.
[4] John 4:29 and 1:39.
[5] Lewis, John, 64.

Photo by Jimmy Chang on Unsplash