The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is a good story – not just because it focuses on a woman, but also because the focus on her shines a light on Jesus and . . . on us. So let’s take a closer look.
We learn that Jesus and the disciples arrive at the well at high noon, hot, dusty, hungry, tired. While Jesus sits down to rest, his followers go into town to buy something for him to eat. I would hope that Jesus finds some shade to sit in in the meantime. A well does suggest an oasis, which suggests a tree or two.
Shade or not, it’s approaching the hottest part of the day, so there shouldn’t be anyone at the well drawing water. The women are wisely within the walls of the city in the cool of their homes. This affords Jesus some quiet time to conserve his energy, to pray, to meditate.
For many of us, this picture of a weary Jesus is appealing. For those who are tired, always tired, for those who see no prospect of being anything but tired, this Christ offers hope. A tired Christ will understand. A tired Christ can help as no other can. The New Testament brings home to us Christ’s oneness with us.
Recognizing that oneness, we listen to him, because he has the right to speak to us. So those of us who labor and are heavy laden can see for ourselves that Christ is carrying burdens too, and we recognize that he might well be able to show us how to bear ours with something of his own unfaltering courage and patience. And he asks of us only things that are within our reach.
As Jesus sits at the wellhead, this woman comes to draw water. Which is odd, because the natural time to draw water is the cool of the evening; then all the women gather around the well and share gossip. But she doesn’t go then. For some reason she arrives when the sun is overhead, while Jesus happens to be alone at the well. In retrospect, we might say that God planned it that way.
Jesus takes the first step; he opens this now famous incident by throwing himself upon her courtesy and asking for a drink of water. He has no drinking cup of his own, so he would have to drink from the cup she drinks from. If you were a good Jewish congregation, you would gasp audibly at this point. How awful!
Jesus is violating serious taboos. She is, first of all, a woman, and we soon learn that she is on the very margin of society, unwelcome to participate in any “proper” social activity, even in the evening drawing of water at the well.
Worst of all, she is a Samaritan. Samaritans were considered by Jews (who are the “good guys” in our story) to be renegades. Heretics. Jews of Jesus’s time would have thought the term “Good Samaritan” a complete contradiction of terms. With good reason in their eyes.
When the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile, who was still living in Judea? Those nasty Samaritans! Those lower-class sons of guns had been left behind in Judea, which had been taken over by the conquerors, by the enemy. Hence the Samaritans were considered collaborators who had (shudder, ick) mingled with foreigners.
As far as religion was concerned, the Samaritans worshiped the same God as the Jews and recognized the same Scriptures. But from the Jewish point of view, the Samaritans, God and Torah notwithstanding had been corrupted by their association with the enemy.
When the Jews finally returned from exile, their top priority was to rebuild the temple, and the Samaritans gallantly offered to help rebuild not only the temple, but the city of Jerusalem itself. The Jews turned them down. Accept help from those defiled creatures? Hah!
Since the Samaritans weren’t allowed to help rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, they simply build one of their own.
And over time, their ideas about worship developed differently from the way the Jews worshiped. Not a surprise. Put an Episcopal and a Nazarene worship service, for instance, side by side, and you’ll see differences in spite of the fact that we worship the same God and accept the same Scriptures.
So God has brought Jesus, a Jew, face to face with this female, one ostracized from most of her own people as well because of her multiple marriages and/or her relationships outside of marriage – otherwise why would she come to the well in the heat of the day? Probably to avoid the catcalls of the other women.
So here we have a woman – a Samaritan woman no less –face to face with a man. This is the stuff that in movies is accompanied by duh, duh, duuhh. And Jesus wants her to give him a drink. From her cup!
Notice that in this story, Jesus makes no use of his powers to meet his own needs any more than he did when the devil tempted him to change stones into bread. If and when he and his disciples are hungry, if they aren’t guests at someone’s table, they shop for food and pay for it. That’s what the disciples have gone into this Samaritan city to do.
What does this all say to us? We shouldn’t anticipate that Christ will do for us what we can and should do for ourselves. There are those who expect him to whoosh them to their goal – without any exertion on their own part. They get aggravated to find out that the entire long road must be traveled foot by foot, a step at a time.
The Holy Spirit is not going to spoil us or treat us with kid gloves. Help us, yes. Strengthen us according to our needs, yes. But not indulge us.
Instead of offering us the easy way out, Jesus offers us –as he does to the Samaritan woman – His own water. Everyone who drinks of the well water will thirst again. Naturally. But Jesus claims that whoever drinks of the water he gives will never thirst. That’s really a bold claim.
Jesus can permanently – eternally – satisfy a thirsty soul. He makes that claim repeatedly and with assurance. So, suddenly, the simple request for a simply drink of water has turned into a complicated offer. His water may assuage thirst permanently, but we know that at the same time, what Jesus does to those who drink of it is to awaken in them an unending yearning.
It’s not as if we take a drink, wipe our lips with the back of our hand and say, “Thanks, Lord” and then go on with the rest of our lives with no further need of him. Instead we return to drink again and again. We know that the supply is infinite. That God’s grace is inexhaustible. That eternity itself won’t be long enough to put an end to it.
To go back to the Samaritan woman herself, when she goes to the well to get water, she is not seeking God. Although she does expect the Messiah someday, she certainly doesn’t go to the well in order to meet him. But there he is!
And to her he reveals himself more than he has to anyone else so far. How typical of Jesus, to reveal his identity to this more unlikely person. A daring move? Maybe. But a characteristic one. And with her, Jesus’ daring justifies itself.
At least more than half convinced that he is who he says he is, she leaves behind her water pot (that would be like one of us gals abandoning our purse with all our credit cards in it), and she runs for town, panting out her story to the men who are no doubt lounging in the shadows during the noontime heat. Can this be the Christ?
Even though she is an unlikely messenger, she impresses them with her enthusiasm. They rush out, shading their eyes against the sun’s glare, to see for themselves if there is anything in what she says.
The response Jesus must have hoped for is happening. They come to him, listen to him, and even ask him to stay and teach them more. And many more believed because of his word. None of which would have happened if he hadn’t been tired and thirsty and hadn’t asked that Samaritan woman for a simple drink of water.
At the end we are left with several lessons, several thoughts. First, to bring in the Kingdom of God, we need simply to share with someone in need. And second – did Jesus ever get lunch that day?