It’s been three months since I posted, but for a pretty good reason. Those months were filled with the final push to finish the second book in my Ella Wood trilogy, Blood Moon. It released earlier this month. I’m thrilled with the positive response I’ve received so far.
Anyway, I’m back today with some thoughts on one of my favorite Bible stories–the Woman at the Well. This passage has always been difficult for me to understand. Some of the exchanges between Jesus and the woman seem so random. Yet a little history on the cultural and political differences between the Jews and the Samaritans helps clear this up significantly. What emerges is a provacative conversation about the changing work God was doing through Christ, its healing power, and the effect it would have around the world. But before I pursue those thoughts, let’s read the story in John 4:4-26 again. I’m quoting the NIV version.
Now he [Jesus] had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” “I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
There is a lot going on in there! Hints between the strained relations between Samaria and Judea, cultural taboos between the sexes, Jesus’s ability to know a person’s past, a confusing conversation about water and life, and something about worship and mountains. Let me see if I can clarify.
First, it is important to note that Judea to the south, which included Jerusalem, and Samaria to the north were all part of the land given to the Israelites under Moses and Joshua. David’s kingdom encompassed both areas. It was all Jewish. You may recall, however, that the Kingdom of Israel split after Solomon’s rule. Ten of the twelve tribes became Israel (north) and two tribes became Judea (south). Because of Israel’s sin, the Northern nation was eventually conquered by the Assyrians. Now when the Assyrians invaded an area, they would move the residents out, scatter them, and repopulate the land with other displaced peoples. It was an effective means of dispiriting the conquered and avoiding possible rebellions. The ten tribes, therefore, essentially ceased to exist as an entity and were lost to history.
The Southern kingdom of Judea was later conquered by the Babylonians and carried off into captivity (recall the stories of Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) where they were kept intact as a nation and eventually allowed to return to their homeland (recall stories of Nehemiah rebuilding the wall and Zerubbabal rebuilding the temple). The tribes of Benjamin and Judah carried on, and the Jews that survive today all trace their lineage back to one or the other. Judah had to survive, as the Messiah would come from its people.
This history helps explain the animosity that existed between Jews and Samaritans in Jesus’s day. Samaria had been part of the Northern kingdom, with whom the Southern kingdom fought bitterly for generations. And any Jewish blood that may have survived the Assyrian conquest was muddied both in race and religion by intermarriage with the Gentiles who had been resettled there. Judean Jews considered Samaritans half-breeds and heretics at best. Additionally, the Samaritans were pro-Rome, as the Romans had freed them from an oppressive Jewish rule, while the Jews were vehemenantly opposed to Roman rule. So political persuasions, on top of race and religion, separated Jesus and this woman. And finally, strict rules of conduct were in place between men and women of this day, including a taboo on speaking together in public. This is the charged situation in which this conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman took place. Now let’s look at what they said.
First, Jesus asks the woman for a drink. This must have astounded her, and she protests. But Jesus’s words are equally astounding. He starts speaking of living water and eternal life. As a Samaritan with a religion rooted in Judaism, she may have had an inkling that he was talking about spiritual truths. Within Judaism, the Spirit is often associated with water, especially in the water-drawing ceremony that took place annually as part of the observation of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. But the woman seems to have missed Jesus’s deeper implications when she asks him for a drink of this water so that she “won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” She soon begins to understand this is no ordinary person with whom she is conversing when her scandalous past comes to light. There is no way Jesus could have known these details without divine revelation. She calls him a prophet.
Next comes the discussion that has always intrigued me the most, because of its difficult to understand. She tells him, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” Huh? At first glance, that is such a random thing to say. We now know, however, that she is alluding to the political and racial differences between Jew and Samaritan. Because they were no longer “pure” Jews, Samaritans were denied full entrance to the temple in Jerusalem. Still wishing to worship their ancestral God (though their Judaism had been intermixed with pagan religions), the Samaritans modified the rules, so to speak, and set up their own high place on Mount Gerizim, within their own regional borders. The Jews write this off as heresy. Unacceptable. I think the woman may be doing several things with this statement: spitefully accusing the Jews of being exclusive bigots, pleading for understanding that her people are trying their best, and maybe asking who’s right. Jesus responds that it will soon all be irrelevant.
That’s the most fascinating part of this exchange. Jesus does make it clear that Judaism is the proper revelation of God up to this point, and that the Samaritan’s corrupted version is based on ignorance. But he is also aware that things are changing. God is working the next part of his eternal plan. People will soon have direct access to God through his Holy Spirit and will no longer need priests or temples as intermediates. In fact, both the Jewish and the Samaritan temples would be destroyed within a century. The conversation is then clenched and verified by Jesus’s final revelation–he is the Messiah. The one who will “explain everything”. The one looked for by both Jew and Samaritan. The one who will do this amazing new work of God. The one who will eliminate the need for temples. The one who will reunite peoples. The one who will surpass political differences, sexual differences, racial differences. This is an amazing statement! And I think at this point, the woman “gets it”. Maybe not all of it. Not yet. But the woman rushes into town to tell others of this encounter, and we are told that many believed. I think this woman was one of those believers. I think her heart changed after this powerful conversation, that she acknowledged the sin Jesus pointed out, and that she eventually came to understand fully the truths revealed to her, both during Jesus’s two-day stay and by the ongoing work of the Spirit in her life.
The power that changed the Samaritan woman’s life is still changing lives today. I get discouraged when I look around me. I see an America that has rejected God’s authority, his Word, and his Redeemer. A huge gulf exists between myself and the accepted viewpoints of the day, and it’s never more apparent than when I hold discussions with a friend who is a GLBT activist. Like Jesus and the Samaritan woman, we are separated by both politics and religion. But as we’ve seen in the story, Jesus has authority over both. His power to convict, to restore, and to unite extends beyond me. He can see the future, and his plan will be carried out.
That is an encouraging thought.