The woman at the well

Our gospel reading for Sunday 12th March is John 4:5-42 – the story of the Woman at the Well. I’m
incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend a great deal of time in the lands of the
bible – both study time and leisure time. I know what it’s like to walk it’s pathways – I’ve walked its
paths, climbed its mountains and spent time living with the ordinary people in Jerusalem and
Bethlehem and, amongst other things, I’ve walked in Samaria and I’ve visited the well which is the
site of today’s gospel reading – I have an understanding of the region but I can’t return to the actual
times of the bible and fully understand the society and it’s people – for that I have to rely on others
who have done work in those areas and, relying on the work of others, I think we need to establish
who the Samaritans were. We know OF the Samaritans but do we know ABOUT the Samaritans?

Samaritans still exist although their numbers are very few – as of January 1 (the last official count)
the population was 840 who live almost exclusively in Kiryat Luza on the holy Mount Gerizim near
the city of Nablus (Shechem) in the West Bank with a few others living in the city of Holon, just
outside Tel Aviv. The Samaritans are an ethnic group descended from a group of Israelite
inhabitants that have connections to ancient Samaria from the beginning of the Babylonian Exile –
way back in the Old Testament. Their name in Hebrew means “keepers of the law”. They practice a
religion based on the Torah and claim (now as at the time of Jesus) that their worship is the true
religion of the ancient Israelites, predating the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. They believe that
where they live is the original Holy Place of Israel from the time that Joshua conquered Israel and
settled the land; according to Samaritans even before that it was on Mount Gerizim that Abraham
offered Isaac.

The Gospels mention three times good deeds by Samaritans. Jesus, who lived and acted within a
society where centuries-long hostility to and prejudice against Samaritans were deeply rooted,
evidently sought to teach that actions speak louder than ethnic identity or pious appearances
because we have The Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s gospel and in John’s gospel we
have this story of the Samaritan woman at Sychar who Jesus asks for water from Jacob’s Well;
Luke also gives us the story where Jesus healed ten Lepers, of which only one returned to praise
God, and he was a Samaritan. It isn’t all positive though – also in John’s gospel Jesus is accused
of being a Samaritan and Luke contains a story of a Samaritan village denying hospitality to Jesus
and his disciples this was because they did not want to facilitate a pilgrimage to Jerusalem – a
practice which they saw as a violation of the Law of Moses. Matthew only mentions the Samaritans
when Jesus forbids his disciples to visit any Samaritan city (we need to remember that Matthew is
the most Jewish of the gospels and Matthew would have found affirmation of the Samaritans very
difficult indeed) – Mark contains no mention of Samaritans.

I think it’s very interesting then that the conversation we have recorded of Jesus speaking with the
Samaritan woman at the well is longer than any conversation recorded with anyone else; longer
than we have a record of him talking to any of his disciples – longer than he talks to any of his
accusers – longer than he talks to any of his own family. The woman at the well is also the first
person Jesus reveals himself to in John’s gospel. She is the first outsider to guess who he is and
tell others. She is the first evangelist, John tells us, and her testimony brings many to faith. This
has to be one of the most wonderful exchanges in the whole of the Bible – it’s a very beautiful story
with two major themes. The first theme is that God knows us intimately. God knows everything
about us – every detail, as Jesus knew the most private details about the woman at the well. The
second theme is that of living water. God does not just provide the daily sustenance that our bodies
need but quenches a much deeper thirst, that of the dryness in our souls.

This passage overflows with good news that “true worship” is not found in any building or cult but
in the hearts of believers who worship God “in Spirit and in Truth.”
When Jesus talks to the Samaritan women she says she has no husband and Jesus replies: “You
are right in saying: ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have
now is not your husband.” It sounds like a rebuke, but in a society where women had no ability to
divorce their husbands, a woman in such a position was probably a victim of divorce, not the
instigator – what had happened – what was it about this poor woman – one possibility is that she
was unable to have children. While we will never know the exact historical circumstances
underpinning the Samaritan woman’s domestic situation it is clear that Jesus paid no attention
whatsoever to the whys or wherefores. Read this story with this insight and Jesus’ response
suddenly seems sympathetic rather than critical, and the whole tone of the encounter is changed.

She’s so human – this woman! As soon as Jesus starts talking about her life – something deep and
personal – she changes the subject – her own life story is probably too painful – but here is a MAN
to whom she can speak – a man who makes no demands on her but just treats her well – even
asking her for water. Not only was Jesus asking for water from a woman – nay – even speaking to a
woman to whom he was not directly related – she’s from the hated – despised Samaritans.

Let’s just think about the water for a moment – remember we are not talking about a story that took
place in temperate, damp, Yorkshire but in a hot, dry and dusty place at a time of day when only
mad dogs and English man venture outside. Jesus was in need – in need of a drink and he uses
that situation to speak of eternal truths – we never find out if he actually gets a drink of water!! first
of all – she starts to talk about the things that divide their people. Jesus uses this to make a
profound truth. What she says implies that the Jews and the Samaritans can’t both be right if they
worship in different places and in different ways. Jesus in turn seems to imply that it’s about
something deeper than where or how you worship – that God is bigger and greater than our human
boundaries. Well, she replies, when the Messiah comes ….. When something happens to make it
clear ….. then we’ll change! I’m here, says Jesus – live your life in my way and it will be real – it will
be filled with a different sort of water – living water. Living water is a phrase that simply means
water that is constantly running and was important to Jews – they were/are only allowed to wash in
water that is running. At the time of Moses without water the people of Israel were going to die. The
water that God provided was ‘living water’ in a very real way. Without profound thirst, such living
water cannot be appreciated – this might be true for those who, for instance, ‘thirst for
righteousness’. Jesus proves himself to be the source of living water in the fullest sense.

I think the best example I know of ‘living’ water and ‘dead’ water (for want of a better distinction) is
found in the land of Jesus – in the very waters he knew so well. The river Jordan emerges at
Caesarea Philippi in spring fed by the water flowing through Mount Hermon in Lebanon. It rushes
out and forms a river that flows south through a valley and small lake – Lake Hulah (now a water
bird sanctuary) and then to the Sea of Galilee being joined by small tributaries on it’s way. Galilee,
as a region, is, as at the time of Jesus, full of life – it’s shores are surrounded by vegetation – it’s
waters are full of fish, it is surrounded by life both human and otherwise – it is lush and green and
fertile. As the river flows out of the southern end of the lake it is still full of life and remains that way
until it reaches the lowest point on the surface of the earth where it forms the Great Salt Sea – what
we now call the Dead Sea. In contrast to the northern places this is a barren body of water – a
watery desert and the reason for that? Until it reaches the dead Sea the river and it’s lakes give
and take water – the Dead Sea only takes for there is nowhere for the water to flow. The only way
the water can leave the lake is by evaporation and thus its minerals become more and more
concentrated – so much so that they can’t support life.

Water that gives life – a way of living that leads to full life for all – even those who are despised by
society – like this amazing woman we’ve heard of today. Just think about it – this WOMAN who had
to visit the well in the heat of the day – THIS woman despised because her her life style – it’s THIS
WOMAN who is the first in John’s gospel to actively recognise who Jesus is – and her enthusiasm
was so great that THOSE neighbours who had despised her so much that she needed to visit the
well in the heat of the day believed. Isn’t this one of the most amazing stories?

Today, of course the word Samaritan has a different connotation to that of the time of Jesus – it
refers to someone who has done a good or kind thing – something above and beyond the call of
duty – quite ironic really when you think they are named after a people whom the Jews of Jesus’
time saw as the worst kind of outcast. Today they are people who quietly and conscientiously give
of themselves for others whoever they may be and whatever their circumstances – and that is
actually rather close to what Jesus was about.


Ruth Parry 12 March 2023