I love this passage (John 4:5-42) so much, it is hard to approach it with anything resembling even-handedness.
The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well was the appointed gospel lesson for my first-ever preaching experience (Lent 3A, 1990). And thanks to the chaplain who craftily invited me to give a homily at a Catholic university on a Sunday morning, this story of an unlikely evangelist– a woman! a Samaritan!– sowed within in me a seed that blossomed into a calling.
As Karoline Lewis points out her 2008 Working Preacher commentary, it’s no accident that Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman immediately following his encounter with a learned Pharisee. John contrasts the respected and well-known religious leader who stealthily comes to Jesus by night and the unnamed woman/ outsider who appears at a well when the sun is highest in the sky, and there is no hiding from anyone.
Jesus has taken his disciples on a detour into Samaria, which is to say, outside Judea. After the split into northern and southern kingdoms, Samaria and Judea had devolved into bitter enmity. A central wound in that division had to do with where one could truly worship God. For Judeans, those in the southern kingdom, that was ever and only the temple in Jerusalem.
This is the setting, and the set-up. A man, a Jew, asks a woman, a Samaritan, for a drink of water. This sets off the longest conversation between Jesus and any other person in the New Testament.
The conversation begins with a direct challenge by the woman, recognizing her outsider status (as she assumes Jesus perceives her). They move into the realm of theology, as Jesus presents himself as one who can give the much-desired (desperately needed) living water. The woman, like Nicodemus last week, at first appears to take Jesus’ words literally, notices he has no bucket, and wonders how he thinks he can be the water-provider in this situation. She also brings up Jacob– they are at Jacob’s Well– and this foregrounds something that is always in the background of this story.
Three important figures in the Hebrew scriptures have encounters at wells (two in person, one by surrogate) with the women whom they will marry. An encounter at a well pre-supposes an engagement story. In addition to religious and cultural and social differences, this scene crackles with another kind of tension. (If you don’t believe me, read the exchange again and assume flirtation. The well is deep.)
Jesus promises that his water will end thirst once and for all, becoming in the one who drinks “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman wants this water.
Jesus introduces the subject of the woman’s husband. His comment that she has had five husbands and is now living with a man outside wedlock has a number of possible meanings. In the Women’s Bible Commentary (3rd edition, c. 2012), Gail R. O’Day conjectures that the woman may be trapped in levirate marriage, being married in succession to each brother as the elder one dies, and the last refusing to marry her ( 521). Another possible meaning I discovered in researching my first sermon was the presence of five shrines in Samaria, ridiculed by Judeans as indicating that Samaritans worshiped five gods. Or, this may be connected to the settling in Samaria of various peoples who brought their own worship customs (and gods) with them (2 Kings 17:30-31).
The possible connection of “husbands” to “gods” (in Hebrew, ba’al means both) makes sense, especially given the woman’s next statement: She recognizes Jesus’ prophetic insight, and directs the conversation to where true worship might take place (on the mountain of her ancestors, or in Jerusalem).
Jesus responds that “where” is beside the point: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (v. 24).
The unnamed Samaritan woman carefully proposes (!) that Jesus may indeed be the Messiah. He responds with the ancient formula of God’s name: “I AM” (there’s no “he” in the Greek of v. 26).
The Samaritan woman’s encounter leads her, immediately, to action. Leaving her jug behind, she goes into the city. “She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?'” (vv. 28-29); John later tells us, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done’” (v. 39).
The Exodus passage (17:1-7) has a number of interesting connections with the John passage, including its focus on life-saving water, the presence of conflict, and even the tantalizing question of verse 7: “Is the Lord among us or not?” (John: “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”) The Psalm (95) alludes directly to the Exodus story.
The Romans passage offers a more broad connection with the theme of reconciliation.
Some questions for pondering:
- There is an easy connection with this story for women who preach. What about the rest of God’s people? How can the Samaritan speak to the people in your pews?
- How comfortable are we “going there” with this passage– which it so say, to the not-terribly-subtle (once you’ve seen it) sexual subtext? Can we see Jesus as a sexual person and at the same time be very careful not to objectify this woman? (And can we agree NEVER to use the phrase “five-time loser” in our sermons? That came up– as a negative example, thankfully– in two different sources I consulted.)
- To what extent does the background for this passage (Judean/ Samaritan history, levirate marriage, for instance) enrich a sermon, and how can we avoid letting it clutter it up?
- This passage has inspired more than one woman preacher (I am sure) to compose a monologue. Does that idea intrigue you? (I’ll post a link to mine– 12 years old, now!) in the comments.
So, tell me, where are you this fine Tuesday, leading up to the Third Sunday in Lent? Are you going with Jesus into Sychar and an encounter with this remarkable woman? Are you heading into the wilderness with Moses and his cranky, thirsty people? Are you mining Paul’s dense prose on justification and reconciliation? Please join us in the comments. And every blessing on your research, on your writing, and on your proclamation of the Word!
Image: Siemiradzki, Henryk, 1843-1902. “Christ and the Samaritan Woman,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.
Pat Raube has served as the pastor of Union Presbyterian Church in Endicott, New York since 2007. Pat is a graduate of the Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York (MDiv). She is mother of two young adults (Ned and Joan) and happily partnered to Sherry. She loves swimming, reading, writing, and film. A native of the Jersey shore, and in love with the New England coastline, she goes to the ocean every chance she gets.
RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back to the specific post. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.