Lent III, 2020: The Samaritan Woman at the Well
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
Today’s readings are all loaded with evocative imagery and topics, but the Gospel lesson really has to be one of the most complex and perplexing pieces of narrative anywhere in the New Testament. The confrontation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is a story that shows up only in the Gospel of John, and it’s loaded with so many layers of implication that it’s probably impossible to plumb it to its core.
Part of it is just because it’s really rather weird and disjointed. I know there’s a tendency to think, “Well, sure. Old text. Things have shaken a little bit loose in transmission, so not all the pieces can be expected to dovetail and make perfect sense.” There’s a tendency also to blame ourselves for our own perplexity, and to assume that none of it is going to make perfect sense, because we just don’t get it. Maybe it’s the cultural idiom; maybe it’s some native incapacity. From the point of view of twenty-first century America, though, this conversation seems more than a little bit jagged.
I have students whose approach to other ancient texts is similar: they can produce a translation of a passage — I don’t know how — without ever questioning the fact that it doesn’t really seem to make sense in context. Don’t do that. It does make sense — and you have to be more confident in your own ability to recognize what sense looks like. In the Gospel of Mark, there are certainly a few junctures that look like they’ve been put together with a staple gun and chewing gum. But the Gospel of John is quite different. If you read it extensively, all at once, it normally flows pretty smoothly. In that context, just how jarring and strange this conversation is becomes more obvious.
We’ve all heard the story before; familiarity may dull our sense for just how manic and bizarre it is. Of course the more or less obvious take-away from the story as a whole is the fact that Jesus, in the course of a fairly long conversation (as scriptural accounts of such things go) extends the offer of salvation and eternal life to a non-Jew. The Samaritans were not wholly separate from the Jews: they traced their ancestry, as the story relates, back to Jacob and Joseph; they believed in the same Lord, and observed at least some of the Law. One of the main points at issue between them was the question of where the Lord ought to be worshiped. The Samaritans kept their traditional “high places”, while the Jews held to the primacy of Jerusalem and the temple there. Like the Shiites and Sunni Muslims, they’ve split over what is in some ways a less-than-critical administrative detail, rather than any essential doctrine. But — it’s just human nature, I guess — they reserve a special contempt for each other. The animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans was in some ways greater than that between Jews and out-and-out pagans.
But if, rather than just trying to distill the story into a single propositional point, you take a look at the way the narrative unfolds, it’s very strange. It’s a kind of verbal sparring-match between the two, fraught with a whole range of social and cultural awkwardnesses. A certain amount of background will help, though much of it is supplied by the story. The woman herself has, in the cultural terms of the day, three strikes against her.
First of all, of course, she was a Samaritan. In the NRSV reading you heard today, John tells us that the Jews and the Samaritans don’t share things with each other. To say that they don’t “share things in common” is remarkably bland, really, and probably misses the point more than it gets it. Without an object, as it is here, the Greek verb συγχρῶνται (though it means something like “use together”) is likelier to mean something more like “associate”. John’s point is not, I think, that they don’t share eating utensils or cookware in order to preserve a strict Kosher kitchen: the force of the phrase here is more like “the Jews have nothing to do with Samaritans”. While she is still a believer in the Lord, and in fact (as we learn) is looking forward to the coming of the Messiah, the Samaritans are pariahs to the Jews. Even talking to them is enough to suggest a kind of ritual uncleanness for a strictly observant Jew. Sharing a water-jug with a Samaritan would be out of the question.
Second, she’s a woman. Even if she’d been a Jewish woman, this would have been problematic. For an unaccompanied man even to speak with an unaccompanied woman was a violation of conventional common decency. Of course nothing untoward happened between them — and there probably weren’t laws against just talking to one another. They were, after all, apparently in a public location, though we aren’t told that anyone else is around when the conversation starts; I think we have to understand a certain amount of privacy. But for Jesus to initiate a conversation with a single or unaccompanied woman was at the very least daring. It was not the done thing, and it would probably have been considered an insult to her had she been an entirely respectable woman.
Third, however, as it eventually emerges, she apparently wasn’t an entirely respectable woman. Here we need to read between the lines; the implications are not spelled out in detail. In writing about this, Frank Spina points out that she might well have been widowed five times in her life; that’s at least theoretically possible, and remarriage after being widowed was not itself frowned upon. It’s possible that one or more of her marriages ended in divorce; though Jesus speaks strongly against divorce himself, it was also at least legal under the Jewish law. Divorce, moreover, was typically initiated by the husband, so if it was a fault, it probably wouldn’t have been hers. For a woman to be divorced or widowed virtually compelled her to remarry, or, if that was not a possibility, to enter into other relationships. Marriage was largely about producing children; the abandoned woman was unlikely, after her childbearing years, ever to find another husband. Her position was economically on the edge all the time, and it was the cruel reality that many such women became prostitutes because they were just out of options. Still, by the end of this process, she is apparently living in a relationship that is not marriage. It seems unlikely that Jesus would have mentioned it, or that John would have mentioned it, or that the woman would have talked about it even obliquely to others, if it had been merely a housing arrangement. Accordingly, associating with her was dicey for Jesus. It suggested morally dubious intentions.
Despite all these things, Jesus strikes up a conversation with the woman. Its beginnings give no real indication of where it’s headed. At least it seems like a entirely pragmatic line. He’s thirsty, and he wants some water. He asks her to draw some for him. It seems obvious, and almost innocuous. After all, she has the jug; he doesn’t have one. That this is an echo of certain Old Testament betrothal narratives (hearkening back to Jacob, in fact) is an interesting byway that we don’t have time for here. But check it out if you’re interested.
The conversation unfolds from there very oddly indeed. After Jesus makes the first advance, the woman replies by falling back on conventional formalities of proper behavior. “How is it that you’re asking this of me? I’m a Samaritan and I’m a woman.” She doesn’t mention her marital status. Perhaps she wants to seem more respectable than she really is. Her response isn’t strictly an answer to his request, but it makes sense in context.
Then Jesus makes a completely unanticipated turn. He doesn’t answer her challenge at all, either, but he does something that’s even more transgressive: he turns it around on her and says, “Well, if you had any idea who I was, you’d be asking me for water.” What? How did we get there? Does he want some actual literal water or not? Then he goes on to explain that if she had asked, he would have given her living water. Exactly what qualifies as living water is not at this point entirely clear.
I don’t know about you, but if someone I’ve never met opens a conversation with a completely conventional comment or request, and then follows it up with a loopy zinger like that, I’m usually looking around for the nearest exit. I figure I’m being played by some kind of charlatan, or else just a nut case. I want to disengage.
She’s clearly flummoxed, but continues to try to control the situation, if only by imposing some kind of rationality on it. She tries to relate what he’s saying to the practical reality of the situation. He’s sitting there, having asked for water; she points out, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.” In any conventional sense, it’s pretty obvious that he’s in no position to be offering her water. Living water, she doesn’t know. But the well’s right there. She’s going to try to redeem the situation without getting too rude.
Then, however, she does a kind of double-take, as if what he had said had just sunk in, a few beats too late. Her line of questioning changes: “Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well?” Clearly she’s become aware that this is no longer about his ability to hoist up a bucket of regular H2O. She’s not sure what it is, but she’s reaching back to the foundations of her own faith. She’s betting on the fact that water they had gotten from their ancestor Jacob and Joseph was going to be as good as any other water he might be able to offer.
So what does Jesus do now? He starts deprecating the water he’s just asked for. What? “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Certainly he now seems a few notches shy of sane. He’s gotten her attention, though. It’s not clear whether she’s sold on the whole thing,, or whether she is merely trying to call his bluff. After all, he said that if she asked for it, he’d give it to her. So, fine. She’ll ask. “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” She still thinks that this is about normal water: but, whatever it is, having it will mean that she won’t have to come back to the well to draw more every day. She isn’t too clear on how this all works, but if it means she can scratch a regular and probably tiring activity off her daily schedule, that’s worth a shot, isn’t it?
At this point, though, Jesus pulls yet another change of direction. He doesn’t apparently give her anything. He tells her to go fetch her husband. Well, okay — but that doesn’t look very much like a gift of water either, does it? Why that? When she says that she doesn’t have a husband, Jesus comes out with a recital of what might be considered an account of her unchastity. And yet he doesn’t offer it as an accusation, as such. He doesn’t scold her, and he doesn’t stop talking to her. This strikes her like a thunderbolt. For her, it’s apparently less about the fact that she is or isn’t unchaste, and more about the fact that he knows it. I think it’s probably important also to add that he apparently already knew it before he struck up this conversation in the first place. He knew what kind of woman he was talking to.
This is what really boggles her, and she identifies Jesus as a prophet. She sketches the conventional difference between Jewish and Samaritan worship, making no reference to her marital status. She’s definitely hooked now: If his responses have been a little (or a lot) disjointed, well, this would explain it. Prophets are allowed to be a little weird — it kind of goes with the territory.
But it’s precisely here that he stops leaping about from pillar to post. The conversation zeroes in on what he really wants to talk to her about, but he’s also now established his credentials. What he has to say is equally astounding. All that stuff about Jerusalem and the Samaritan high places will ultimately be cancelled as irrelevant. And, in fact, “ultimately” is right now. “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.”
The woman replies with an appeal to the Messiah. It’s not clear why she is moved to bring him up, but I think it’s perhaps an outgrowth of what he’s said about the coming order. Certainly there’s a sense that the promised Messiah bridges the gap between the two peoples. All these petty quibbles will be set right, the truth will be known, and the differences in worship style will be resolved.
And then Jesus lands his real zinger, “That would be me. You’re talking to him.” Well. This is a remarkable statement at any time, but this is another one worth seeing in context. Claimants to the title of Messiah actually popped up fairly routinely. So it’s not a title that nobody would claim for himself. It’s just not proven to be true in most cases. Preposterous claims aren’t that uncommon. To some extent, their frequency makes even the valid one suspect. I mean, I suppose it’s possible that some wealthy Nigerian wants to send me twenty million dollars, but I honestly don’t tend to pay attention to those emails any more. But what if it were true?
The eccentric flow of the conversation, it’s worth noting, has already established Jesus’ credentials as at least a genuine prophet by the time he arrives here. The other thing that validates what he says is precisely the curious inappropriateness of the person he’s addressing. Nigerian scammers don’t selectively send their email only to destitute people living on the street. Messianic claimants who want to be taken seriously surely aren’t going to lodge their claim with those in absolutely no position to promote their cause. He’s telling a woman? A Samaritan? A possible prostitute? What in the world is he thinking?
Of course, God seems to have this regular way of working through the least probable — the weak, the marginalized, and the disinherited. At this point in his career, if our chronologies are correct, Jesus has not made this claim to any of the Jews, even his own disciples. He has mostly kept his identity under wraps up to this point. Commentators talk about the Messianic Secret in Mark. But even in John, he’s not carrying calling cards identifying him as the Messiah. Looking at the gospel narrative in dramatic terms, this is what the Hollywood types call the Big Reveal — like that point where the Scarlet Pimpernel or Zorro discloses who he really is. The fact that he made this revelation first to someone outside the chosen inner circle is remarkable for its brazenness; it also says a great deal about the direction he is going overall.
If that were all there was, this would be a remarkable story. But it continues. Up to this point, we’re given to understand that the conversation has been private, possibly unobserved altogether. But then the disciples show up en masse. They’re apparently kind of appalled, or at least perplexed, to find Jesus, the pillar of righteousness, carrying on an apparently intimate conversation with this questionable woman — a Samaritan, no less. John tells us that they didn’t challenge him on it, but the fact that he mentions it argues that it was going through someone’s mind. But neither does either Jesus or the woman tell them what he has told her about himself.
In due course, she also becomes something of a model of what the true convinced evangelist can be. She, whose only credentials were a sinful life and a place among a marginal tribe of dubious believers, goes out and starts getting people to come see Jesus for themselves. In a stroke of naturalistic detail, we’re told that she leaves her water-jar behind. I’m sure there’s a high-powered interpretive explanation of the significance of that: I tend personally to take it just as corroborative detail. She was pretty fired up about this.
In the midst of this narrative there is another one inserted that is almost a mirror image of Jesus’ conversation with the woman; his disciples are urging him to eat, but he tells them that he has food they don’t know about. They entirely fail to get the point.
What shall we make of all this, then? I’m not sure there’s a single overriding point to take from it. As so often in scripture and even in literature, the point is in the narrative itself, not in a distillation or a moral. What we see is Jesus’s interaction with a sinful woman — sinful as we are. His angles of approach are occasionally bewildering — and I for one am often bewildered by them too. Ultimately he touches a nerve and turns her whole universe upside down. The challenge, I think, is for us to let him do so for us too. But don’t trade the story in for these reductions. It’s worth clinging to and re-examining over and over again for what it is itself.