Canon Treasurer - Revd. Canon Leanne Roberts
It struck me as ironic that, on the very morning that the Church withdraws the common cup at the distribution of Communion, we gather around one of the only gospel stories in which a drink is requested. And although the woman Jesus approaches is not actually infectious, she would certainly have been viewed as ritually unclean – not the sort of person with whom you’d want to share your water jar
‘The woman at the well’, as it’s usually called, is one of the more famous stories in John’s gospel, and though this encounter is remarkable for many reasons, it’s the woman’s proliferation of husbands which tends to stick in the mind. It’s one of my favourites, though it never fails to irk me – more about that in a bit.
Jesus and his disciples are travelling north from Jerusalem to Galilee, and they take the quickest route which means going through Samaria. Jesus, who is tired, hungry, and thirsty, rests by a well while his disciples go to the village to buy lunch. We’re told it’s ‘about noon’. Along comes a local woman to draw water from the well and Jesus asks her for a drink, which kicks off their exchange.
The common consensus is that Jesus breaks three taboos by this encounter: first, he’s speaking with a Samaritan, and Jewish-Samaritan relationships were tense, to say the least; second, he’s speaking with a woman, which no self-respecting Jewish man would do in public, let alone speak about theology which was even worse; third, this is a woman who has had five husbands, so she’s clearly a ‘loose’ woman, a sinner, and not the sort of person with which one would wish to be seen engaging.
It’s easy – dare I say lazy – to simply think of this as some nice example of Jesus being kind to someone others didn’t like – and we should go and do the same, etc. There is truth in this, but it risks our making this woman a passive bystander, a bit-part player just placed there to provide a foil for Jesus.
This would be a grave error. This exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is the single longest recorded conversation Jesus has in all of the gospels. The longest. And this woman is no cardboard-cut out, two-dimensional figure who smiles and nods. She’s sassy, probing, politically and religiously aware. I can’t help thinking Jesus was enjoying himself.
The judgement upon her comes not from Jesus, as we sometimes assume, but from the Church down the ages – which seems to love a female scapegoat more than almost anything – and from us, who just tend to accept the received interpretation. And this is why the passage irks me – or, rather, our response to it.
Those more historically close to the story would have been prepared to think the worst of her – the Jews considered the Samaritans a breakaway sect who, although having much in common with them in many ways, only accepted the first five books of the Scriptures. Jesus uses this ill-feeling throughout his ministry to make a powerful point about how God’s perspective is different from ours – we need only think of his parable of the Good Samaritan.
There, we’re told in no uncertain terms that the ‘good person’ isn’t always the high-ranking official, the one who belongs naturally to our sphere, those who are ‘like us’; but is often the foreigner, the stranger, the one reviled because of the fear or revulsion caused by our own prejudice.
But this person in today’s gospel is not just a Samaritan, but a woman, so the potential for disparagement is even greater. And yet there is this significant, lengthy exchange where, remarkably, Jesus tells the woman that he is the Messiah. This is the only time he voluntarily announces this to anyone until his appearance before Pontius Pilate.
Although she’s engaged from the first – she makes it clear that she’s well aware that this Jewish man should not, in terms of common decency, be speaking with her at all – it’s when we get to the sticky situation of her personal life that she realizes Jesus is more than she’d first assumed.
But this is where we need to take some care, I think. Let’s start by asking: why was she there? Or, rather, why was she there right then? As we’ve said, it was noon, the hottest part of the day. Not a time to trek to the well and carry a heavy water jar home.
There was no one else there because the other women went to the well in the cool of the early morning or evening. Why was this one going at a time that was uncomfortable and inconvenient? Some say it was because she was reviled because of her sinfulness. But nowhere in this passage does Jesus mention sin, even when he speaks of her five husbands and current lover.
The thing is, there are many reasons why she might have been married five times. It was immensely difficult for women to procure a divorce, and extremely easy for a man to make his wife leave. The husband held all the cards. So if some of her marriages had ended in divorce, it was unlikely to be of her choosing, or her fault.
Also, it was very usual for women to be married in their early teens to much older men, so remarried widows were common. Despite the bible commentaries and sermons that have proliferated down the ages, and persist today, there is actually nothing in the text to suggest that she was some predatory harlot.
And yet, she went alone, in the heat of the day, to the well.
The news is full of covid-19 – how it’s spreading, how we should take great care to avoid it. There are many articles about self-isolating, as though this were a new thing, as though we don’t do it all the time, for all sorts of reasons. The Samarian woman had self-isolated in her lonely trip to the well, and she will have had her reasons for this. We’re not told of them, though, and we should be wary of making careless assumptions.
But Jesus knew, and Jesus saw her – in all her cleverness and frailty and complexity. He saw her damage, her need, her thirst, and told her she need never feel like this again, need never hide away again. He demonstrates, by his knowledge of things he couldn’t possible know about her life, that there is no hiding from God, that we are met in the darkest, driest places, in our deepest need.
And we are not only met, but quenched and refreshed and made healthy and whole again if we accept what we are offered freely: we can be like the psalmist, who writes ‘and as they dance, they shall sing: all my fresh springs are in you.’ (Ps 87); we can rejoice, like the apostle Paul, that ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts’.
How many of us hide, self-isolate, from one another, from God, from ourselves? This hiding is a strategy we’ve found to be effective in taking care of ourselves, especially if we’ve been hurt by others. As the psychoanalyst Donal Winnicott writes, ‘it is a joy to be hidden and a disaster not to be found’. Like children playing hide and seek, we long to be found. There’s nothing worse than hearing the game going on around you, and feeling that nobody cares enough to come and find you.
In Christ, no matter how deep and dark is our well of despair or loneliness or sin, we have been found. We are loved, and held, and redeemed. We are given everything we most desperately need to be whole and free.
Once we have been found and drunk deeply of the love of God, we are energised and ready to go and offer the same to others, exactly as happened with the Samaritan woman at that well. The meeting of a man and woman by a well has romantic precedent: Rebekah and Isaac’s marriage-broker; Rachel and Jacob; Zipporah and Moses – they all meet by a well.
Jesus subverts this well-known expectation. He’s not looking for a wife, but for those in deep need of God’s love and redemption. This woman responds by believing, and becoming an evangelist for the gospel, and in this – rather than being shunned and scorned – she is an example to us all. She is brave, and steps outside her self-isolation to share what she has found. That she has been found.
There’s a poem by Robert Frost called ‘Revelation’ which speaks to this. He writes:
We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone find us really out.
‘Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.
But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us there they are.
Let us, like the Samaritan woman, speak about the freedom in being found, and being seen. It takes courage and faith, but we have been offered ultimate freedom – eternal life – through Jesus. We need only be thirsty and bold enough to accept it.