The text is John 4:1-42, and since it's such a long one, I'll just summarize it. Jesus passes through Samaria and sits down at the well, while his disciples go into town to get food. A Samaritan woman approaches to draw water, and Jesus asks her for a drink. She is surprised that he would be speaking to her, a Samaritan and a woman, and asks him about it. Jesus replies, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." She immediately becomes a little indignant and asks him who he thinks he is. "You are not greater than our father Jacob, are you, who gave us this well, and drank of it himself?" The source of friction between Samaritans and Jews is here apparent, because the Jews denied that the Samaritans had Jacob for their father. Jesus sidesteps this to continue his metaphor of water as eternal life from God: "Whoever drinks the water that I shall give him shall never thirst." But the woman misunderstands. She's tired of coming to draw water every day and, practically, thinks this "living water" sounds like the perfect solution.
Jesus asks her to bring her husband. Since she is female, this woman probably has little to no education and thus is probably completely unused to thinking metaphorically. Jesus may be asking for her to bring her husband because of this. Or, of course, he may simply be communicating in this way that his intentions are innocent. Or both. "I have no husband," she replies. Jesus then says she has told the truth, for "You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband." By this the woman recognizes that Jesus is a prophet. So (playing, as it were, the game of "what one thing would you ask a Jewish prophet if you had a chance?") she brings up the burning issue for Samaritans in her day: the conflict with the Jews over the proper place to worship. Jesus then tells her, "The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshiper shall worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers."
The woman then expresses hope in the Messiah, and Jesus explicitly reveals to her that he is the Messiah. She runs back to the village to tell everyone. Jesus ends up staying two days, and "many more believed because of his word."
The Women In the Bible website provides some historical background:
There had been a long-running conflict between the Jews and the Samaritans. Samaria had been the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel during the period of the divided kingdoms. In 721BC Assyria conquered Israel, and sent most of its people to live in Assyria. The Assyrians replaced the original people with five alien tribes who resettled the area (for information on this event, see 2 Kings 17:13-34).
Eventually many of the original population returned and intermarried with the five alien tribes. By the time of Jesus, Jews thought that the people who lived in Samaria were not true descendants of the great Jewish ancestors, and that their religion was not true Judaism but a mixture of beliefs. . .
[T]he temple on nearby Mount Gerizim had been the central place of worship for the Samaritans, rivaling the Temple in Jerusalem. Samaritans and Jews always argued over which of the two temples was the true place to worship. . .
Inclusion of the Samaritans among those whom Jesus favored was revolutionary, since there was bitter enmity between the Jewish and Samaritan peoples.
David A. deSilva, in his work on the cultures of the New Testament, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, talks about this passage as being primarily about "sacred space" -- which and what kind of places are to be considered holy.
"The early Christians radically changed Jewish maps of sacred space, largely depicting the replacement of the Jerusalem temple as sacred space with new configurations of sacred space located in the individual believer, the community of Christians and the presently unseen realms of God. . .
In John's gospel. . . Jesus sets aside limited locales of sacred space (the fixed centers both of Jerusalem and Mount Gerazim, the sacred site for Samaritans) in favor of sacred space that opens up wherever people worship God "in spirit and truth" (John 4:21-23)." (pp. 291-292).
This is why the Gospel of John, which tends to organize the story of Jesus thematically rather than chronologically, places the cleansing of the temple midway through what is now Chapter 2. This thematic arc operates like this:
- It begins with Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple, in a kind of prophetic indictment against that sacred space (deSilva, Ibid).
- It continues through the conversation with religious leader Nicodemus, to whom Jesus speaks of "everyone who is born of the Spirit" as being like the Spirit in having no fixed place of origin or dwelling.
- It concludes with this story of the woman at the well-- in which Jesus' includes the Samaritans among those who are able to learn to "worship in spirit and truth" rather than in a temple.
Kenneth E. Bailey, in his book Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes, points out that in the Gospel of John the nighttime usually symbolizes spiritual darkness while the day represents spiritual light. These are contrasted in this arc. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, while the Samaritan woman speaks with Jesus in the broad light of day. Thus the respected religious leader is compared with the despised foreigner in one of the "last shall be first" reversals which are so common in the Gospels.
Bailey also notes that this woman is an outcast even among her own people, for the customary time for women to draw water was in the early morning or at sundown, and they generally come in groups to help one another with the heavy water jars. This woman comes alone at the "sixth hour," which is around noon. Tradition has it that this was an immoral woman whom Jesus then "catches" in her sin.* But author David Lose, in his March 2011 article in the Huffington Post, Misogyny, Moralism and the Woman at the Well, points out that Jesus' words about "five husbands" need not be construed as implying that she was necessarily a woman of loose morals:
"Jesus at no point invites repentance or, for that matter, speaks of sin at all. She very easily could have been widowed or have been abandoned or divorced (which in the ancient world was pretty much the same thing for a woman). Five times would be heartbreaking, but not impossible. Further, she could now be living with someone that she was dependent on, or be in what's called a Levirate marriage (where a childless woman is married to her deceased husband's brother in order to produce an heir yet is not always technically considered the brother's wife). There are any number of ways, in fact, that one might imagine this woman's story as tragic rather than scandalous."
Women were not allowed no-cause divorces, as men were. Nor could a rejected woman support herself without finding another man. The fact that this woman had had five husbands and was now with a man who wasn't her husband was really more of an indictment on the unjust divorce practices** of her time than any fault of the woman's. But the fact remains that the stigma of this fell much more on the woman than on the men who had put her in this position. Jesus doesn't worry, however, about the fact that she has come to the well without friends, at a time when she would not have to face other women. He simply asks her for a drink.
Kenneth Bailey points out (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 202) that wells in that area did not have buckets attached to them. Travelers always carried soft leather "buckets" to draw water-- and Jesus apparently had let the disciples take it with them into town. Bailey states:
"By deliberately sitting on the well without a bucket, Jesus placed himself strategically to be in need of whomever appeared with the necessary equipment. The woman approached. On seeing her Jesus was expected to courteously withdraw to a distance of at least twenty feet, indicating that it was both safe and culturally appropriate for her to approach the well. . . Jesus did not move as she approached. She decided to draw near anyway. Then comes the surprise.
Jesus asks for a drink. By making this request Jesus does four things:
1. He breaks the social taboo against talking to a woman. . . In village society, a strange man does not even make eye contact with a woman in a public place. . .
2. Jesus ignored the five-hundred-year-old hostility that had developed between Jews and Samaritans. . . [Bailey later explains that Jews and Samaritans did not even drink out of the same vessels, so Jesus could have been considered defiled by drinking from her bucket]
3. Jesus so totally humbles himself that he needs her services. Jesus does not establish his initial relationship with her by explaining how she needs him and his message. That will come later. Rather, his opening line means, "I am weak and need help! Can you help me?" . . .
4. Jesus elevates the woman's self worth. Only the strong are able to give to others. The woman's dignity is affirmed by being asked to help Jesus out of her available resources."
But Jesus does more than just speak to this woman and increase her dignity by asking her help. He deliberately moves the conversation from the every-day (give me some water) to the spiritual: (the gift I bring is living water). He converses with her on the same level as he has just a few verses before conversed with Nicodemus-- as an equal. There is no real difference in his eyes between a scholarly, male Jewish religious leader and an outcast, lowly foreign woman. When she fails to grasp his first teaching, he asks her to bring her husband-- but the lack of appearance of a husband does not cause him to shut the conversation down. Jesus allows her to ask him the kind of question a woman in her position would want to ask a prophet.
Then, by opening "sacred space" to include anyone who worships in spirit and truth, Jesus proclaims the eternal kingdom open to Samaritans-- and not only that, but by referring to God as "the Father," Jesus implies that God can be Father to Samaritans as well as Jews. As deSilva puts it (Honor, p. 197):
"The possibility of becoming part of God's family provides the basis for the alternative kinship group that Jesus begins to create within his own ministry. The most well-known passage in this regard is Matthew 12:46-50. . . in which he redefines his own kin not as those born into his father Joseph's household but rather as 'whoever does the will of my Father in heaven,' that is, whoever is born into his heavenly Father's household."
The language of being "born" anew into this family is also used by Jesus to Nicodemus in the passage just prior to the Samaritan woman passage. "New sacred space" and "new alternative kinship" thus are interwoven into the message of Jesus being highlighted in this section of John's Gospel. It is a spiritual kinship where the place of worship is no longer a physical place, but within every member of the family-- a kinship in which distinctions of Jew and Samaritan, male and female, become irrelevant, and the lowly outcast "gets it" more clearly than the privileged leader.
"[T]his story is not about immorality; it's about identity. In the previous scene, Jesus was encountered by a male Jewish religious authority who could not comprehend who or what Jesus was. In this scene, he encounters the polar opposite, and perhaps precisely because she is at the other end of the power spectrum, she recognizes not just who Jesus is but what he offers --dignity. Jesus invites her to not be defined by her circumstances and offers her an identity that lifts her above her tragedy. And she accepts, playing a unique role in Jesus' ministry as she is the first character in John's gospel to seek out others to tell them about Jesus."
When Jesus' disciples returned from their food-buying expedition, they didn't know what to think. They'd expected Jesus might have to talk with the Samaritans (hard to avoid), but publicly talking with a woman? Unheard of! But though Jesus always cared about doing good, he rarely cared what people thought. "My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and accomplish His work," Jesus said. In other words, "I know you came back with food for me, and I know you don't like the way I've been using my time while you were gone. But this is what's really important. I'm doing God's will, despite what you think."
In other words, "Let go of your traditions and let's make this about people and who they are in God's eyes."
Advice we would all do well to follow.
*The "Women in the Bible" site linked at the beginning of my post speculates that Jesus was actually not talking about this woman's literal husbands at all, but speaking symbolically of the Samaritans as having "five husbands" because of the five "alien tribes" they intermarried with-- but given that the woman has just misunderstood Jesus' symbolic reference to "living water," I think it's unlikely that he would speak symbolically again, or that she would have understood him if he did. I believe it's much more likely that the woman actually had been married five times, as Jesus said. However, the repetition of that number five does serve to make the Samaritan woman representative of her people in this passage.
**For more on divorce practices in Jesus' day, see my blog post What About Divorce?