My family has a lake cabin in eastern Washington that we visit every summer. We have tap water, but it’s untreated water straight out of the lake, so you can’t drink it or cook with it. We bring all our drinking water with us when we go to the lake cabin, and we have to haul it all down the hill from the car to the cabin. It’s heavy. We really think about the water we drink, and we don’t waste it, because we don’t want to go thirsty.
When I was little, there used to be a well in the next bay. My mom, my sister, and I would put a bunch of clean Clorox bottles in the rowboat and we would row maybe half a mile over to the well. The well water was cold, and we were thirsty after all that rowing on a hot summer day. We would pump water into our bottles, put them in the boat, row back to our cabin, and then carry the bottles up the steps to the kitchen. One of us would row, and we would talk as we went, or someone would read a book aloud—I seem to recall Mary Poppins at one point. I have fond memories of these trips to the well.
The Samaritan woman in our reading today is I think less fond of her trips to the well. She has to come out from town with her jar every day to fill it with water for the people in her house and then carry this heavy jar back to town without spilling. No one comes with her. Why? We don’t know, but we can guess. It’s possible that the women from her town all came out to the well together in the cool of the morning. I imagine they would talk, tell stories, and help hold the jars still while someone pours the water from the well bucket. But the Samaritan woman in this story comes by herself, and she comes at noon, when the day has gotten hot. There is no one to talk to as she makes this journey, no one to help lower the bucket on a rope or haul it up, heavy and sloshing with water. No one to hold her jar steady while she pours the water into it from the bucket. We might guess that the other women in the town don’t like this woman. She may be feeling lonely and unloved, judged and found wanting. And maybe she has felt that way for a very long time. People know her life story, and they throw it in her face. Five husbands and now she’s living with some guy without even being married—scandalous!
On the day of this story, she comes out to the well, and here’s this stranger. It’s a man, and he’s not a Samaritan but a Jew. Jews and Samaritans had a long history of animosity. They took different sides in various battles, didn’t support each other, didn’t agree on which writings belonged in the holy scriptures. Over time, they had grown far apart. They certainly didn’t hang out at the same well making easy conversation. Imagine this story today with a Jew and a Palestinian, or a Russian and a Ukrainian. Plenty of bad water between them. Plenty of reasons not to talk to each other, not to get along.
So it’s a shock when Jesus, who is hot and tired and hungry, asks the woman for a drink. And she calls him on it: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (John 4:9). And they begin to talk about living water. At first she doesn’t get what living water is all about, and why would she? No one has ever talked about living water with her before. Whatever it is, if it means she doesn’t have to schlep out to this well every day and haul that heavy water back to town all by herself, she’s in. Nothing to lose.
But Jesus is talking about the thirst we have in our souls to draw close to God, to be loved, seen, heard, valued. That living water.
Jesus introduces a bit of a red herring: “Go, call your husband, and come back.” And she confesses that she has no husband. She knows this conversation, because she’s had it many times before. People hear her truth and it is bad news. This is the point where people stop talking to her, stop walking to the well with her, and want to judge her instead. But she says the truth, that she has no husband.
And Jesus says, I know. I know you already. I know your whole sad story. And I’m offering you living water anyway. I know your story, and I’m still offering you Good News.
This particular well dates back to Jacob, and that’s actually not random trivia. Although Jews and Samaritans have become enemies, Jacob is a common ancestor of both, and in reaching back to what Jews and Samaritans have in common, this conversation may be laying the groundwork for rapprochement. The woman talks about the well as a holy place to the Samaritans. Later she says that her people worship on this mountain, and Jews worship in Jerusalem; which is correct? She gets that Jesus is a prophet, and she dives into this whole theological discussion with him, because she would like a few answers, thank you very much.
And Jesus says, “[T]he hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship [God] in spirit and truth, for the [Creator] seeks such as these to worship. God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
So forget about where you worship. Focus instead on being authentic in your relationship with God. Bring your whole spirit, your whole truth, your whole self to this endeavor.
The woman says, “I know that Messiah is coming.” And Jesus says, “I am he” (John 4:25-26). In Greek, the language in which this gospel was written, Jesus says, “Ego eimi,” which just means “I am.” This response ties his identity back to the encounter between God and Moses where Moses asks God’s name and God responds, “I am who I am.” So here’s Jesus, the Great I Am, the prophet, the Messiah, the Son of God. And the woman is so excited that she leaves her water jar and races back into town, where she tells anyone and everyone that she thinks she just met the Messiah.
I think the writer of this gospel was intentional about putting this encounter in the very next chapter after Jesus’ meeting with Nicodemus, because these two conversations invite one to compare and contrast. The woman and Nicodemus are opposite in many important aspects.
Nicodemus The Samaritan woman
Meets Jesus at midnight meets Jesus at noon
educated not educated
has authority and respect is scorned
seeks Jesus secretly bumps into Jesus by accident
gets Jesus over time gets Jesus by the end of the
doesn’t share the Good News shares the Good News with the
which then invites him to stay for two days, recognizes him as “truly the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). That’s the impact of the Samaritan woman’s evangelism. Pretty great for someone who couldn’t even find a companion to walk with her to the well.
We always wonder whether a particular story about Jesus actually happened or was written for some other purpose. Sandra Schneiders suggests that the writer of this gospel created this encounter in order to show that the Samaritans who were early members of Jesus’ followers were fully welcomed into the group.
Sandra Schneiders writes that this story
probably represents a reading back into the public ministry of Jesus the Johannine community’s post-resurrection experience of the Samaritan mission and the influence of the Samaritan converts within the community of the Fourth Gospel. The basic purpose of the story of the Samaritan Women in the Gospel itself is to legitimate the Samaritan mission and to establish the full equality in the community between Samaritan Christians and Jewish Christians. The story presents this equality as resting on the fact that both groups were evangelized by Jesus himself. [Sandra M. Schneiders, Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, rev. and expanded edition (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1999, 2003), 134-35.]
According to Schneiders’ interpretation, the woman is not so much an individual but a type, a representative of all Samaritans. Her five husbands are therefore not men but five false religions that tainted Samaritans’ Jewish faith. It’s a fascinating interpretation that opened this story to me on much deeper levels and helped parts of it make sense to me in new ways.
So what do we make of all this?
Everyone is welcome to drink the living water that slakes our thirst for the Divine. We are not to be led astray from worship in spirit and in truth. What that means may look different for each of us—it’s where we are invited to ask our own questions of Jesus, just as the Samaritan woman did. It doesn’t matter where we worship. It does matter that we worship. And clearly it’s important that we share the Good News of God’s broad welcome, abundant love, and grace for all—even the ones who have been shunned and shut out by the rest of the group. In fact, those are the ones who may make the best apostles, because they have nothing to lose.
So come. Drink the living water. Ask Jesus your questions. And then share the Good News with everyone. Amen.