by Lindsay Hardman Freeman
Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? John 4:11
SO SAYS THE SAMARITAN WOMAN—a skeptical, assertive, bright soul— who argues with Jesus as do few others in the Bible. Authentic and brutally honest, she is both prosecutor and evangelist, a great attorney general, if you will. Her conversation, the longest one that Jesus has with anyone in the Gospels, reveals two individuals from differing groups (Samaritans and Jews) who, nevertheless, have much in common.
Why does this conversation matter? What might we learn from it? How can this Bible passage offer hope in the midst of everything we’ve dealt with in recent years… the holes left by the pandemic, often at our own kitchen tables… the ongoing changes in how we do our jobs and educate our children… and even political strife, which so often results in verbal or physical assaults throughout our country?
Could this scriptural moment give us a clue about our next steps individually and collectively in local, national and international conflicts?
The Samaritan woman (her name is never given) is there by the well, outside the town of Sychar, perhaps because she’s despised by her neighbors for the fact that she’s had five husbands— and, as Jesus points out, is living with a sixth man who is not her husband. Had she been liked by the women and girls of the town, she would have been at the central town well early in the morning, catching up, laughing, checking in.
But we find her by herself, having walked to a well half a mile outside the city, at one of the hottest times of the day. Why all the husbands? Some scholars suggest that she has married five brothers in succession following an ancient tradition (see Deuteronomy 25:5) to ensure that if a woman married into a family, but her husband died before they had children, she could bear a child for him through his brother.
We’ll never know her circumstances for sure, but it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that she is an outcast.
And Jesus? Clearly he’s hot and tired and perhaps sick of being around other people because his disciples have gone off to buy food, while he waits at the well alone. And he’s thirsty.
When he sees her, he’s direct, abrupt. “Give me a drink.”
Her answer is defensive at best.
“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
Not a normal conversation.
Both are breaking rules: Jesus by talking to her, and the woman by challenging him. But they are not total strangers, at least in terms of family and religious lineage.
Both Samaritans and Jews were children of Abraham. They held the Mosaic law in common. Both believed in the Torah and knew their sacred history.
Yet enmity abounded between Samaritans and Jews, with rancor and hatred present for centuries.
In 720 BCE, when the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom of Israel (a large part of which was called Samaria), many of the Israelite people were carried off to Media as slaves and never returned to their home; they became known as “the ten lost tribes of Israel.” The Israelites who were left behind in Samaria married those of other races and belief systems, such as Assyrians who settled there. This was later seen as a betrayal by those who had not married outsiders. The “Samaritans” were then seen as less than—less than Jewish and less than whole.
And so the woman challenges Jesus with her first words: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
The banter begins. In modern-day speech, it might sound a little like:
“Forget that water… I’ll give you living water instead!”
“Sir, you don’t even have a bucket! Where do you get that living water? Sure, give me some. I’ll never be thirsty again!” (You can just hear the sarcasm in her voice.)
Ah, I love these two. And she is one of my favorite women in the Bible. She makes no apologies for who she is. I can imagine her saying, “I am who I am who I am. Don’t give me trouble.”
Back and forth they go, like a tennis match. Advantage: Samaritan woman. Advantage: Jesus. Deuce. And then advantage Jesus as he says, “Hey, go get your husband. Call him here.”
From her—maybe a little squeaky at that point: “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.”
Hmmm… The veil is lifting. “I know that the Messiah is coming,” she finally says.
“I who speak to you am he,” says Jesus.
Game over! But it’s not a game, and as soon as she realizes this, she throws down her water jug and runs to town to share the news. She is transformed, filled with passion, filled with joy.
There’s more to the conversation, and we can read the whole encounter in John 4. And in these troubled days, we can learn from this conversation. What are these learnings?
1. Truth matters. The Samaritan woman wants answers and goes after them. She seeks the truth from Jesus, and she does not back down. She is both persistent and eloquent. Given that this is the longest recorded conversation anyone has with Jesus, we might infer that seeking the truth is not only our inviolable right but is an endeavor God values deeply.
Jesus also speaks of truth, saying to her, “But 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” (John 4:23).
We are to ask questions of our community, government and church. We are to keep the conversation going rather than sit back and settle for less than what is just. This gospel conversation affirms questioning, truth-seeking and dialogue.
2. With God, we can show up as we are, and God will be there.
The Samaritan woman does not put on airs but brings who she is to the conversation with Jesus— and Jesus is there now, in that space. We too are called to bring the whole of who we are into relationship with God. If we’re hurting or tired or bitter or cynical right now—that’s where God meets us. No airs, no defenses, no apologies. God wants no less, and God will be there.
3. Do not underestimate the power of everyday routines.
Jesus finds the woman as she comes to do a task she’s surely done hundreds, if not thousands, of times before. He finds her because she has not given up. She is putting one foot in front of the other, doing the best she can. She hasn’t given in to chaos or despair or worry, but is living her life, doing the ordinary tasks needed to stay alive, when she is found by Jesus.
Something about structure rings true here. There is something about how living into routines and disciplines—even additional tasks due to the times we live in now—can open us to powerful encounters with Christ.
4. Share the joy of newfound faith. When the Samaritan woman experiences that epiphany moment—the realization that she has indeed seen the Messiah— she throws down her water jug and runs back to town to share the news. Author and religious educator Verna Dozier once said, “Don’t tell what you know. Tell why you know.” The Samaritan woman does this. Transformed by joy, having seen the Messiah, she is on the move, sharing what she knows and why.
Now we too are called to be God’s messengers, in whatever ways we can. Perhaps this means praying for someone or giving supplies to the hungry out of our own kitchen. Perhaps it means staying in touch with those who are not able to be with our church or community, such as homebound neighbors and college students.
Perhaps it means ensuring that our voices, steeped in love, are heard at local council and school board meetings, at legislative hearings and in our nation’s capitol so that all of God’s children may experience more abundant living. Perhaps it means doing these things, not out of a sense of guilt, but from a wellspring of faith, and of joy in that faith.
After all, Jesus is really asking for more than just a drink from the Samaritan woman. He gives her a way to rise above the chaos in her life.
He reaches out and affirms her for who she is. He also makes the point that life is about more than survival. And she draws out more than water. She draws out the best from him.
Her tough questioning also leads him to proclaim his identity as the Messiah—the first time in the book of John (4:26).
I wish you, and all people, that same authenticity and joy that the Samaritan woman experienced in her encounter with Jesus. Know that you too are never alone. Jesus is waiting at our own wells, asking us to drink of the living water he so faithfully offers.
The Rev. Lindsay Hardin Freeman, an Episcopal priest, is the author of Bible Women: All their Words and Why They Matter, now available in an expanded version with updated content (Foreward Movement, 2023). See www.lindsayhardinfreeman.com.
This article is from the May/June 2023 issue. To read more articles like it, subscribe to Gather.
I was terrified. And I cried. I was living and working at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in...
The rain is loudly pounding on the old metal roof of the refurbished farmhouse I call home....
God wants us to take care of our world. My young son Richard showed me that years ago when he...