May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be acceptable in your sight, My Lord and Redeemer.
We have just heard one of the longest readings in the liturgical year. I will have to admit, after proclaiming this Gospel, I had the inclination to say ‘Amen’ and sit down. But, this reading contains a lot of food for thought, more of Jesus’ teachings than even the beatitudes. Today, I want us to explore further the meeting of Jesus and the woman at the well and the new life He came to bring us all.
During the course of his journeys, Jesus traveled from Judea to Galilee, by way of Samaria. We are told that Jewish travelers preferred to make a detour that could take days to go around Samaria in order to avoid contact with Samaritans who were pagans and sworn enemies of the Jews.
But Jesus took the direct route. He came to Sychar, which was a town near Jacob’s Well. There had once been a great city there; nearby on a mountain peak had been a Samaritan temple that rivaled the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem. But all this had been destroyed before the time of Jesus, and only a village remained. Here, in this little inconsequential village, Jesus stopped, tired and thirsty in the midday heat. His disciples had left him alone to go buy food. Only a Samaritan woman was there, drawing water from the well.
“The Samaritan Woman” is not given a proper name, which is not unusual in John’s gospel – there are a number of people who are unnamed by John. Among these are the Beloved Disciple, the Paralyzed Man at the Pool, the Man Born Blind, and the Royal Official. These were real people with their own names, identities and stories, but leaving them nameless heightens the symbolism in their stories.
In this time, every drop of water used in a household had to be carried from the local well. I wonder how many times the Samaritan woman had trudged to the bottom of the steps cut into the rock, filled her heavy earthenware jars, returned up the steps, and carried the water home. The fountain was the hub of every village. The strong younger women of the household normally did this task, but the Samaritan woman was no longer young, and since she was carrying her own water, she must not have had younger women in her household to do this heavy task. Scripture suggests that she was drawing water during the hottest time of the day – maybe because she wanted to avoid meeting the townspeople. . . one might guess she was an outcast in her village.
Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for something to drink, and here begins the longest conversation recorded between Jesus and any person. Given the role of women in that culture, it is most surprising that this conversation happens with someone who was a woman, and non-Jew. The woman herself was certainly surprised when Jesus spoke to her, because Jews and Samaritans simply did not have anything to do with each other. The story of the Good Samaritan shows you just how much these two peoples avoiding each other.
Once again, we see that Jesus was a different man; he broke all the rules. Jesus blithely disregarded the ancient enmity between the two groups and began talking to the woman about ‘living water’.
‘Living water’ means running water as opposed to well water that just sits there.
But the Samaritan woman had a feeling that Jesus meant more. She questioned him. Jesus explained that when people drink ordinary water, they get thirsty again. But he had water that gave eternal life.
Needless to say, this caught her interest, tired as she was of the carrying water daily. She asked Jesus for some of this ‘living water’.
The Samaritan woman was no angel; she had quite a reputation. She had been married five times and was living in sin with a man who wasn’t her husband. Jesus told her to go and get her husband.
- ‘You have had five husbands, said Jesus, but the man you are living with now is not your husband.’ (John 4:18)
This story contains a great deal of symbolism. Scholars have come to believe that the woman herself stood for Samaria, and the man she was now living with, who was not her true husband, stood for the Samaritan religion.
The woman understood Jesus’ meaning immediately. He was speaking about Samaritan worship in the same way that the Jewish prophets before him had done. Knowing this, the woman called him a prophet, and began asking about the differences between Samaritan and Jewish worship. She knew that the 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.
She spoke to him as an intellectual equal, and he responded in kind. Jesus told her that very soon none of those arguments would matter, because the Messiah was coming, and he would change everything.
In fact, he said:
- “I am He, the one who is speaking to you.” (John 4:26)
When the disciples returned, they were surprised that Jesus was talking to a woman. This was more because she was a woman, than a Samaritan, although they were suspicious of that too. The story of the Samaritan woman, once again, shows us that Jesus cared about every person from every nation, regardless of gender or station in life.
The Samaritan woman was transformed by her meeting with Jesus – just as we all can be. She believed Jesus was truly the Messiah, the Anointed One. She immediately repented of her past misdeeds and went back to tell her friends and neighbors how she met Jesus and how he revealed his knowledge of her sins and his offer of life-giving water, which brings eternal life.
Another meaning of the story is that a well of grace is ready to refresh all souls parched by sin and suffering, and that Jesus came to serve those who still need both physical and spiritual healing — not only the converted. He offered new life to all, even if they were perceived as wicked or outcasts. He came to give ‘living water’, which is like a stream that bubbling within us. It will go from us to other people, enveloping them in the spirit of Jesus.
The Samaritan woman does not appear in the Bible again. But Saint Augustine later uses this example to describe the spiritual thirst the human heart has for goodness and truth and unconditional love – that thirst is never quenched until people are in the presence of God forever.
Take a few moments and ask yourself:
- Are you thirsty for that ‘living water’?
- Where can you find that ‘living water’?
- Are you ready to accept the ‘living water’?
Let us pray:
Dear Jesus, I find, at times, that my soul needs to be filled, my thirst needs to be quenched, and my hunger needs to be satiated. Please make me alive with your living water welling up within me. Banish my thirst. Nurture my soul. Fill me with your grace. Keep your life-giving stream flowing in me. Most of all, energize me through your Spirit to the glory of your name and to the praise of our Father in heaven.
delivered at Saint Philip Episcopal Church, Circleville, OH 27 March 2011