John, author of today’s lesson, seems to have been incapable of telling a single story. Here he’s telling at least three.
First, Jesus’ proclaiming the good news across ethnic and religious boundaries. A quick bit of geography: from north to south: Galilee, Samaria, Judea. Galilee and Judea: Jewish; Samaria: Samaritan. No love lost between the two groups; “Eat your vegetables or a Samaritan will snatch you.” When Jews traveled between Judea and Galilee, they’d cross the Jordan River to avoid Samaria. So Jesus’ going through Samaria is an unusual choice.
Second, Jesus the Bridegroom encountering a bride. John the Baptist has just described Jesus as the bridegroom. A metaphor, clearly, but the classic place to find a bride is the village well. And here we find Jesus sitting at the edge of the well. Although Jesus is not looking for a bride in the literal sense, the setting shapes our expectations, and perhaps the woman’s expectations.
Third, how the Samaritan woman becomes a witness. One of the more carefully drawn characters in John’s Gospel; but I’d never play poker with her.
It starts slowly. Jesus is resting at the well “tired out by his journey.” The woman comes up; he asks for a drink, too tired, perhaps, to soften the breaches of custom: a man addressing a woman, a Jew asking to share a cup with a Samaritan.
The woman points all this out: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Like her subsequent responses, in this response she shows herself a master at keeping all her options open, at committing herself to nothing while obtaining commitments from Jesus. It’s a talent one has to have when one’s in a dangerous world without much power.
“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” This could easily have ended the conversation. At any point she could have filled her jar and returned to the village. Maybe Jesus, “tired out by his journey,” was not inclined even to start a conversation. Maybe he knows that this conversation needs to develop indirectly.
The woman chooses not to let the conversation die: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” She is still keeping Jesus at arm’s length, still, perhaps, playing. But it’s serious play, as it always is when dealing with the unknown.
The conversation continues until Jesus’ “Go, call your husband, and come back.” This elicits the first self-revelation on the woman’s part: “I have no husband.” And Jesus: “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’…” Rubbing salt in the wound? Hardly. Revealing more of himself, yes.
As much as we fear it, there’s a part of us that does want to hear the truth about ourselves. And here he’s given it to this woman —and not used it against her. Maybe to buy time to chew on this, she poses another question:Nevertheless, with a different woman Jesus’ response could have ended the conversation. The woman chooses to keep it going: if Jesus has this knowledge, what other knowledge does he have? “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” (Nothing like theology for keeping important questions at arm’s length!)
Jesus responds: the Jews have had it right, but the hour is coming—and is now here—when the Jewish-Samaritan conflict is beside the point.
“I know that Messiah is coming… When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Another parry. Nevertheless, she’s picking up clues on which to make a decision: this Jesus, who hasn’t used her past against her, for whom her future is more important than her past, who’s giving her respect…
Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” And before the woman can or needs to respond, the disciples arrive. The narrator tells us not only about their reaction, but —between the lines— how they must have looked at her. (Meteorologists would have reported that the temperature suddenly dropped about 20°.)
And the woman has still not shown her cards. But it’s now clear that —and neither for the first nor the last time— if she’s going to have a relationship with Jesus it will be despite and not because of the disciples.
She announces her decision. By leaving her water jar there (not an insignificant household asset) she announces that she’ll be back. In the city: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” The question is phrased cautiously; she knows better than to put the men in the position of having to agree with a woman. “Come and see” — the same invitation extended by Philip to Nathanael, and by Jesus to John’s disciples. She started the story going out for water; she ended a witness.
And because of her witness the village responds and Jesus stays over two days.
As John tells of the village’s response we meet the woman again. The villagers say to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” John records their words because of the confession, one of the strongest that’s appeared in the Gospel to this point, doubly strong coming from Samaritan lips, and in marked contrast to Nicodemus’ response. But John also records their words, I suspect, because John knows that being a witness is costly. You have to put up with a lot, including, in this case, self-defensive male egos. Precisely in receiving their “thanks” the woman’s credentials as witness are again confirmed. Jesus’ statement two verses later, “a prophet has no honor in the prophet’s own country” applies as much to the woman as it does to Jesus.
Why has John told us this story?
In terms of the story of the Gospel as a whole, this chapter as “first fruits” of the mission beyond the Jewish world. There’s a contrast here with the reception among Jewish leaders (Nicodemus again).
How one person becomes a witness. One of most interesting people in John’s Gospel, a survivor who’s concluded that cards must be played very close to the chest. At the same time, she’s someone who intuits that there’s something to this Jesus, so she keeps probing… even as she recognizes that she’s also being probed. She makes her decision and lays it all out there: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
Perhaps Jesus learns something too. While the woman is off gathering the village there’s this strange interchange between Jesus and the disciples: “Rabbi, eat something.” “I have food to eat that you do not know about.… My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” The way John’s told the story it’s possible that Jesus had the whole conversation planned out. It’s equally possible that “tired out by his journey” it fell into his lap, and only gradually did he recognize the banquet his heavenly Father had set before him.
Jesus, someone who can speak truth about us without using it against us. Jesus, someone for whom our future is more important than our past. With as much or more distrust than this woman, we too have the opportunity this Lent to enter into dialogue with this Stranger.