Part of the Sunday Retold series, based on the readings some churches follow week by week.:
This week we’re looking at
Please feel free to use any of my material if it helps you, saying where it is from.
This is a powerful and extraordinary story early on in John’s Gospel, one of the important conversations he has with just one person that are recorded for us. It is a story I have turned over in my mind for a few years, and at present it forms the basis for a chapter I am writing in my next book on the I AM sayings – not one of the classic seven I know, but I have been exploring a little beyond those, and find this story too interesting and too significant to overlook. What follows are some of my reflections as I prepare this chapter, a very early share before I have gone through my editing process. I hope you find it helpful. I hope it gives you living water.
Mural by Emmanuel Nsama
At a time when our politics is increasingly divided and divisive, where people divide each other into categories, and make some lesser than others, this is a particularly relevant conversation.
John the Evangelist is preparing us for this story very carefully, for it is profoundly counter-cultural. Jesus stops to rest near the plot of ground that Jacob gave his son Joseph. Jacob’s other name was Israel – one who wrestles with God. We are going back to Israel’s common spring, common source, at Jacob’s well. We are being reminded of a time long ago, before the time when and the Jews and Samaritans became peoples who saw themselves as separate. It is a place that holds meaning and memory for Jews and Samaritans – of their common father, and their common salvation story. John is placing us on common ground……
I think it is no coincidence that John begins this story by setting it against an atmosphere of potential conflict – between cousins, between related nations. We see Jesus acting out his mission to be a peacemaker, a reconciler. “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” Eph 2:14. Jesus himself is common ground, and his presence changes things. If we look carefully at how we are prepared for this encounter, we can see that we are being led away from conflict, towards reconciliation, to inclusion, and to hope…….
And so, as Jesus waits for the disciples to find food, as he waits by the well in the heat of the day, a woman approaches. We can only imagine what it must have been like for her, in a culture where a woman could be divorced “for any and every reason”. We often think of her as one utterly disgraced in her community, having to visit the well at such a time. That may well be so. It is a highly plausible explanation. Her multiple husbands are hardly a marital model, but, we must remember that at this time divorces were easy for a man to come by, and early death not uncommon. However her situation came about, she had most certainly known her share of tragedy and disappointment. She may have known deep shame and disgrace. If we are thinking in terms of barriers and divides, she has many to cross.
And yet she, like everyone else, gets thirsty, and needs water to drink, and water to wash with. She is as human as everyone else. So often, we do not see people like this. So often, we make quick judgements, build fences, wonder about people’s worthiness, and in our own pride and insecurity, seek to feel superior, safe, chosen, righteous in some way. Not so Jesus.
His question bursts through all our categories and barriers in its gentleness, its humanity. It is a question that changes everything for this woman, and for her community.
“Will you give me a drink?”
It is not just that he recognises her thirst, but that he humbly admits his own. He speaks, not to rebuke a sinful woman, not to point out what she needs to do to straighten out her life, but to make himself vulnerable before her, and to call out her goodness. For this is what the question does. It recognises her goodness. It recognises and awakens this truth about her – that she is made in the image of God, she is a God-bearer in the world. That image can be buried beneath layers of hiding, of shame, buried under words of condemnation that have been spoken over a person, it can be twisted by hatred and fear and darkness, but it is always there, and Jesus sees it.
If we have come across the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 this question opens up others – the thirsty person before us, asking us for water, for help, is Jesus. How do we respond? Do we give?
She does not know who is speaking to her. Of course not! Neither does she know the gift of God. But Jesus is revealing both of these things to her. Jesus is the greatest gift. And he has living water. We are diving deeper now. We know that in John, there is often an association between water and Spirit. Jesus’ previous encounter with Nicodemus (Ch 3) touches on that…. and it is such a beautiful counterpoint to this one. Here we have a woman, an outcast, a Samaritan, in the heat of noon – there we had a man, a Pharisee, member of the ruling council, at night.
This water that Jesus gives, it can become a spring in us, as indeed the Spirit in us is a spring, bubbling and welling up to life.
From The Bible Retold
It was hot when the woman went to get water from the well, near her home town of Sychar in Samaria. As she drew near, she saw a Jewish man sitting there, in the shade. She hesitated a moment, nervous of this stranger. For the Jews and Samaritans had been enemies for centuries, since the time of the exile. “But,” she thought, “I must have water,” and she carried on walking to the well.
The man was Jesus. He had left Jerusalem and was making his way back to Galilee. His disciples were buying food, leaving him to rest from the burning sun. He looked up at the woman.
“Will you give me a drink?” he asked, with a thirsty smile. Jews and Samaritans never ate or drank together: it was against all the laws and customs.
“You, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan for a drink?” She was so startled she nearly dropped her water jug.
“If you knew who I was, you’d ask me, and I would give you real, life-giving water!”
“How can you get water? You have nothing to hold it in!”
“If you drink from the well, you’ll be thirsty again. If you drink the water I offer, it will become like a clear spring within you, bubbling over with eternal life!”
“Sir, I would like that water!” she replied. But Jesus questioned her about how she lived, and amazed her by revealing her secrets: things she had kept hidden, for shame. Could this man be a prophet?
She ran back to town, telling everyone. They invited Jesus and the disciples to stay, and he taught them for two days.
The people of the town said to the woman, “Now, we don’t just believe in Jesus because of what you said. We’ve heard the truth for ourselves!”
“The well is deep” What does that mean for you?
Pour out a large jug of water, and set it before you, together with a glass or glasses.
Consider the water, and ask yourself what you thirst for right now? Try to allow honest answers to rise in your mind, and note them. Are there places in your life that feel dry and unproductive? What would bring them life?
Take a look at the photographs drawn from different cultures. How do you respond to them?
You might like to place a picture reminding of of this story above a place where you wash, or your kitchen tap.
This is what God says
“I myself will look for my people and take care of them in the same way as shepherds take care of their sheep.
“I will bring them back from all the places where they were scattered on that dark, disastrous day.
“I will lead them to the mountains and the streams of their own land, so they may make their home amid the green pastures.
I shall be their God, their Good Shepherd; they will be my people, my flock.”
From Ezekiel 34
From Prayers and Verses
May your week be bubbling up with life-giving water
2 thoughts on “Sunday Retold – The Woman at the Well”
I came here just to see where the picture of the woman at the well came from. I chose it to use on my blog post that is starting a weeklong talk on this story. It will take two weeks because I alternate with an Old Testament verse.
I like the way you wrote about this. It is different from most I see. I’m way out there. But it is what I am given.
Keep up the good work. I know sometimes I get discouraged. When page views drop from 30 to 4, that sort of thing. Does anyone care? Does anyone read it?
I read it, and it was encouraging.
Thanks for the encouragement, Ken, it’s always good when something stimulates thought for someone! All the best with your blog.