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Women in the World of Jesus: A Woman of Samaria

February 25, 2006

John 4:4-42

Jesus, who had been in the area known as Judea, created a buzz among the Pharisees there because they thought he was baptizing more people than John the Baptist. Actually, Jesus was not baptizing people at all; his disciples were. Not wanting to become embroiled in a controversy about baptism, Jesus decided to leave Judea and return to Galilee. He could travel one of two possible routes. The longer route, which would take Jesus about six days to complete, would require Jesus to go up the eastern side of the Jordan River until he reached a place where he could cross and go directly into Galilee. The other option, which would last only about three days, would require Jesus to pass through Samaria, an area that contained a group of people the Jews hated, the Samaritans. As you know, hate was not a part of Jesus’ makeup.

Jesus chose the shorter route and entered the region of Samaria by way of Jacob’s Well, located about a half mile from the village of Sychar. Jacob the patriarch had bought this well, literally situated at a fork in the road, where one path pointed to the west and one to the east. When Jacob died, he left the well to his son Joseph, who, you remember, died in Egypt. It was not until the time of the exile that the people of Israel carried Joseph’s bones in an ossuary out of the land of Egypt and back to the land of Caanan. There they buried him with other patriarchs in the cave near Hebron. This well retained its name for all of those years.

The Bible tells us that a Samaritan woman came to the well at the sixth hour. Since the Jewish day lasted from 6:00 A.M. until 6:00 P.M., we know that she came at high noon, right during the heat of the day. She must have been tired, having to carry her water jar for half a mile from the city of Sychar. When she arrived to draw water from the well, Jesus was sitting there. Think of this account in the scriptures as minutes of a committee meeting. Those who record those minutes really just hit the high spots. The Bible contains only an abbreviated account of the encounter between Jesus and the woman, but the two actually carried on a rather lengthy conversation. We can determine this because the disciples had time to travel into town to buy food and return.

Both Jesus and this woman learn much about the other person’s life and nature during their conversation. We see that the woman appears eager to talk. Very few people had ever taken the time to listen to her story. This sympathetic ear, this undivided attention, really touches her. We see Jesus here in all of his humanity – tired, hungry, and thirsty. He sits here at the well to rest, hoping to receive a drink of water; but Jesus suspends all of his physical needs in order to listen to this woman and minister to her needs. When the disciples return with food, Jesus states that he already has food to eat. He means that the actual practice of ministry nourishes his own spirit, but the disciples do not understand his words.

Jesus, of course, violates tradition here by taking the initiative to engage in a conversation with a Samaritan. The fact that the Jews and Samaritans had nothing to do with each other makes this story quite remarkable. A companion to this story, of course, is the story of the Good Samaritan. There, a Samaritan takes the initiative to aid an injured Jew. The conflict between these two groups dates back to 720 B.C. when the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom and placed many people of the land in captivity. Those individuals left behind intermarried with their foreign conquerors, creating the ethnic group known as Samaritans. The Jews despised them, regarding them as high-breeds.

Jesus violates another tradition by speaking to a woman in a public place. Rabbis did not even speak to their own wives in public, much less another woman. They did not speak to their mothers, their daughters, or their sisters in public. Here, Jesus not only crosses the barrier between Jew and Samaritan, but he also crosses the gender gap by having a conversation with a woman. You notice that when the disciples return with the food they have procured, they do not comment so much on the fact that he has been talking to a Samaritan. They are more astounded that he has been talking to a woman.

During his encounter with this woman, Jesus astonishes and surprises her when he asks for a drink of water. How could a Jew ask a Samaritan for a drink of water? Jesus is thirsty. His physical thirst is very real. The Jews had two ways of understanding thirst. Thirst, in Jewish thought, was not just physical; it was also spiritual. We see this notion reflected in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6). Jesus can see that this woman is spiritually dehydrated. She is parched. Spiritually, she is thirsty. Their conversation about water quickly moves from the literal interpretation associated with Jacob’s Well to the deeper level of her spiritual thirst, the deep, deep longing of the human soul for something fulfilling, satisfying, and real in life. The American author Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” The television program Desperate Housewives depicts this very thought. Here in the scriptures is a woman desperate for something that will fulfill the vacuum in her spirit. She is seeking spiritual hydration, something akin to St. Augustine’s comment, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”

Camp Bob Hardin, formerly known as Camp Palmetto, is located in Saluda, North Carolina. A well at this Scout camp supplies the water for the entire camp. In the past, plenty of well water was usually available in the spring and the fall, but a drought during the summertime would leave the well very close to dry. Sometimes counselors had to ration water among the Scouts. Of course, the boys enjoyed substituting their shower for a bath in the lake. Frustrated with the water shortage, a member of the advisory board recommended that a company come to the Scout camp and dig a deeper well. After about two hours, the workers hit another water table containing more water. They soon discovered that they had found artesian water. The water actually bubbled to the surface like a spring.

Jesus promises the same type of water to this woman. Jacob’s Well was only 100 feet deep, but Jesus says, “I can quench your thirst with water that is like an artesian well, water that bubbles up, giving you eternal life.” On hearing that promise, the woman replies, “Let me have it. I want that kind of water.”

Jesus surprises her once again when he tells her, “Go get your husband.” She certainly did not want to talk about was her husband or her marital history. At that moment, she experiences self-revelation, self-truth. “I don’t have a husband,” she answers. Jesus says, “You are right. You have had five husbands, and the man you have now is not your own.”

It is at this point that we jump to a hasty judgment about this woman. We wonder about her having had five husbands. We wonder about her living with a man who is not her husband. This woman appears to be one of the worst examples of immorality found in the Bible, but let me give you some perspective. In the time of Jesus, a woman did not decide whom she was going to marry or if she was going to marry. The men in her life made those decisions. Her father would negotiate a marriage with another man – the father of the groom or sometimes the perspective groom. The same was true of divorce. A woman could not decide to get a divorce. Divorce was the man’s prerogative, as recorded in the Old Testament in the Torah. If the man simply were displeased with his wife, he would pen a certificate of divorce, leaving her with no rights and no property. She could transact no business. She was on her own. Josephus, the first century historian, reports instances whereby rabbis divorced a wife merely because she burned the bread or because she could not have a male child. Divorce, like marriage, was not a woman’s option. We do not know this woman’s situation. If she had been divorced, can you imagine her pain? One of the greatest joys in all of life is being one of the chosen. One of the greatest hurts is being an outcast. If she had been divorced five times, she had experienced considerable pain.

Another option here is that she may have been a widow. We must consider the levirate law in the Old Testament, one that required the compulsory marriage of a widow by a brother of her deceased husband. If a woman’s husband died, her husband’s brother had the responsibility to marry her. Let me be as graphic as I can be about this situation if we were living by the levirate law today. I am married to Clare. If I die, my brother Bill must marry Clare, regardless of what Clare or his wife, Wanda, wanted to do. If my brother Bill should die, then my brother Lawton would have to marry Clare and Wanda, regardless of what his wife, Dawn, thought about that situation. If Lawton should die, my brother Bob would have to marry Clare, Wanda, and Dawn and still deal with Ruthi’s take on that arrangement. If Bob died, then this levirate law would become complicated and involve somebody such as a first cousin.

I do not know what circumstances surrounded this woman having had five husbands, but she was not at fault. She certainly had sinned as we all have, but she is a seeker. Her questions illustrate an attempt to understand faith. We have possibly treated this woman unfairly. I heard a country and western song several weeks ago written by a woman who is a member of the First Baptist Church of Lancaster. The song is entitled “Men and Mascara Always Run.” That could be her theme song. The Samaritan woman has had a hard life. Whatever her past, she has been repeatedly hurt. She was, I suppose we could say, a kind of hand-me-down wife. Because of that, her own community has ostracized her.

When Jesus asks her to face this truth, she does what many people do. She changes the subject and wants to talk about denominations. The Samaritans had revised history. They did not have access to the Temple Mount. They had a holy mountain of their own they called Mount Gerasene. In their revisionist way, they had said that it was on Mount Gerasene that Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice. It was on Mount Gerasene, they said, that Moses received the Ten Commandments. In reference to Jacob’s Well, she says, “Jacob is our father.” Jacob was the father of the nation of Israel. Jesus does not debate any of those issues with her. Instead, he moves beyond that and says, “If you are going to worship, it has to be in spirit and in truth.” This woman needed someone to be sensitive to the deep hurt in her spirit. She needed to worship by facing the truth in her life.

Jesus shocks the woman a third time. When she makes the offhand comment, “I know all of this will be revealed with the Messiah comes,” Jesus answers, “I, who am speaking to you, am he.” His answer is a like a bolt out of the blue. She could not have been more startled nor more surprised. Could this person be the Messiah? She is so excited that she leaves her water jar, maybe because the deep thirst of her spirit has been quenched or maybe because she knows without a doubt she would be returning. For the first time in her life, she knows that she has changed. She knows that the deep thirst is being quenched. For the first time in her life, she knows that all is well with her soul.

When peace, like a river, atttendeth my way

When sorrows like sea billows roll;

Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,

It is well, it is well with my soul.

Tho’ Satan should buffet, tho’ trials should come,

Let this blest assurance control,

That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,

And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin – oh, the bliss of this glorious thou’t:

My sin not in part, but the whole

Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more,

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

And, Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,

The clouds be rolled back as a scroll,

The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend,

“Even so,” it is well with my soul.

How does this Samaritan woman respond to this encounter with Christ? She goes back to her village and tells everyone, “I met a man who told me everything about my life. Could he be the Messiah?” The simplest definition of evangelism is “one hungry person telling another hungry person where to find something to eat.” In this case, one very thirsty person is telling another thirsty person where to find the water that wells up to eternal life. To the astonishment of the disciples, people the Samaritan woman had told about her encounter with Jesus come to the well and ask this Jewish rabbi to stay with them. Jesus stays in the Samaritan village of Sychar for two days.

The Greek Orthodox Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, has named this woman at the well Saint Fatima. Her Russian name is Svetlana. Curiously, Vladimir Lenin gave his daughter that name. According to tradition, the Samaritan woman left Sychar and went to Carthage, continuing to share this life-giving water with people who were spiritually thirsty. Nero, the emperor, had her arrested and taken to a Roman prison. When Nero’s own daughter came to see her in prison, this Samaritan woman led Nero’s daughter to Christ. Also according to tradition, she was martyred – beheaded and thrown into a dry well. She had found the living water that wells up to eternal life. She had had an encounter that the apostle Paul describes in these words: “If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation. Former things are passed away, and all things become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Have you had a life-changing experience that will satisfy the deep, deep thirst of your spirit? If not, could I invite you to come to Jesus? Come and know him as your own Savior. Know him as the way the people of Sychar knew him. Surely, this is the Savior of the world. It may be that your thirst comes from estrangement from God. You need to come back to the well, back to the spring, back to the living water and be refreshed in your spirit. For others, the decision may regard church membership. Some of you know that God has led you to Morningside. Where will you anchor down and be a part of the family of God? We extend these invitations to you on behalf of our Savior, the Lord Jesus who is the living water as we stand together and sing a hymn of invitation, “Let Jesus Come into Your Heart.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely

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