The Woman at the Well: Part One of A Bible Study
The origins of separation and alienation: The village of Sychar where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman was by Jacob's Well and was located near Mount Gerizim, the site of the Samaritan temple, Samaria's holy place. Passages which provide a perspective on the historical racial hatred and tensions between the Jews and the Samaritans are: II Kings 17:21-41; Ezra 4; and Nehemiah 4. Passages which provide a glimpse of Jesus' attitude towards the Samaritans is provided in the following passages: Luke 9:51-56; Luke 10:30-37; and Luke 17:11-19. Samaria was the northern kingdom of Israel. The "Jews" were descended from the returned exiles of the southern kingdom of Judah. I and II Kings provide the history and story of these two kingdoms which developed after the death of Solomon. NOTE: Jesus himself was accused of being a Samaritan and having a demon in another passage in John - John 8:48.
Clues to be gleaned: Two times this woman is called the "Samaritan woman" or, in other translations, a "woman of Samaria". (John 4:7, 9) Twice she is labelled. Twice her nationality and her religion were emphasized. Then there is the fact that she is not exactly well-to-do. Women of influence and affluence did not draw water from wells in those times. (John 4:7) Then there is the inescapable hint of a disreputable life - "you have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband". (John 4:18) Further, this woman is somewhat unique in that she had not sought out this meeting either by prayer (like Anna in the temple) or by going out to find him (like the Syro-Phoenician woman).
Jesus in relation to women: Historically and traditionally, Jewish men did not speak in public to women, even their own wives. For a rabbi this would have been an even greater restriction. Women were not publicly taught the Law. A woman's place in that society was not remotely similar to our own. But Jesus never treated women in the expected ways of his culture. He talked with them. He taught them. He expected and trusted them to be able to proclaim the Good News. He told stories using women as his characters. He even gave an illustration of what God was like using the image of the woman searching for the Lost Coin. Jesus acted and spoke as if women and men were equal before God and his eyes.
John 4:4 says that Jesus "had to go through Samaria". Jews normally avoided contact (and contamination by that contact) with their Samaritan neighbours by travelling other, longer routes. What so compelled Jesus that he "had to" travel through Samaria? It looks like he intentionally sought this woman out - she did not seek him. Why might this be so? What was his intent here? What did he hope to accomplish by this contact? Jesus, on other occasions, made a point of choosing to confront or especially single out people who had great need - the woman with the issue of blood, the ruler of the synagogue (Jairus) whose daughter was deathly ill, etc. Was there a special need or pain in this woman's life? Why was this woman out alone to draw water? Does this symbolize her own loneliness? What was she seeking that day?
Biblical commentary has always looked askance, or at the very least, with a jaundiced eye at this woman's morality. Recently, other scholars have attempted to "explain" that this woman, being a Samaritan, was still living under the laws of Moses and would have been stoned had she been an adulteress. This view is questionable given the contempt that the Jews held for the Samaritan "religious laxity" and the Samaritan reputation for following other religions as well as the Pentateuch. Still other scholars have strained the passage interpretation to suggest that the woman was merely "trapped" in the custom of Levirate marriage - that of brother or nearest kinsmen marrying the widow to keep alive the man's name and lineage. But, five times? And living with a man to whom she was not married? These scholars have also attempted fanciful alternatives such as divorce for barren-ness. Surely the woman's reputation would have preceded her? What is wrong with these pictures? I am reminded of the attempt made to clean up the reputation of Rahab of Jericho - who is listed as an ancestress of Jesus - to turn her into an innkeeper from a prostitute. Somehow I much prefer to identify with this woman as a sinner. It gives me hope. Hope that God would meet me where I am at, seek me out - his lost sheep, and restore me. To identify this woman as a sinner is not to deny her pain. Most of the sinners I know, including me, or have met are or were in pain of some kind, whether or not from sinning or being sinned against.
Can you find evidence of this woman's pain or need in the story? How does Jesus, in his humanity, identify with her? How does Jesus treat her? It is my firm belief that God meets us where we are at - in our life situation and in our understanding and comprehension. Do you see evidence of that here in Jesus dealing with the issue of her life situation? Is there any hint here of condemnation?
Jesus not only spoke to this woman and initiated a conversation but he asked her for a drink of water. Jesus very deliberately chose to affirm life instead of hide-bound tradition that said this woman was not only immoral but ritually unclean when he asked her for the drink. In what ways do we insist on honouring tradition and thereby neglect to bring life to others? What do we need to do differently?
FOR FURTHER ACTION OR STUDY/JOURNALLING
- What is true worship about? Is it a place or an attitude? Words or deeds? By works or for works?
- Who is my enemy? Who is my neighbour? Who am I enemy to? Who am I neighbour to? Why? What can I do about it? Why are some people my enemies? What makes us strangers to each other? Who threatens me? How do I threaten others?
- What is the "living water" that Jesus referred to? Have you ever experienced this "living water"? What is your responsibility in drinking, sharing, making known this "living water"?
- The woman brought her empty jar to the well to be filled. She also brought her empty self, little suspecting that it too would be filled that day. What brings you to the well?
Suggested Hymns For Contemplation and Prayer
"As pants the hart," "I heard the voice of Jesus say," "Fill my cup, Lord," Pass me not, O gentle Saviour."
Suggested Psalms For Contemplation and Prayer
23; 32; 51; 63; 139