Freeing the Samaritan Woman From Prejudice

Freeing the Samaritan Woman from Prejudice

A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”

John chapter four shares an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. In the early verses of the chapter, Jesus draws the attention of the Pharisees whose interest had previously been focused on John the Baptist. The Pharisees concerned themselves with ritual purity and their own political influence. So it makes sense that they are interested in both John and Jesus who are baptizing and challenging the status quo. In chapter two Jesus cleansed the temple and in chapter three, the Pharisee Nicodemus, attempted to discredit Jesus. Now Jesus is baptizing more than John. In response to the added attention, Jesus enters Samaria on his journey back to Galilee. Why exactly Jesus leaves Judea because of the Pharisees is not clear but it is safe to assume it wasn’t because Jesus was running away. He had already demonstrated he was willing to confront them. Two words, “Left” and “Had” in v.3-4 shed light on Jesus’ return to Galilee.

“3 he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. 4 And he had to pass through Samaria.”

The word “left” (ἀφῆκεν) can have the connotation of giving up or abandoning something.[1] In the case of Jesus it is at least possible that the Pharisees made announcing the Kingdom difficult and so he chose to share the message elsewhere for a time. An example of this meaning can be seen again in v. 28, “So the woman left her water jar and went away…” The Samaritan woman temporary abandons her water jar to share news about Jesus.  If Jesus did intend to leave because of the Pharisees, they probably wouldn’t be any happier to find that Jesus leaves Judea to teach Samaritans.

Jesus “had” (ἔδει) to pass through Samaria on his way to Galilee. It’s such as short verb but “had” is intended to impart to the reader that Jesus was compelled by his mission to go through and to Samaria. It’s the same word that the author used in chapter three when Jesus told Nicodemus he “must” (δεῖ) be born again. He uses it again when Jesus says the Son of Man “must” (δεῖ) be lifted up. It occurs a third time in the chapter when John the Baptist says Jesus “must” (δεῖ) increase. Perhaps Jesus has to go to Samaria because the “chosen” refused to listen to his message. Jesus goes to the enemies of the Jews because his own people are actively opposing him.

On his way through Samaria Jesus rests by a well. The belief is that the well was dug by Jacob when he bought land in Shechem in Genesis 33:18-20. It continues to be preserved today by the Holy Monastery of Jacob’s Well. The presence of Jesus at this well should probably inform us that more is happening than just a weary Jesus who needs to rest. Being at this place is a reminder of God’s relationship with mankind. Jesus’ actions are thus a continuation of God’s presence in the world and his presence is now with the Samaritans.

About this time a Samaritan woman comes to draw water from Jacob’s well and Jesus asks her for a drink. It was midday, about noon, when she arrives. From here on we have a lot of questions to answer about this story. Here are a few I deem most important.

Who is the Samaritan woman?

Who is Jesus?

What do we learn by entering into the presence of their encounter?

Hopefully we will have some clues to the answers to these questions and others as I try to address this passage.

The author introduces the woman as “of Samaria”, we never learn her name. I chose to begin here with her name because the author is deliberately vague about her personal identity. The Samaritan woman doesn’t begin the story being known; instead she is cast as representative of her people and an icon of Jewish hostility. The Mishnah Niddah, written a century later, makes a passing remark that the daughters of Samaritans are perpetually unclean. They are considered to be women who menstruate from birth.[2] Such a remark is illustrative of the conflict. When Jesus asks for a drink, the woman of Samaria takes on this identity of a Samaritan representative. She replies, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” For now the Samaritan woman simply drives the conversation toward the issues between Jews and Samaritans. A possible addition to the text, “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans,” adds to this point.

A brief note should be mentioned here, the existing hostility should not lead readers to assume that these two groups held completely distinct beliefs. The Samaritans believe in the God of Jacob, they consider Jacob to be their ancestor, they follow the Torah, they believe that Moses was a prophet, and they are waiting for a “messiah” type figure they refer to as Taheb, the returning one.[3] Because of these shared beliefs the Samaritan woman functions as an appropriate foil to the disbelieving Pharisees.

Why does the woman of Samaria go to the well at noon? The simple answer is, we don’t know and the story doesn’t tell us. I grew up with the tradition that the woman of Samaria went to the well at noon in order to avoid the contemptuous glares of the local women. Is this really what is going on? I don’t think so. This tradition is an attempt at explaining what some commentators believe is an unusual time to draw water.[4] This, it is claimed, is due to the heat of the day. In Antiquities of the Jews, however, Josephus claims that in Exodus 2:15-16 Moses arrived at the well around noon and meets seven female shepherds there.[5] The writing of Josephus’ book is near the dating of the Gospel of John. A few common elements are present in both stories. Moses and Jesus both leave or retreat from a hostile group, retire to a local well, converse with women, and provide water. Adding Josephus’ belief that Moses arrived at the well around noon provokes the question whether or not John is writing in, mimetic style, to draw out similarities between Moses and Jesus. We have already noted that John has deliberately made the comparison between Jesus and Jacob. Samaritans follow the laws of Moses so it makes sense the author draws similarities here. It’s irrelevant whether Moses actually met women at a well around noon; it’s enough to say that Josephus believed it was not irregular. The fact that the Samaritan woman is drawing water at noon does not imply that she is ostracized from her community.

It’s important to mention that we have, besides Moses, two other famous accounts of men meeting women at a well. Abraham’s servant scouts out a wife for Isaac (Gen. 24:13-15), and Jacob meets Rachel at a well (Gen. 29:8-10). The combination of these “betrothal”[6] scenes may speak to our story. Is it accurate to see Jesus engaged in a betrothal scene? Since Jesus appears not to have been looking for anyone and has only stopped by the well to rest, probably not. However, maybe we should assume a level of intimacy as the scene carries forward. Numerous scriptures speak to the marital nature of God, Israel, Christ, and the church.

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Ephesians 5:25-27)

At the very least it seems appropriate to say that Jesus does invite the Samaritan woman into a new relationship, and that kind of intimacy is typologically similar to a marriage relationship.

When Jesus says, “give me a drink” (δός μοι πεῖν), a new level of intimacy enters the story. The language reads like a command “give me” but the context appears to put it as a request.[7] The Samaritan woman is caught off guard by it. Those who might see Jesus as a superior because he is a Jewish man would hopefully recognize that Jesus’ puts this command as a request in a fashion typical of his behavior. Why is Jesus asking for water from the Samaritan woman at all, is an appropriate question at this point. The answer is simple, Jesus has nothing with which to draw water from the well, and his disciples left to buy food. Jesus requires the hospitality and generosity of the Samaritan woman if he is going to quench his thirst. This is something to keep in mind because generosity appears to play a role in this discussion later on. Why no one has come to the well with the Samaritan woman is unknown, the text doesn’t tell us. Neither does the text imply anything about her because she is unattended. Instead the text marches forward into a discussion about religious beliefs.

When the Samaritan woman asks how a Jew could request water from her, Jesus offers an explanation far beyond what she might expect.

“10 Jesus answered her, “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.”

Jesus’ actions now gain some clarity. The power of evil that brings hatred and death, represented in the current hostility between Jews and Samaritans, is overcome by living water that brings eternal life. Until now Jesus has been, in the eyes of the Samaritan woman, just another transient from among the Jewish people, but now he is revealing his true identity. Jesus offers living water similarly to how God refers to himself as the fountain of living waters in the book of Jeremiah.[8]

This profound introduction changes the Samaritan woman’s demeanor. For the rest of the exchange she will refer to him respectfully as Sir.  This doesn’t mean however she perceives Jesus’ true identity as her remarks make clear. The Samaritan woman, with the well quite in view, doesn’t realize Jesus isn’t talking about actual water. Instead she is perplexed how Jesus might draw this living water and where that water might be located. What is important at this point in their exchange is that the Samaritan woman refers to Jacob as “our” ancestor. She says, “Are you greater than our father Jacob?” The Samaritan woman obviously expects Jesus to admit he is not as great as Jacob, but at the same time she is willing to speak with Jesus on level terms as children of Jacob. She could not have known she was speaking to the one person who could claim to be greater than Jacob?

“13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

By claiming to possess water leading to eternal life Jesus is claiming to be greater than Jacob. Jacob’s well keeps local residents returning day after day, but Jesus’ living water sustains people forever. It bubbles forth from inside of them so they might never be thirsty again. It reminds the reader of the well of salvation in Isaiah, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”[9] Only Moses’ successor, prophesied in Deuteronomy 18:15-18, could claim to be greater than Jacob. Only he could draw waters without a well or a water jug.

At this point the Samaritan woman asks for the water directly, the very thing Jesus had told her she should do. The problem is she still does not know who Jesus is, and it’s unclear that she believes there is water. It’s possible at this point that the Samaritan woman is challenging Jesus because of his remarkable claims. She chides him by saying, give me this water so I don’t have to keep coming back to the well.

At this point in the story, Jesus’ response gets personal. It’s no longer a discussion about the difference between Jews and Samaritans. Jesus needs the Samaritan woman to see him for his true identity. Likewise, Jesus wants the Samaritan woman to know that he doesn’t see her as just another Samaritan but rather as a person. Jesus sees her true self. It isn’t enough for Jesus to claim he has living water that leads to eternal life. What he is offering has to encounter the real lives of people like the Samaritan woman. So Jesus says, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” With these words Jesus reaches into her life and touches on a sensitive subject for the Samaritan woman. She doesn’t have a husband, she has had five husbands and the one she is with now is not her husband.

To be continued…

[1] Edward Klink, John, ed. Clint Arnold, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), under “6500,” Kindle.

[2] Mishnah Niddah 4:1, in the The Sefaria Library, (accessed April 17, 2018).

[3] Reinhard Pummer, The Samaritans: A Profile (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2016), under “1253,” Kindle.

[4] Gary M. Burge, John: from Biblical Text to Contemporary Life, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009), under “2822,” Kindle.

[5] Antt.ii.xi.i

[6] Burge, under “6531,” Kindle.

[7] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: an Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 488., Burge, under “6553,” Kindle.

[8]Jeremiah 2:13 “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” ESV

[9] Isaiah 12:3 ESV

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