Jesus meets a feisty Samaritan woman


Scripture, John 4: 3-29 Nigel Bunce

When Jesus meets a feisty Samaritan woman, their conversation is about achieving eternal life,.  But this woman is no doormat.  She challenges Jesus, until eventually he reveals to her that he is the long awaited Messiah.

I could sum up today’s Gospel story very simply. Jesus was thirsty; he asked a woman he met at a well to give him a drink of water. They had a discussion about physical water and spiritual water. The woman recognized that Jesus was the Messiah. She told other people, many of whom came to believe.  But this is John’s Gospel, where everything is multi-layered. 

Jesus breaks taboos when he talks to the Samaritan woman

The story is really about a woman coming to faith, and also about Jesus being inclusive. Inclusion is what usually receives the most attention in the story. On that occasion, Jesus broke multiple taboos in his society. He spoke to an unaccompanied woman. More than that, the woman was a Samaritan. She was both a foreigner and someone of a different religion. Jewish men didn’t talk to Samaritans, especially not to Samaritan women.

Later in the conversation, Jesus broke another taboo. The woman was living in adultery (‘the man you are living with is not your husband’). This sexual transgression added to her ritual uncleanness.

Jacob’s well

Jacob’s well, 1839 painted by David Roberts. This fanciful picture cannot be the Biblical site, which has been enclosed by various Christian churches since the 3rd century CE.

The story about the Samaritan woman is not as simple as I first suggested. As the story begins, Jesus came to Jacob’s well. It was a very holy place. Scripture tells that the patriarch Jacob dug it himself. To use other language, it was a ‘thin’ place between earth and heaven. 

Jacob’s well still exists.  It lies within a Greek Orthodox church in the grounds of the Bir Ya’qub monastery, near Nablus.  In Biblical times, that location was in the desert at the foot of Mount Gerazim.  For the Samaritan woman, the well was sacred. But it was also an oasis in the desert where she came each day to draw water.


Jews and Samaritans

A bit of background. The Israelite world had split many centuries before the time of Jesus. Samaria, in the north, separated from Judea, in the south. Samaritans built a temple on Mount Gerazim, in rivalry to the Judean temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

The Samaritans had descended from different members of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. So the split was political, ethnic, and religious. That made it far more profound than the Reformation, which divided Christians.

Relations between Jews and Samaritans were so bad that Jews travelling from Galilee to Jerusalem usually detoured around Samaria. They crossed to the east side of the River Jordan, so as to avoid meeting Samaritans.

Today’s story would be like imagining a thirsty Orthodox Jewish Israeli man asking a peasant Palestinian woman in the West Bank for a drink of water.

A feisty Samaritan woman challenges Jesus

There are significant parallels with the story of Jesus and Nicodemus, which we read last week. In both stories the key theological concept is how to achieve ‘eternal life’. To Nicodemus, Jesus contrasted physical birth with spiritual birth. To the Samaritan woman, he contrasted physical thirst with spiritual thirst.

I assume that the Samaritan woman was less sophisticated than Nicodemus. But she was certainly feisty. Jesus told her that his ‘living water’ would quench her thirst for ever. She replied,“Give me this water so that I won’t have to keep coming here with my bucket.” Did she take him literally, I wonder? Or was she like Nicodemus, and wanted to argue the point?

I’m inclined to think the latter. It wasn’t just, “Give me this water.” More like, “OK, Mr Smartypants, then let’s have this water of yours.” She also reminded Jesus that he had no bucket. That meant he wouldn’t be able to drink the water he’d asked for. Her bucket would be ritually unclean.

But there is another point about the water. Well water is just – well – well water. But Jesus offered “living water, a spring gushing up to eternal life.” Living water was literally, moving water. Spring water could be living; well water could not. So no matter how sacred Jacob’s well might have been, it could not compare with the spring of water that would gush up to eternal life. And, of course, Jesus was making a contrast between time-limited physical life and eternal life with God

On whose mountain does a person find God?

This feisty Samaritan woman even challenged Jesus as to the proper place to worship God. Her mountain, Mount Gerazim, or Mount Zion in Jerusalem? In other words, who was right about where to find God, Jews or Samaritans? Wow! A foreign woman who was “living in sin” challenged the one we Christians call Son of God! Jesus told her that God does not have to be worshipped in a particular place, any more than we would think today that God can only be worshipped in Anglican churches.

There are two strains of Gospel witness. The “Synoptics” (meaning “seen together”) are Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Much of their content is common to all three. Most of John’s material is different. Scholars tend to stress that John describes a more highly spiritualized Jesus than the Synoptics.

Parallels and contrasts

Today’s story has an explicit example of this sort of difference. In the Synoptics, Jesus repeatedly tells the disciples to keep quiet about who he is. The revelation of his Messiahship becomes clear only gradually. In direct contrast, the Samaritan woman tells Jesus that he must be a prophet. She, like a Judean, expects the Messiah to come. But Jesus comes right out with it. He tells her, “I am he.”

But the parallels are more important. The feisty Samaritan woman is an outsider to Jesus. She is foreign, has a different religion, and “lives in sin”. But Jesus debates with her as an equal. We find that inclusivity in the Synoptics. There, people criticize Jesus because he associates with prostitutes and tax-collectors.

A similar parallel with the Synoptics comes right after today’s story. On the Sabbath day, Jesus healed a man who was lying beside the pool of Bethsaida. We read that story last Fall. Again, Jesus recognized that sometimes the most ethical course of action is to break “the rules” – to break with tradition.

Inclusion or exclusion?

Human societies have generally treated as inferior people who are different from themselves, on the grounds of sex, race or nationality, or religion. The Samaritan woman checked all these boxes. I’m sure that Judeans made plenty of racist and religious jokes at the expense of Samaritans. But this story of Jesus is about inclusion, not exclusion. At the end of the reading, even the disciples “half-got” the idea of inclusion. They were ‘astonished’ that Jesus was talking to a woman, but at least they didn’t ask why he was speaking to her.

To sum up

Today’s story is a theological discussion that uses water as a metaphor for coming to faith. It’s also about the politics of inclusion. As with Nicodemus, it makes more sense (to me, at least) to think that the Samaritan woman challenged Jesus. She wasn’t just a dimwit who “didn’t get” what Jesus told her.

Jesus first offered the water of eternal life to a foreigner, this feisty Samaritan woman, who was living in an adulterous relationship. She wasn’t part of the Jewish elites.  Nor was she Simon Peter, the ‘alpha male’ disciple, nor any other disciple.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Simon Peter was the first to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. Today, we heard Jesus’ Messiahship from that same Samaritan woman from “the other side of the tracks’. It recalls Jesus’ famous saying in Matthew [20: 16].‘The first shall be last and the last shall be first.’

Who is the feisty Samaritan woman today?

It was only after I had recorded the video that what I had been searching for really crystallized for me. Who, in our time, is the Samaritan woman; this unknown person who challenged Jesus Christ? She is Greta Thunberg, challenging the United Nations General Assembly on climate change. She is Malala Yousafzai, Pakistani human rights activist and Nobel laureate, known especially for her advocacy for women’s and children’s education. Or she is Ambra Battilana, an Italian model then aged 22, who reported to police in 2015 that Harvey Weinstein had groped her. We don’t know the age of the Samaritan woman. My guess is that, like the three woman I’ve just cited, she was probably young; young enough to challenge the status quo.