Last week, you might remember, Jesus was in Jerusalem, where he received a nighttime visit from a Pharisee named Nicodemus. In the first few verses of John chapter 4, Jesus learns that trouble might be brewing with the rest of the Pharisees, so he and his disciples decide to hit the road. In verses 3 and 4 of chapter 4, John writes that “[Jesus] left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria.” And that is where our story begins.
John writes that Jesus “had” to go through Samaria to get from Judea to Galilee – and if you look at a map of the area, that seems totally logical. These three regions were all right next to each other, between the mountains and the Mediterranean sea, with Galilee to the north, Judea to the south, and Samaria right in the middle.
But that is not the route that most Jewish folks would have taken. That map would not show you the long history of religious and political division between these people. And because of these divisions, Jewish people would do practically anything to avoid having to set foot in Samaria. Instead, to reach Galilee, they would cross the mountains to the east, travel up the Jordan River until they reached the Sea of Galilee, and then cross the mountains again. And remember, this was all on foot!
So when Jesus decides he “has” to go through Samaria, he’s not talking about geography. He seems to be deliberately choosing to cross over this division between people as part of his mission and ministry. He is choosing to cross the barriers that these peoples have placed between themselves. And that choice opens him and the disciples to some wonderful and bizarre encounters, like the one we read about today.
A little ways into Samaria, Jesus and the disciples stop to take a break by a little town called Sychar. Jesus is pooped (I mentioned that all this travel was on foot!), so the disciples leave him hanging out by a well and go into town to grab some snacks. As Jesus is sitting by the well, a woman comes from the town by herself to draw some water. It’s about noon, so you can imagine it’s pretty hot, and Jesus asks her to draw some water for him.
Now for those who are really familiar with the stories of scripture – especially in the Old Testament – this situation of a man and woman meeting at a well might sound kind of familiar. Anyone’s bells ringing? Think Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, even Moses and Zipporah – scenes set at wells between men and women were almost always related to betrothal and marriage! If this were a romantic comedy, this scene at the well would be their “meet-cute.” So it’s kind of an odd tone for this story to strike. Jesus meeting this woman at the well seems to be setting us up for covenental expectations.
And even aside from the romantic/sexual implications, an unrelated man and woman spending time together alone outside the city would have been a pretty unusual situation. Jesus and the Samaritan woman are crossing boundaries and subverting social expectations just by having this conversation with each other. He is Jewish; she is a Samaritan. As she herself states, Jews and Samaritans do not mix. So it’s weird to find a random Jewish man hanging out at a well in Samaria in the first place.
But it’s also unusual to find this woman there by herself and at this time of the day. Typically, women would go to the well together in a group to draw water – and they would be smart and go in the evening, instead of going to haul water during the hottest part of the day. The fact that this woman is there alone at noon seems to suggest that she herself is crossing a boundary. And it gives the impression that she might be something of an outcast in her community – like maybe she doesn’t feel welcome to join the other women in the evening.
The biggest piece of personal information that we know about her is what Jesus reveals about her marital situation. She has had five husbands and is now with someone who is not her husband. What are the conclusions your mind leaps to based on that? This situation sounds positively scandalous to modern readers – “adultery” is probably the most polite word that many people would use to describe it.
But we’ve talked before a bit about how marriage worked in this area of the world in those days. Did women have a lot of say in the matter when it came to marriage? Not so much. So this whole business of the Samaritan woman being married five times, and now left without the protection of being in a marriage, is probably not something that she chose for herself. But she is still being ostracized and distanced from the other people in her community.
It’s worth noting that Jesus does not say anything to her about being a sinner or needing to repent. In fact, he commends her for telling the truth and he speaks to her respectfully. And as he talks with her, we see that she actually catches on to Jesus’ metaphorical use of language a lot quicker than Nicodemus did!
When the disciples come back from their snack run, they are shocked to find Jesus sitting at the well talking with this woman. They are at least smart enough to keep their mouths shut. But they urge Jesus to eat something so they can get back on the road quickly and be on their way.
But Jesus is not ready to leave yet. Instead he tells the disciples to open their eyes to what is happening around them. He has been preparing them for the work of the “harvest” – the work of inviting people with open and ready hearts into the good news of the kingdom. And here in Samaria – in the last place they probably expected – that work is already well underway. Jesus says to them, “Look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting… Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
The Samaritan woman leaves her water jar at the well and runs back into town to tell everyone what she has seen and heard. And while Jesus and his disciples are still sitting at the well talking, the townspeople start to show up, coming out to hear what Jesus has to say. This woman’s witness has inspired their curiosity, so much so that they too come out to the well wondering: Could this be the Messiah?
Jesus ends up doing powerful ministry in a place that his disciples probably would have never even dreamed of going. Their quick roadside pit stop ends up becoming a major evangelizing event. It seems like this is the reason why Jesus had to go through Samaria. He was determined to bring the water of life to people who were thirsting for it – even to the outcasts, even to the people that the disciples themselves would have wanted nothing to do with.
Jesus shows that his love and his life-giving grace cannot be stopped by human divisions. His love is for all people. It is for insiders, like Nicodemus and the Pharisees. It is for outsiders, like the Samaritan woman, and even like his own ragtag band of followers. His love is for those in the city and for those outside it, for those who have been isolated and unloved, for those who have been labeled unclean or unworthy, no matter who they might be.
I think it is really important for us to remember that powerful love, especially in this time of fear and worry and distrust and division that we are living in now. Like the disciples in Samaria, we have wandered into unfamiliar territory, and none of us is totally sure what’s going to happen next. In the coming days and weeks and months, we may find ourselves divided and isolated, trying to slow the spread of disease and to protect the most vulnerable among us. In the midst of all this, we must remember that we are loved – we are loved so much, each and every single one of us – and that we are not alone. Christ is present with us, no matter what happens, no matter what side of the division we may find ourselves on, no matter how isolated or forgotten we may feel. Christ is with us, always.
Let us pray as a church that Jesus will continue to break down our divisions, and let us pray that he will bring healing to all those who need it. May we all drink deeply of the water of life that he offers. And may we find peace in believing that Jesus truly is the Savior of the world.