Woman! Disturbing the Peace.

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I’ve often wondered about this unnamed woman in John’s Gospel 4:5-42, labelled the Samaritan woman, and used in many early bible commentaries as a code for a sinful woman with poor judgement, married multiple times, and now living with someone. Yet she’s forthright, mistrustful, informed; wary of social and cultural religious rules.  She’s clearly learned to protect herself.   

This is a magnificent story in John’s Gospel! This unnamed woman gives me hope, showing me how God engages in contested and marginalised places with people, including women who are otherwise dismissed or scapegoated. 

The encounter resonates on many levels. Jesus is travelling with his disciples and they’re in a place where Jews are aliens and not always welcome. He’s resting wearily by a well.  Its hot and dusty.  Jesus, a stranger, talks uninvited to a local woman who’s come to the well to fetch water, in the middle of the day.  Jesus asks her for a drink. 

While this story seems to have echoes of Abraham seeking a wife for his son Isaac, sending a servant to find her.  The servant encounters her at the well towards evening ‘the time when women go out to draw water’ (Gen. 24:11), and the servant asks for a drink of water (Genesis 24:17).

The way this story of the Samaritan woman is told, however, has marked differences.  The Samaritan woman is not a young Jewish virgin, no betrothal takes place; the well on this occasion is not concerned with sexual fertility but is an image of salvation (Isaiah 12:3); Jesus is not presented as a bridegroom but as a giver of living water.

On the surface, their conversation is simply about having a drink of water because Jesus is thirsty and here’s woman expecting to fill her water jar with water from the well.  It’s a reasonable request from Jesus and elicits a reasonable response from the woman.   However, Jesus goes off on one of his tangents.  Instead, he says he can offer her ‘living water’.  She questions Jesus again; is he really more important than their ancestor Jacob who’s well and water he’s questioning.  You can hear her wondering about who it is she is talking to!

Jesus said to her: ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I will give will be come in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. (John 4:13-14)

The woman’s response is complex: but her recognition of something lifechanging happening is swift and clear.  She realises she will be changed and the world will be changed forever with this water Jesus is offering.  This is good news for her!

Then comes their exchange over the number of her husbands, while noting she’s not married to her current partner.  Jesus knows her circumstances.  His prophetic response causes the woman to see her life differently – something else, a different way of life might be possible.  The deep breath of new possibilities is profoundly significant for her.   A new day is dawning, the eighth day of creation has begun for her with Jesus. The Spirit has disturbed her peace. This is what an encounter with Jesus is like!

The quick call to judgement which assumed the woman had either been promiscuous or careless in her husbands is based only on unkind assumptions.  Its worth remembering women were chattels, owned by father, or brother, or husband, financially and socially dependent on men.  They rarely had control over their own lives.  Having a husband, a male present in her life, meant the difference between poverty and survival.  Any criticism is wrong and the story doesn’t offer this.  Its also worth noting, Jesus did not judge her or her circumstances.

The discussion over the places of worship and who worships where and who’s correct, is once again shifted by Jesus who tells her we worship God in spirit and truth. She recognises he is the Messiah.   Worshipping God as spirit heals, water cleanses, gives life, gives joy, and we are made whole in truth.  Isaiah reminds us.

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.  With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.’ (Isaiah 12:2-3) 

The woman’s quick recognition of such words as belonging to the Messiah, leads Jesus to identify himself to her clearly: 

 ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you’ (John 4:26)

The woman races back to town, leaving behind her water jar to spread the good news.  The Messiah is here, now! Those who heard her believed her and then after speaking to Jesus and listening to him, they knew for themselves.    As we reflect on the woman’s quick wittedness, her willingness to test Jesus, to work through their shared beliefs and as differences disappear, the Gospel story tells us she knew her scriptures and was ready to recognise him as the Messiah. 

As I listen to the townsfolk, their shift from ‘belief’ to ‘knowing’ makes me think about our own journey of faith. The woman progresses from thinking she has merely encountered a Jewish stranger, to recognising him as one who speaks truthfully about God, to believing he is the Messiah. What a conversation! Jesus opens up a future she has never before imagined and there is still more to know.   She claims Jesus described her whole life.  Jesus did no such thing in this story.  Yet when Jesus shines a light on our lives, everything in shadow seems to come to the light. We see differently.  When we encounter Jesus, we cannot hide from the reality of our lives. 

The Samaritan woman does not act like someone marginalised by her community. Her community listens to her and believes.  They follow her as the first apostle to the Gentiles, to find Jesus.  She is a disturber of their peace. Jesus offers everyone the Spirit and truth to face their issues, liberating us far more comprehensively, than pronouncing judgement on us.  We find freedom and the capacity to let go the burdens of life and actively share the good news. 

The living water refreshes and makes whole, we are healed and brought together celebrating and reassured, God has seen us in the most unlikely of places, and seen each of us, uniquely children of God.  Where the Holy Spirit moves we are shaken up and once seen, we cannot unsee the Kingdom of God.

The Lord be with you.

Reference:   Jarvis, C.E., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds].  2013.  Feasting on the Gospels John, Vol.1  Chapters 1-9.  Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.

Lucy Morris
Lucy Morris
Anglican Priest, International Speaker, Published Author, Social Justice Advocate and Activist.

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