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The man at the well

The story of Jesus and the woman at the well in Samaria tells us a great deal that is important. In this meeting our Lord crossed boundaries and put away many taboos. Yet there is more to the story than that. It tells us something about the status of women, how to relate to foreigners, and how to deal with different religions. Then it lifts us beyond even those important concerns to worship "in spirit and in truth".

First in regard to women and foreigners:-

So he crossed boundaries of groups defined by gender, race, religion and respectability. The Samaritan woman responded with insight. She was one of the first to recognize him as being, possibly, the Messiah. She became one of the earliest missionaries, going to tell her own people about him, and the result was that many in her town became believers. This woman ranks in that kind of witness, in the Gospel according to John, with Andrew who went and found his brother Simon Peter and said "We have found the Messiah" [John 1:41], and Philip who found Nathanael and told him they had found the one foretold in the ancient scriptures [John 1:45]. The way John tells the story is clearly intended to emphasise the parallel between the woman's evangelical response to Jesus and that of the well known disciples whose witness he had described a little earlier. That she should have been such a witness is a remarkable sign of the grace of God in Jesus who reached out across such distinctions as gender, race and status, and chose her as the first among many women, foreigners and other despised people who would be worthy of an apostolic ministry. That she was able to serve him so has been an encouragement to women who have been called into ministry over the centuries, even to our own day.

The revelation of Jesus as more than an ordinary man

We can then learn something of value about the way Jesus treats women, and how he treats foreigners and other outsiders. That is important, but the story is not essentially about the hidden better character of the woman of poor reputation who became an agent of his mission. Rather than being focussed on "the woman at the well" John directs attention to "the man at the well". His account reveals the true nature of Jesus; it is one of the signs of who he is, posing questions of increasing significance and cause for wonder, "Is he just a man who is careless about social customs, like whose cup he might share?"; "Is he a prophet who knows things ordinary men do not know?"; and even "Is it possible that he might be the Messiah?"

The woman's role in this gradual but dramatic revelation of his character is crucial because she is a representative person mapping the response of a community to the initiative of God in Christ. In the first place she represents the Samaritan people and clearly speaks on their behalf. Then she also represents a widening of concern with the whole of humanity, as the action in John's gospel moves from Nicodemus in chapter 3 who represents the Jews and then from Jerusalem to the Judean countryside later in that chapter, then to she who in chapter 4 represents the Samaritans who were neither Jews nor truly Gentiles, and later to various kinds of outsiders, like the paralysed man in chapter 5. Eventually we learn more in the other gospels and Acts of how the movement went on to embrace the Gentiles, that is, all the nations of the world -- an ever widening circle that was to be put into effect when the apostles were commissioned at Pentecost:

That pattern was followed by the apostles who were missionaries also in Samaria after they received the gift of the Spirit, spreading the good news [Acts 8:5-25]. This sequence was prefigured symbolically in John's account of the mission of Jesus himself. The encounter with the Samaritan woman as a representative of her people is an essential step in the process of the revelation of God in Christ to the world. It is full of symbols with deep meaning, built around the fact that the Samaritans had a special role in the history of the Jews and their relations with the people of other nations.

The common origin of Jews and Samaritans and a new source of truth

Jesus met the woman at Jacob's well. Jacob, who was given the name Israel, was the common ancestor of both the Jews and the Samaritans. So the woman says

Now, in the time of Jesus, they would not accept each other, so that no Jew dared to eat at the same table as a Samaritan. It was remarkable that Jesus would drink from the same vessel as her:

They both knew that they had a common history as the people of Israel and that both accepted the law of Moses in the first five books of the Bible. Jesus and the woman could refer to Moses as a common authority. The teaching of Moses, the ancient law, was recognized by them both as "the gift of God" and was symbolized by a spring of water welling up, like the spring that gushed from the rock that Moses stuck when the people had quarrelled and tested God [Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95:8-9.]. When Jesus said to the woman "If you knew the gift of God" he was saying that if she had known the scriptures that they both accepted, the books of Moses, she should have known about the Messiah and thus should have been able to recognize him and to receive a more valuable gift from him:

The living or running water he would give would be better than the still water from the old well; his teaching would excel in comparison with that of Moses. It would fulfil and perfect the revelation of God's word that came to Moses which had a common origin as it was also from Christ whose presence in the world, still hidden, was represented by the rock from which water flowed in the desert when it was struck by Moses in the event to which we had reference today in Psalm 95 when they lacked faith and tested God:

So Paul reminded people of the earlier revelation of God:

If she had recognized him she would have been looking to him for refreshment. That is, if she had understood, she would have sought the new fresh water (words of eternal life) from him, instead of being content to serve him the still water from Jacob's old well (the law of Moses).

A question of allegiance

Did you notice the sudden changes in the direction of the conversation. After these deep words about water, Jesus asked without apparent reason about her husband. She said she had none and he agreed, adding that she had had five husbands and was now living with someone else. She said then he must be a prophet, for as she later told the people in the town,

The Jews accepted the later books of the old covenant like the Psalms and the prophets, which Jesus often quoted, but the Samaritans did not. They had been separated before those later writings became known. The Jews then knew better the nature of God whom they worshipped, and they doubted whether the Samaritans knew God well enough:

However, as the woman made clear when she asked if Jesus was a prophet, they also expected prophets of God from what had been written in the law of Moses [Deuteronomy 18:15].

Prophets, like Nathan in his condemnation of King David for stealing Bathsheba to be his wife [2 Samuel 11 and 12], did at times speak out against the corruption of marriage; but the way Jesus changed the subject from the water to her husband had a deeper meaning than to challenge her personally.

The change in the conversation to recall her husbands was a symbolic reference to something very important in the history of her nation. In 721 BC the city and state of Samaria was overrun by the Assyrian empire. After the sacking of Samaria the king of Assyria repopulated it with alien inhabitants from five other regions who worshipped the gods of foreign cults [2 Kings 17]. Through intermarriage and compromise the Samaritan's worship of the one true God was corrupted, the so Jews believed what Jesus said to the woman

Her five husbands correspond to five false gods to which her people had given allegiance, leading to their present unfaithfulness "the one you have now is not your husband".

How to worship

Now the direction of the conversation shifts again, from her varied allegiances with different partners, to focus on how people should worship God. It is she this time who changes the subject to an old dispute between Jews and Samaritans about the right place to worship. It was a natural shift of emphasis because Jesus, after first acknowledging what they had in common had then challenged her with the greater knowledge of God possessed by the Jews. Her reaction, defending her own traditions, illustrates a strong difference between traditions concerning worship which were closely tied to national aspirations.

The division between Jews and Samaritans was a little like that between Catholic and Protestant nations or communities in some parts of the world today where there are sharp divisions like those in Northern Island, but it went deeper and had been in place much longer. Those Catholic-Protestant divisions of Western Europe which have blighted our lives in previous generations go back a long way but still less than 500 years. The division between the Jews and the Samaritans went back twice as far to the division of the kingdom of Israel after the death of King Solomon. The city of Samaria which gave its name to the region known as Samaria at the time of Jesus was originally the capital of the Northern kingdom of Israel built about 925 BC [see 1 Kings 16:24]. The Samaritans followed ancient religious practices, especially in continuing to worship God on mountains (Gerizim) rather than to go the Temple in Jerusalem that Solomon had built. So the woman said to Jesus:

See how she is acting as a representative of her community in a conflict which was nearly a thousand years old. (Maintaining a quarrel for that length of time would be like people in Britain today keeping alive some controversy -- perhaps like a quarrel with the French -- which had begun about the time of William the Conqueror. We do in fact have some controversies in the Christian church which go back about that length of time: for example, whether priests should be allowed to marry.) Jesus does not exactly dodge the question about whether people should worship at the Temple or on a mountain, but he points forward to a different age when such questions would be irrelevant:

In the age to come, which has already dawned with coming of the Messiah, Jesus is saying, people will be inspired in worship by the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit by which they were to be empowered to go out the ends of the earth [Acts 1:8 above] crossing all the ethnic and status barriers. That is not a call for a vague romantic spirituality detached from time and place, but a promise of the universal reality he had come to establish in the kingdom of God, so that knowing him people would be able to worship God truly at any time or place in one universal fellowship.

The gift of the Spirit was now promised because the Messiah had come. He told them later that

The woman, who knew her traditions quite well, knew this could only happen when the Messiah had come, so

It is he whom we praise, and in whose name we offer worship in Spirit and in truth.

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