Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren
The story of the woman at the well doesn’t make sense without the story that comes right before it – the story of Nicodemus. This woman – unnamed though she is – becomes a powerful figure in Jesus’ ministry. She is the first evangelist beyond Jesus’ own disciples, proclaiming her belief loudly to all her friends and neighbors, inviting them to “come and see” this Messiah for themselves.
This fact – that a nameless Samaritan woman becomes the first preacher for Jesus – is utterly and completely absurd. To our modern ears, ears who’ve heard the story over and over, it might not seem that way at first glance, but for John’s first hearers, this plot twist wouldn’t just be strange – it would be essentially impossible.
The story that would have made sense – that makes more sense to us, even – is that Nicodemus, teacher, pharisee and leader of the Jews – would have become an ally for Jesus. He knew the scriptures, he saw the signs, he suspected that Jesus was the Messiah and he was set up as a person of power and influence in the community. It makes sense that the leaders of the Jews, the people from whom Jesus came, the ones schooled and versed in God’s relationship with God’s people, the ones who knew the long salvation history and spent their days praying and sacrificing in service of God’s presence with God’s people would be the ones to recognize Jesus for who he really was, to support him and advocate for him, to become his allies and his evangelists.
But that is not how things play out. Nicodemus can’t manage to bring his suspicions to bear in the real world. He comes to Jesus in the middle of the night, stutteringly asks about his suspicions, has them confirmed but then retreats back to his power and his privilege, living out the rest of his days with this knowledge of major missed opportunity.
Things do not happen the way they should happen.
Instead, immediately after Jesus preaches the gospel of eternal life to Nicodemus, he sets out for Galilee. The text tells us that “he had to go through Samaria,” which makes no logical sense. Samaria is situated right in between Judea and Galilee along the Jordan River, but Jesus wouldn’t have needed to wander through the countryside, as the text here implies – he would have taken the road by the river, a straight shot that barely grazes the Samaritan territory. Still, for some reason, Jesus decides to wander his way north through the Samaritan countryside.
This is not just an odd decision – it’s a dangerous one. Jews and Samaritans are enemies. They’re both descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and they both worship the same God, but they have serious theological disagreements about how that worship was supposed to happen. The Jews worship, remember, in the temple at Jerusalem. The Samaritans didn’t buy into the primacy of the temple worship and centered their worship on Mt. Gerazim. This divide between the Jews and the Samaritans was not a new one – it went back generations and generations, such that the Jews thought of the Samaritans not only as outsiders, but as idolators.
Jesus is intentionally detouring through enemy territory. Why?
As they make their way through Samaria, Jesus and his disciples become weary. They stop, by a well near a city called Sychar, and Jesus sits down to rest while his disciples continue on into town to find dinner for them all. While he rests, a woman approaches the well, carrying two huge buckets. It’s mid-day, not the usual time for women to be drawing water from the well – they would have come early in the morning and early in the evening, two taxing trips each day, women’s work to keep the households running. Why is this woman here in the middle of the day?
It could be that her household ran out of water early that day and she, the woman with the least status in the house, drew the short straw for the hot lunchtime trip. It could be that she was not on good terms with the other women of the village and chose to make her trips when she wouldn’t have to endure their sarcasm and insults about her life (she’d been widowed over and over, and had now ended up living in her last husband’s brother’s household, a last resort for a woman without husband or sons to care for her, but not, as we so often hear, the equivalent of “shacking up.” This woman has endured loss after loss and she has sought the only shelter and protection available to her by law – levirate marriage, which required a man’s brother to take in his wife and children when he died.)
Whatever her reasons, this woman shows up to draw water from the well, and Jesus is there. This is…awkward. Have you ever heard of the Billy Graham rule? It got a lot of publicity last year because our Vice President subscribes to the practice – basically, because of his theological understanding of gender, Billy Graham vowed never to be alone with a woman other than his wife. There are allllllllll kinds of problems with this practice, not least of which includes the assumption that any adult woman is a threat to a man’s marriage and integrity simply by existing, but the rule is helpful to understand how awkward Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well would have been.
Jews would have practiced an INTENSE form of the Billy Graham rule. Women and men who were not married would NEVER have been in conversation with one another at some isolated place like this well outside the city. The Samaritan woman meeting with Jesus at the well is the equivalent of Billy Graham finding himself in a private hotel room with a strange woman he’s never met before. This would have been considered beyond scandalous, beyond accidental – this was forbidden.
And we haven’t even gotten to the mortal enemy part of the situation. Not only was this situation all sorts of wrong, it was also dangerous. Jesus wasn’t just a man alone at a well, he was a JEWISH man. The Samaritan woman knew that Jews did not speak with Samaritans (remember the story of the Good Samaritan? Priests, rabbis and community leaders simply refused to acknowledge the existence of a Jew on the side of the road.) Jews and Samaritans DID NOT INTERACT.
If we want to stick with the Billy Graham example, this meeting of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well would be something close to the equivalent of Franklin Graham, Billy’s son, who confirmed last year that he follows his father’s rule about never being alone with women who are not his wife and who has also been loud and persistent about his opinion that Muslims are “infidels,” “followers of a very wicked and evil religion,” “controlled by fear and intimidation” out to “behead, rape and murder in the name of God” finding himself alone in a private hotel room with a Muslim woman draped in hijab.
Except Jesus didn’t “find himself” in this very awkward, scandalous situation – he deliberately put himself here. He chose to meander through Samaria, which he knew to be dangerous enemy territory. He chose to stay behind, alone at the well while his disciples went into town. He chose to speak to the woman, asking her to draw him a drink. When she questions him (“uh, really? You’re a Jew and you want ME, a single Samaritan woman, to get you a drink? Isn’t that kind of…inappropriate?”), Jesus chooses to engage her further. He insists that he does mean to talk to her, that he knows every reason why it should be forbidden, and that he is choosing, even so, to engage her.
And engage her, he does. (Actually, that verb choice is not unintentional. The well was a site of betrothal – it functions in this text as a symbol of intimacy and relationship. Jesus having this personal conversation with a strange, single, Samaritan woman at the well, a place where deep relationships are cemented and commemorated, is full of meaning and implication. This woman, he will tell her later in the conversation, has been married five times, and is now unmarried, living in her brother-in-law’s household, in need of protection and family, in need of a source of water that will never run dry, never leave her or forsake her. Jesus offers her exactly this.)
They have a deep, theological conversation. This is important: this nameless, single, cast-off woman not only responds to Jesus’ inquiry: she critiques him. She asks him theological questions. She engages with him deeply. She is a full participant in this scene, with autonomy and agency. And that’s important, because her response to Jesus is going to require some serious action.
While they are still talking, Jesus’ disciples return from grabbing dinner in the city. They are…not amused to find him talking so intimately with this strange Samaritan woman. The text says that they were “astonished,” but, having learned that Jesus was one to keep them on their toes, none of them questioned him or her. She picked up her water jugs and went home. And that’s when she becomes the first evangelist: when she gets home, she tells everyone she sees – “Come and SEE! I’m pretty sure this guy is the Messiah!”
And, wonder of wonders, all her neighbors heard her and believed her. This woman, remember, had the least status in the neighborhood. She was an unmarried, quintupally widowed and/or divorced woman with no sons, living on the charity of her brother in law, making her trips to the well in the middle of the day’s heat to avoid interacting with all the other women who would make fun of her, but when she comes back so full of excitement and transformation – they can hear it in her voice – they not only believe what she’s saying, never mind that the man she’s talking about is a stranger, a Jew, and a dude who has obviously broken all kinds of boundaries to talk to her, they accept her invitation.
They go out to the well to meet Jesus for themselves. They’re so compelled that they invite him into their town to stay, and he spends several days and several nights there. When he leaves, they all go to the woman who invited them in the first place and they say to her, “It’s not that we didn’t believe you – we really did – but then we MET the guy, and saw him for ourselves, and we’re convinced that he IS the Messiah.”
And there it is – this woman, this single, cast-aside, no-status, Samaritan woman – becomes the first evangelist, the first person to invite others into relationship – deep, intimate, transformative relationship – with Jesus Christ.
It was not Nicodemus. The first evangelist, the first sharer of the gospel, was not the high status preacher with plenty of power and concern for appearance. The first evangelist in John’s gospel is this woman – the one who ought not have been talking with Jesus in the first place, the one whose existence should never have come into contact with his.
And yet, Jesus went out of his way to encounter her, to engage her, to assure her that she was just as worthy and important in this new kingdom full of springs of living water as any other human being. Jesus’ message that God has sent him for the entire world is coming to bear in this story: he is the Messiah not just for the Jews, and not just for the powerful or the learned or the ones from good families; he is the Messiah for the entire world. And in this new world, where this Messiah reigns, it is the least likely people from the least likely places who get to become co-workers, co-creators, evangelists and disciples. It is the people we least expect who are the ones bearing good news, inviting friends and enemies into encountering Jesus, sharing the invitation to come and see as far and wide as their voices can carry.
So, who is it that is inviting you to come and see, recently? Are you paying attention to the right people, the right places, the right voices? Are you dismissing the invitation because it hasn’t come from a place that is fully vetted or credentialed? Jesus does not care about those things – in fact, when the credentialed, vetted leaders show up in his story, they are unable to bear the gospel very far at all. In this story, the invitation to encounter Jesus comes from the very least likely place. What is that for us, for you? Where should we be focusing our gaze and opening our ears?
If we learn much from this story, it might be that listening to the church leaders is not a great strategy for encountering Jesus – at least, if our church leaders are, like Nicodemus, too caught up in appearances and so-called “integrity” to proclaim the good news. Instead, we might consider turning up the volume on the witness of those on the margins, the ones who have deep, intimate relationships with Jesus, who have no compulsions about sharing it, who are not worried about being seen in a “compromising” situation because they are so compelled by Jesus’ existence that they cannot help but stick close to him, whatever the cost.