In the worst heat of the day, when people rested indoors and avoided walking a mile in each direction from town, she went to Jacob's well to draw water. She had the best chance of being left alone that way.
She was essentially property in her time. But even as "property," it seemed she was of little worth or value to anyone.
She was certainly not a well-to-do Roman woman, being a Samaritan in a Roman-occupied land. Even some of the other occupied people looked down on her. "We might be under Roman occupation, but at least we're not Samaritans," they might say. Everyone was above her, and she was too low in status to have anyone to look down on. The world had made this very clear to her.
She had no power to vote in local matters, and most likely couldn't own a business – nor would she be able to raise capital to start one regardless. To survive, she had to depend on the repressive, patriarchal structures of her time. She also did not have the right to divorce by writing a certificate. That was up to a man... And five men had written her such certificates, or maybe a couple of them had died, further adding to the hot gossip of her being bad news. Given her culture, it's highly possible that she was barren: rejected by so many husbands as a result of an inability to produce children.
A Samaritan. A woman. Likely barren... DISGRACEFUL.
So when Jesus says "you've had five husbands," we cannot assume that his tone would ever be accusatory. He zeroes in on the source of her greatest hurt and shame, but his intent is not to aggravate it. In fact, it's far more reasonable to argue his choice of words are empathetic and full of compassion. No one wants her. No one has ever stayed with her. She is the lowest of the low – viewed from all sides as one without honor. And she has learned this perception of herself so well that she can't even bear to be around the other women of her own people, traveling to Jacob's well alone at midday when the others would have gone at first light. When Jesus asks for her husband, it is not to trap her. Rather, she has requested this "living water" he has spoken of, and he has begun to open up the floodgates of her healing and wholeness.
Hers has been a sad story. As the pain of being around other people has increased, she has continued to withdraw.
But out on the edge, she meets Jesus anyway.
And Jesus – a man, a Jew, a rabbi – speaks to her. In broad daylight. At length. When she approaches, he doesn't keep silent, or refuse to look at her, or back away to a "respectable" distance... all common reactions for Jewish men and rabbis in that time. Self-respecting rabbis wouldn't even speak to their own wives in public. But Jesus requests to drink from her cup – a sign of acceptance and identification. He doesn't mind her thinking of him as on her level or at her mercy. In that culture, to drink or eat with another was a gesture of oneness. And by Jewish tradition of the time, a Samaritan woman would be considered always unclean. So Jesus defiles himself by seeking her vessel for a drink. He clearly doesn't care about the lawful implications of his actions, nor ritual purity, nor his reputation with the priests of the temple. Instead, he wants to honor her by receiving her cup, and making himself needful of her.
The woman quickly shows her courage and strength of spirit in the conversation. While the Jews had denied a Samaritan claim to common lineage, she is found here saying, "Our father Jacob drank from this well..." And Jesus does not contradict or correct her, because Jesus does not disagree.
He does not tell her to fix her life.
But as they speak, she senses something beautiful about him and pivots to the subject of theology. This is not an evasion. It is right to test someone making such great claims with a question. She earnestly wants to know what such a radical rabbi as this might say. He is clearly a very different sort of rabbi. And she is remarkably sharp and intuitive. The question of worship is the question that matters. The Jews had destroyed the Samaritan temple 150 years or so earlier, and yet still maintained that Samaritan "mongrels" and "half-breeds" could not draw near to the center of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. So the message to the Samaritans had been resoundingly clear:
"You can't have your own temple, and you're not welcome in ours, either."
Truly, a history of injustice and unfairness lingers behind her words as she probes how Jesus might account for the realities of the situation. Still, she shows great vulnerability in even asking him her question, as she potentially opens herself up to further shame, derision and prejudice of the kind her people commonly receive from many Jews... She asks anyway because she believes this rabbi to be a prophet. Now as a general rule, Samaritans do not believe in prophets, but she doesn't care. She wants to honor God where the world has so failed her. And really, what is the point of the temple system anyway? How does such "worship" even matter? If worship is only granted to a privileged few in a special place, how can God simultaneously hold everyone accountable for it?
...where could one such as her ever worship?
She wants to know. Truly. Jesus is the only learned Jew she has ever felt safe to ask.
And in response, Jesus treats her like a serious and worthy theologian. As he honors her capacity for understanding, he elevates her and all women along with her. He drops the most significant teaching on worship in all of scripture on her alone, there at the well. The entire, sweeping theme of the New Testament and covenant, and the implications of everything else he does and says, he lays out plainly for her. He doesn't shroud it in parable. He can see she's ready for the fullness of light to shine. He tells her that worship is ultimately without ritual or rite. That it is found in spirit and truth at the very core of a person. That, whether in Jerusalem or at Gerizim, such temples are already obsolete. This means that people are the very temple of God. And this suggests to her she has as much access to God as some self-important high priest who loathes her.
And she always has.
We have in this story:
- a marginalized woman who has encountered Jesus in all his scandal and wild poetry...
- and who has gone from knowing him as "Jew" to "lord" to "prophet" to "Restorer-Messiah" in the span of a couple minutes.
Show me one other disciple who ever did that, and who led such a conversation themselves at this level.
The exchange of Jesus and the woman at the well is truly amazing.
And we're not hearing it represented in church.
I have retold this story in this way for a reason.
If you're one of those people who claims to "just believe the Bible" and "read it plainly," it can shock you to know how impossible such claims are to follow through with. None of us reads scripture plainly. And each of us has a complex matrix of filters and lenses affecting everything we think we see. There is much involved when it comes to interpretation: in assumption and presupposition, in language and translation, in culture and history... things change or evolve. Things are lost. Things go unaccounted for. The peoples of the scriptures lived in a world with its own inherent biases and dynamics... And we don't get to automatically know them. We have to seek them out.
The simplest way to provide an example of this is to take a fresh look at what is, for many, a very well-known and well-trodden passage. It's quoted, referenced, and used to teach frequently... And I would argue that it is quite often used to "teach" the opposite of what it had to say about Jesus within the context of its own place and time. Having taken in the above rendering of the story, wouldn't you agree?
Context, we find, has a pesky way of actually challenging us.
When many preachers and teachers only use scripture to coddle the existing certainties of those in their hearing, we have a most deceptive culture of theology in our midst. When we have a passage that shows Jesus flatly contradicting many of our assumptions about God and people and morality, and we still find a way to use that same passage to paint him as playing to our expectations, we are ultimately using scripture to avoid Jesus. No matter how many times we passionately say his name, we are avoiding avoid him. We avoid him just as we avoid the light he might bring.
SO... ABOUT THIS FAMOUS "WOMAN AT THE WELL" PASSAGE IN JOHN CHAPTER 4...
If you've ever heard it used to paint Jesus' forcefulness in "calling her out" and "not compromising the truth" and "telling it like it is" – basically doing the sanitized "Christian" version of slut-shaming to "bring her to repentance" – I would argue that you have been misled. And those who teach such a passage in such a way are simply revealing their own biases and hangups. They are, quite ironically, playing into the very same mindset which led to this woman being there and meeting Jesus that day in the first place.
In Christian teaching and preaching, we are often claiming to herald the great truths of this passage even as we miss them entirely. Even as we create more shame, more people feeling distant from God, and more "women at the well" in the process.
So what can change when a reading is informed by context rather than modern religious assumption?
This is the story of "the woman at the well" no one ever told you.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I don't claim to have everything figured out or sorted, of course. You could spend a hundred years writing books unwrapping this passage alone. Still, there are some things worth pointing out as briefly as possible, and it only takes a few to start implying some very different conclusions compared to what many of us have been led to believe.
I only hope my rendering has done even a fraction of them justice.