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By Sigrid Fowler
The subject is too broad to deal with in a few hundredwords. One sweep could hardly touch the surface. In a well-known encounter, Jesus talks to a Samaritan woman at a well in Sychar (John 4: 1-26). It’s an amazing little story, bristling with drama, heavy with significance. I’ll spend some weeks with the details. They’re well worth close examination.
This woman explains (as if Jesus doesn’t know) thatJacob himself and his sons drank from this well, his livestocktoo. This is the setting of the story. The well is deep, requiring a pulley and something to bring up the water. Jacob gave the well, a valuable asset in a hot, dry country of sheep-raisers, to his favorite son, Joseph. This interesting history is well-known, it seems, especially in Sychar, but John records the woman-‘splaining, one of the unusual parts of the story. Who expects a woman to be lecturing a man? Not in the first century!
Another detail of the setting is the time of day. It is the sixth hour, noontime. This means serious heat. Travelers in Israel will remember that heat. Tourists hear it as a litany, Drink water! In fact, water becomes central in this story, a part in the action almost.
The first of two principles is Jesus, tired from his journey—tired and thirsty enough to do something unexpected. He is alone. This cheeky woman of Sychar, the second main character, apparently has a reputation. What sermon on the passage ever fails to mention her reputation? The time of dayshe comes for water gives it away. No woman (the water-carriers then) lugs a heavy vessel of water at noon unless they’re avoiding people. The disciples have gone for food and return later. The townsfolk also appear briefly at the end, but we’ll let them remain in the background. That Jesus’s interchange with this woman involves only these two is significant. One final setting fact: To travel from Judea into Galilee, Jesus’s itinerary now, means the road through hated Samaria since a detour across the Jordan isn’t his choice.
The action in this story showcases the love of Jesus—self-forgetting, not intrusive but determined and intense. It is expressed in action but is not threatening. I’ll look at the details closely, and it will take some time. Today, just the first look.
The drama begins with Jesus’s request for water. It is a simple, perfectly reasonable move, we might think at the distance of two thousand years. Not so to the people of Jesus’stime. Even now, Jews don’t think much of Samaritans, labeling them “half breeds.” In the first century, they wereloathed, it seems. Samaria was the remnant of Israel, the ten northern tribes, famously or infamously ruled by Ahab and Jezebel at one period. Their idolatry was habitual and institutional. The Ten angered God, who allowed their defeat and deportation by the Assyrians (722 B.C.), who later brought in others to repopulate. The few Hebrews who remained mixed with them. By Jesus’s time, avoidinganything Samaritan was de rigueur.
When Jesus asks the woman for water, he is smashing convention. First, any practicing Jewish male would consider it inappropriate to talk to a woman in this setting—no one else around. The Pharisees didn’t speak to women at all in public, and every Jew gave wide berth to Samaritans. The opening action is like a small detonation. Is “Give me a drink” a pickup line? Is it cynicism to ask? Probably not. The bad reputation attributed to this woman of Sychar is supported by facts—her five previous marriages, the current companion not her husband. Locals would say, “Of course that’s what she thought. She would expect it.” But from a Jew? Thedetonation gains a second little blast as definite as an echowhen we think again: A Jew making a pass at a Samaritan woman? But why is this man talking to her?
The intensely dramatic opener is prelude to a close-up view of the kind of love that offers life itself for the sake of a friend. “There is no greater,” Jesus said. He fully abandonssocial norms in a pursuit of the spiritual life of one who seemsto model sinner, a self-fulfilling seeker of satisfaction, whatever the cost, openly and habitually ignoring every verboten. She’s already smashed conventions, and Jesus walks right onto her turf. He does want her. He’ll reveal himself as the Source of the spiritual life she wants. So doing, he will uncover his purposes—not just to her but for all time. What she says next will tell us a lot.