The Samaritan Woman

Photo by Emre Can Acer from Pexels

Gospel of John 4:1-15

1 Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. NIV

Jesus preached and taught in Judea near Jericho, about twenty miles from Jerusalem. The Baptizer was north, nearly in Galilee. Jesus did not want to deal with the Pharisees yet, so he led his band north. Now we have the answer to the question from last week about who was doing the baptizing (verse 3:22). For whatever reason, Jesus chose not to baptize but to put his disciples in charge, though he likely baptized the Twelve.

The crowds the Baptizer brought in worried the Temple leaders. The main fear was that the Roman army would step in and commit another slaughter. Now, Jesus is attracting even larger crowds. Jesus will spend most of his ministry in Galilee, partly to avoid notice by the authorities and partly because he seems to have had more followers in the north.

Jesus could have crossed the Jordan River and taken the road on the east side, but that way required a longer walk. It is only three days when going through Samaria. God’s reason for the route was a teaching moment, nothing to do with a shortcut.

And he had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside [on] the well. It was about the sixth hour. ESV  

First, a translation problem can lead to the wrong image as we read. The ESV and others translate epee as beside. Yet the word’s stronger meaning is on, as you see in the brackets. I scrolled halfway through the list of Bibles at BibleGateway.org and found only four that translated epee as on.

This is important because most wells in Israel of the first century had caps on them. They were round slabs of stone about 18 inches thick with a small hole in the center. Amazingly, the one on Jacob’s well was still in place fifty years ago, but has been replaced with one to please the tourists.

Why is it important? Because most wells in Israel of the first century had caps on them. They were round slabs of stone about 18 inches thick with a small hole in the center. Amazingly, the one on Jacob’s well was still in place fifty years ago, as witnessed by Kenneth E. Bailey. It is now replaced with one to please the tourists.

The caps were another great invention by Roman engineers. It kept dust and children from falling through. The ‘bucket’ was a thick and long leather pouch with crossed sticks to hold the top open. The women lowered the bucket by a thin rope.

You can see pictures of the well, but they all show the more modern cap under the Greek church.

The word, had, suggests pressure on Jesus, but we have already seen that it was his decision. Still, he might have decided to travel through the hated Samaria, thinking to avoid the Pharisees and Temple authorities until God told him about the woman.

I borrowed this from BibleRef.com. Genesis 33:18–20 explains how Jacob acquired this piece of land. After being reunited with his estranged brother Esau, Jacob looks for a plot of land to build a settlement. He finds one and buys it from the sons of Hamor. Jacob was renamed “Israel” by God, and became the patriarch of both the Jewish and Samaritan people (Genesis 32:28). Later, in Genesis 48:21–22, Israel (Jacob) would give this piece of land to his son, Joseph (Joshua 24:32).

Sychar did not exist in Jacob’s time. It is close to Mt. Gerizim, roughly in the center of Samaria. That would have made it a 35-40 mile walk for Jesus, too far to do in one day. His team traveled with what they needed for a night under the stars—which did not include a double-walled tent and Coleman stove. They likely walked about 20 miles the first day, then perhaps 10 to Sychar. That put them there at the sixth hour—noon our time. No matter the season, the day was twelve hours, and the night was twelve hours. They could all read the sun’s position and know when it was close to the hour. They had no concept of minutes.

The meaningful theological point is that this account follows the nighttime meeting with Nicodemus in chapter 3. One man, one woman, one at night, one midday. One a highly educated Jerusalem man of God, one a sinful Samaritan woman. John pairs stories in this way for a reason. Here, we should see the results of the two meetings; Nicodemus came in the dark and left in the dark, the woman came in the light and left in the Light.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) NIV

Picture what happened. Jesus is sitting on the slab covering the well with his feet dangling over the edge. He likely had his prayer shawl over his head to protect from the sun, and to pray. He sees a woman walking to the well from Sychar. In 99.9999% of all such cases, the man would jump down and walk away thirty feet or so. The woman would not approach until he did.

Jesus did not move. The woman came anyway. Why?

It is easy to answer for Jesus; he already knew why he was there. For the woman, her life was such a mess she no longer cared about social customs.

Having set the stage for disregarding norms, Jesus says, “Will you give me a drink?” With this simple question, Jesus breaks a STRONG social taboo by speaking to a woman in public. The same taboo was in place in Samaria. Kenneth E. Bailey, a child of Middle Eastern missionaries and later a missionary himself there, wrote about this taboo. Throughout forty years of life in the Middle East I never crossed this social boundary line. In village society, a strange man does not even make eye contact with a woman in a public place. … Jesus not only talked to women, he invited women into his band of disciples, was financed by them and some of them traveled with him.

Jesus ignored the 500-year-old hostility between Samaria and Judah.

Jesus also teaches us how to approach mission work; he asks the woman for help. He did not first tell her she was a sinner who needed to repent. That might suggest that the soup kitchens that require a person to sit through a sermon before eating might first invite the poor to do some of the work of preparing the meal, setting up tables, etc. I think back to my trips to Haiti. Our group always arrived with cash and e-readers, looking for work to do that often could have been done by local labor. Perhaps we should have hired them to do the job and saved the plane fare. A one-week trip from 2007 to 2014 ran about twelve hundred dollars per person. That would have paid a lot of people who were otherwise making one to two dollars a day. But, by working among them, we shared our lives, and it was equal sharing.

Jesus would have been able to get his water; it was not a crime for a man to draw water from a well, even if it was women’s work. No doubt Jesus and the Twelve stopped at wells along their walks. Probably the youngest disciple drew the water. Of course, that disciple also held onto the cup/bucket to draw water, but Jesus could have asked for it to be left. That he did not suggest he knew he would ask a woman for water.

Two points to consider: there is no mention of any other followers besides his disciples, but there was no reason for all Twelve to go into town. I believe Jesus sent them all, saying, ‘I’m too tired right now, and I need to pray. You all go on. NO, REALLY, GO.’ We must never forget that caring for the Master was a disciple’s first priority. Usually, they would have left several behind to protect the Master, especially in Samaria, enemy territory. But even in this early part of the ministry, they had learned their Master was not like others. Kenneth Bailey quoted from Daniel T. Niles. He was a true servant because He was at the mercy of those whom He came to serve…. This weakness of Jesus, we His disciples must share. To serve from a position of power is not true service but beneficence.

Jesus also elevates the woman’s self-worth.

The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) ESV

She was taking some risk by even speaking to Jesus. She might have looked around to be sure no one would hear. It was a double risk; she spoke to both a man and a Jew.

There was an additional problem, one of ritual purity. If Jesus drank from her bucket, he would drink defiled water because of her Samaritan bucket. They both knew that, but Jesus ignored it. She had to be wondering if she should run for her life.

A brief look at history. In 720 BCE, Assyria captured the Northern Kingdom of Israel and carried most of the Israelites into captivity, leaving only the poorest behind. Then, they transported Assyrians to settle the conquered land, and they intermarried with the remaining Israelites. When Babylon, who had beaten the Assyrians, captured the Southern Kingdom, they also carried away the best people and sent replacements. But those Hebrews in captivity remained stubborn to their faith and reestablished the Temple as soon as possible. This history is at the root of this meeting.

For Jesus’ part, he knew this history was why God sent him to this well. He was ready for a conversation.

10 “If you knew what God can give,” Jesus replied, “and if you knew who it is that said to you, ‘Give me a drink’, I think you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water!” Phillips

I know it is easy to assume Jesus always knew who, what, when, where, and why, but God did trust his Son. But here is a time when Jesus may not have known any details ahead of time, so he gave her a kind of challenge, ‘if you knew.’ He was always quick to get to what was essential, and nothing was more important than people coming to God.

Jesus would have quickly realized that the village shunned this woman. Women went to the well mornings and evenings, and they walked together. Only in an emergency would any of them be there midday unless that was the only safe time. Infidelity topped the list of reasons to be shunned.

10 Jesus answered her, “If you had known the gift of God and who it is who said to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 “Sir,” the woman said to him, “you have no bucket and the well is deep; where then do you get this living water? 12 Surely you’re not greater than our ancestor Jacob, are you? For he gave us this well and drank from it himself, along with his sons and his livestock.” NET  

Living water often meant spring water, clean and clear, so the woman did not make a theological leap. She takes the offensive by pointing out that the well was left for Samaritans by the Great Grandson of Abraham. So there. Can you beat that?

For Jesus, it was never about beating anyone but turning them to God. The Baptizer preached, ‘Repent!’ Jesus, except for the Pharisees, did not tell anyone he or she was a sinner. Instead, he told them parables that pointed the way to God.

13 Jesus replied, “Everyone who drinks some of this water will be thirsty again. 14 But whoever drinks some of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again, but the water that I will give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up to eternal life.” NET

Here is a minor translation issue. The Greek word translated here as him is autos, which could just as easily translate to her. It is an all-purpose word. The same is true in Hebrew. The Aramaic spoken by Jesus and the woman was a bit different, but they could understand each other. I could not find him or her in an Aramaic online dictionary..

Chaim Bentorah, on his website, https://www.chaimbentorah.com/, writes about the Hebrew words for man and woman. I am amazed at how protestant Bible translators cling to the rending of tesla as rib.  Tesla is used 41 times in the Old Testament and only two times is it rendered as a rib.  Twenty times it is rendered as side and 12 times as a side chamber.  In its Semitic root the word tsela has the idea of limping, that is turning from side to side. 

The Jewish sages teach God took one side of man, he split the man in half and formed a woman from one side and a man from the other side.  He recreated this human into two separate beings from one being. From this God created an ishah or women.  Contrary to what we find in Christian lexicons, Jewish lexicographers and linguist such as Rabbi Samson Hirsch point out that the root word for ishah is ‘ish when it is singular and nashah when it is in a plural form nashim. Woman and women are from two different root words.  Nashah comes from the same root word as nushah which means a creditor. In the singular form the word for woman is the same as the word for a man, man and woman comes from the same root word. The singular word for woman ‘isah is also the word for wife.

The theology Jesus is speaking is couched in terms of their exchange. They began by talking about drinking water. Now Jesus is calling living water (spring water) Living Water (the presence of the Holy Spirit). This is a typical approach by Jesus to take a person from where they are to where they need to be. Again, a model for all of us.

Jesus also speaks of a fountain of water springing up. See how she doges the outcome of accepting the Living Water. ‘I’ll take the magic water but don’t make me do anything with it.’

15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” NET

The woman makes a typical response to Jesus’ offer. Yet, how can we know what it means to be a disciple of the Son of Man/Son of God? At least at first, most of us are happy to be in the clubhouse. We might even be willing to help with a few chores if the work is light. Being Americans, we have the right not to be made uncomfortable.

The woman is buying the water, not the fountain. I think Jesus sees a spark in this woman who, we will see, has had a hard life. She wants to be better; she does not know how to improve it.

We will pick this up next week.

Be Righteous and do Good.

Mike Lawrence

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