by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“The woman said to Jesus: ‘I know that the Messiah – that is, Christ – is coming; and when he comes he will tell us everything.’ ‘I who am speaking to you,’ said Jesus ‘I am he.’” John 4: 5-42
Today’s gospel-story from John stands alone in the New Testament. It is unique in that it has no parallel in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and in the fact that it is the longest account of any conversation in which Jesus engaged. It is significant in that both Jesus and the woman he encountered at Jacob’s well on the edge of the Samaritan town of Sychar did not allow themselves to be hamstrung by cultural expectations, rules and prejudices.
The unnamed Samaritan woman was uncharacteristic of the women of her day in her feistiness. She was not going to be pushed around by a Jewish stranger nor was she going to retire demurely from the task of collecting water, just because there was a man in her way. Her experience of having had five men in her life might well have emboldened her from allowing herself to be pushed around.
Jesus, in his turn, crossed some cultural boundaries, but only after the Samaritan woman displayed her independence. He was well-aware of the Jewish expectation that it was improper in public for men to engage in conversation with women. To further appreciate the radicalness of this gospel-reading, we might consider some of the cultural norms in relation to marriage that prevailed in the time of Jesus. Marriage was something imposed on women rather than something they chose. In some respects, marriage made good sense for women in that it promised to provide them with physical safety, economic security and companionship into old age. Given that marriages were arranged by the parents of the two younger people being promised to one another, it was hoped that the union would grow into a loving one. Divorce could be requested and filed for only by the husband. That request could be made for almost any reason he presented, even a frivolous one. The Samaritan woman in the story comes across as liberated. Was her independence such that she frustrated five husbands into divorcing her? Women were meant to be neither seen nor heard. Religious men like Pharisees were not supposed to speak to their wives in public. What’s more, some religious leaders were jokingly labelled as “the bruised and bleeding Pharisees” because they closed their eyes when they saw a woman coming in the opposite direction, and they ended up with cuts, bruises and even broken noses from running into walls or tripping over. In addition, this Samaritan woman clearly had a reputation for unconventional living. Note, however, that Jesus did not judge her. “Respectable” women went to the town well in the mornings with all the other respectable women with whom they chatted and gossiped. It did not take long for Jesus to conclude that this woman, who came to fill her buckets from the well in the middle of the day, had been ostracised.
The conversation between her and Jesus got off to a stilted start. She, very clearly, was not expecting a lone foreigner to be sitting near the well. Moreover, they both knew that they were not supposed to be speaking to one another. But she was determined to hold her ground and not slink away because she was only a woman. Nor did she know that Jesus had arrived with two friends who had gone off to get lunch for the three of them. Perhaps guessing at why a woman would come alone to the well in the middle of the day, Jesus dared to initiate the conversation by asking her for a drink from her bucket. In her turn, she would have known that, by drinking from a Samaritan’s bucket, he would have ignored a purity rule and defiled himself immediately. She, in her turn, challenged him on two counts in relation to his request: “You’re a Jew. How can you ask me, a Samaritan and a woman, for a drink?” She surely had her wits about her, and she had no intention of taking a backward step. Sensing that here was a woman with whom he could engage in conversation as an equal, Jesus seized the moment and introduced a topic of substance. Here was an opportunity for him to further his mission with a woman who, he sensed, might be open to listen to him. So, lunch could wait.
What began with an edge of confrontation and hostility, developed into mutual sharing. Both were thirsty – Jesus for a drink of cool water in the midday, desert heat, the Samaritan woman for something she could not immediately name. She had something he needed and he had something she needed but could not identify. In coming together in what developed into mutual respect, they demonstrated that prejudice, division, enmity and hatred could be dissolved. While she did not immediately grasp that Jesus was using water as a symbol of the life that God offered humanity, she was intelligent enough to come to an understanding and appreciation of the “water” the man in front of her was offering. A least, when Jesus referred to “water welling up to eternal life”, she showed that she was sufficiently clever and open to respond with: “Sir, give me this water, so that I shall not grow thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
When she acknowledged her need for that, Jesus abruptly changed the topic and asked her to go home and bring her husband back with her. Instead of pretending or dodging the truth, she courageously acknowledged the truth about herself: “I have no husband.” Jesus, in turn, told her the history of her five marriages and her current relationship. However, to avoid the risk of hearing more home truths, the woman neatly switched the conversation back to religion. Acknowledging that the man speaking to her was a prophet, she added: “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you (Jewish) people claim Jerusalem is the only place for authentic worship of God.” Jesus responded by pointing out neither nationality nor place of worship really mattered. He went on to say that true worship is about being true to oneself before God, living authentically and seeking the truth. This evoked from the woman an admission: “I know there is a Messiah coming. When he comes, he will tell us everything.” Jesus responded with a disclosure he had not yet made to anyone: “I am he.” (ie the Messiah to whom you have just referred.)
The significance of this gospel-reading for us in this second week of Lent is that it challenges us to come before God acknowledging our inadequacy and our vulnerability. There is no substitute for honesty and integrity. If we disclose ourselves as we really are, with our strengths and faults, our triumphs and failures, our longings and our hopes, he will confirm who we are by showing us who he is. We see in today’s gospel reading that he has no reluctance when it comes to crossing boundaries, breaking rules and dropping disguises. His goodness and readiness to welcome bubbled up in the Samaritan woman’s life like a well that needed no bucket. She was transformed from being an outsider into someone worthy of being heard. In the Gospel writer’s mind she was the first of Jesus’ disciples, convincing the residents of her village to come and witness the advent of the Messiah.
There is a further challenge here for us individuals, our parish communities and our large Church community. We have to make welcome the Samaritan women among us, those who are less than compliant, whose way of expressing their faith is different from ours, who do not sing from the same hymn book. We have to be wary of imposing our likes and preferences, our rules and expectations on others. We can express our faith in unity without always trying to impose uniformity. It might come as a surprise that the Samaritan woman is honoured as a saint in the Eastern churches, with the name St Photina which is variously translated as “equal to the apostles” or “the bright and shining woman”. She is also listed in the Roman Martyrology because it is believed that she was martyred by the Emperor Nero. Her feast day is March 20. She represents all those who struggle to find a place in the community we call church. We who sit comfortably in that community have a responsibility to make them welcome.