An unlikely missional event
Lessons from the Samaritan woman in John 4by Nancy V. Lee
Parents do not hold her up as a model for their daughters. She is given no name; we know her only by a place common in her area. Yet, as the accounts in Through the Eyes of Another: Intercultural Reading of the Bible (Institute of Mennonite Studies, 2004) show, her surprising story reaches across time and cultures.
Hans de Wit writes: “She can be found in the catacombs. I see her walking the rice fields in India. … She can be found … in the Netherlands of the golden age, in the work of Rembrandt and others. Under Neapolitan trees she meekly talks to Jesus; against a background of blue mountains she stands in a Chinese landscape; high Indonesian palm trees look down upon her.”
What happened to transform this nameless woman with a less than circumspect life into a missionary for the ages? All we have is the bare bones of her story in John 4:1-42.
The setting is an age long before indoor plumbing or the Internet. People have to carry jars to a well for water, and messages are either spoken or handed over as written documents. The time, early in the ministry of Jesus, is not the darkness of the visit of Nicodemus but the long shadows of early evening at the end of a dusty day.
The place is not a school, synagogue or the temple in Jerusalem where one expects to find a rabbi teaching but a stone well outside the city. Here an open conversation between two people can go unheard and continue uninterrupted.
This well is in Samaria—with all that means in terms of the division and hostility between the people who live there and the Jews who live south of them. While to the Jews the Messiah would be a descendant of David who would restore true worship in the temple in Jerusalem, to the Samaritans the Messiah would be a descendant of a prophet like Moses (as promised in Deuteronomy 18:18-19) who would restore true worship on Mount Gerizim in the old northern kingdom. Further, according to 2 Kings 17, the worship of these Samaritans was tainted by the worship of false gods after the return of the remnants of the northern tribes from Assyrian captivity.
The characters are mainly a Jewish man named Jesus and this nameless woman, a native of Samaria. And all they do is talk—alone. There are no listeners—except the much later receivers of John’s account and us, standing far behind the curtains in the distant future.
Ancestor Jacob: As the conversation reveals, the woman knows a great deal about God, at least the God of the books of Moses. She is aware of her Israelite ancestors, familiar with the prophets, waiting for the Messiah and able to raise the theological questions of her people. Indeed, her early reference to the provider of this well, Ancestor Jacob, is of great significance because it places her and her people under God’s covenant with Abraham.
Yet through the three chapters in John before this narrative, we readers know the single most important thing that the woman does not: who this tired, thirsty Jewish man is.
The story is so familiar and the conversation so matter-of-factly recorded that it is easy to miss the suspense in both her search and his. This woman alone at the well wants to find out what kind of Jewish man would cross social, historical and religious barriers to ask a favor of the likes of her. His quest, if we look back a bit in John, is an urgent search by One with a mission who is not accepted by his own—a search for those who will receive him. His is surely a thirst that no amount of water from a literal well can quench.
Master teacher—or missionary—that he is, Jesus begins, after his tiring journey on foot this hot day, with the best of contextual requests: “Give me a drink.” Then he works quickly at moving the conversation from the literal water to the “living water” he has to offer.
In reply, she extends her search for his identity by asking if he is greater than Ancestor Jacob. With the revelation that Jesus knows all about her, she moves even closer to a recognition of who he is by seeing him as a prophet—who can tell her all things—and by asking him about one of the most significant tenets of Samaritan theology: where he stands on the place of true worship.
In his answer, Jesus authoritatively supports the claim of the Jews to be the legitimate bearers of the covenant tradition, but he goes on to declare that neither the Jews nor the Samaritans are correct in limiting the worship that God seeks to a geographical place. God, who is spirit and is therefore not limited to place or time or people, seeks worship in spirit and truth. (This, we readers will remember, is surely the perspective of the Word of the universe in John 1.)
Clearly the woman now suspects that this Jesus, who knows so much, might be the Messiah.
With his simple assertion, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you,” Jesus—with the cooperation of his listener—now completes another miracle, an even greater miracle than his turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana, for by the end of this short conversation a life has been changed and a new mission born among an estranged people.
Telling the truth: The turning point for the woman seems to have been the shock of hearing her life story from this stranger—without condemnation. He simply compliments her for telling the truth about herself, then tells her the truth about himself, a truth she can now receive.
This second staggering revelation is more than the woman can keep to herself. She abandons her water jar and rushes from the well to her neighbors with the news that she has met a man who must be the Messiah because he has told her everything she has ever done. In contrast to the learned Jewish teacher, Nicodemus, this Samaritan woman has become not only a believer but an enthusiastic and successful missionary.
And Jesus? He is no longer thirsty or, to his returning, astonished disciples, hungry.
Surely it is an extraordinary story of blessings—for Jesus, for the missionary and for her townspeople, with whom Jesus stays for two days of teaching and acceptance and hope for all. However, as the following voices show, this story carries a variety of meanings, depending on its readers’ situations.
A Chinese pastor: In this story I can see that Jesus crosses religious and racial barriers by talking with the Samaritan woman, even asking for some water from her. My biggest question, when I read this story, is how to communicate with and help others from a different culture. Jesus’ actions and teaching in this story focus on sharing the gospel with the Samaritans by emphasizing that God seeks true worshipers everywhere.
A Japanese Christian woman: I see Jesus crossing many barriers: those of conventions, culture, gender, religion, ethics, geography, race, power and generations. I also sense many limitations and barriers in my life that could be destroyed by Jesus, and it is not so easy to share the gospel with others across barriers like gender. However, Jesus got rid of all the barriers the Samaritan woman had and transformed her into one who could share God’s story and her experience with others.
I identify most with the Samaritan woman. I feel thirsty in various aspects of my life and want to receive the same living water from Jesus. God is the only one who fills all my needs, and I believe he is the Savior. Remembering what this woman did, I want to work for him and his people without hesitation. Once we receive the living water, we cannot stop sharing God’s story out of joy.
Through the Eyes of Another reports what this story has meant to groups of people around the world. Here, summarized and paraphrased, is what I understand the Latino male prisoners in a Washington State jail to be saying about this story, as originally related by Chaplain Bob Eckblad:
Most of us think of God as being found in Catholic or evangelical churches and other religious places, or far away in heaven, looking at the earth from a distance. We don’t think of his meeting us where we work or where we go for pleasure. As far as the Bible is concerned, we are afraid of what it says. We think it will confirm our worst fears: that we are damned because we cannot succeed at obeying the rules or that it will put new demands on us. We do not see the Bible as offering good news for us. We think of God along with the state, both of which have power over us.
Standing with Jesus, whose request shows total solidarity with us in our thirst, seems to challenge the entire system.
As we talked about the story of this woman who has had five husbands, we finally saw that Jesus comes to people right where they are, no matter what they’re doing or if they’ve messed up.
Nancy V. Lee is a member of Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va.
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Nancy V. Lee is a member of Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va.