Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO
THE SAMARITAN WOMAN AT THE WELL
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Last Sunday at Evensong, Jenny Wilson preached on the same Gospel passage that I will be preaching on this morning. Her beautiful sermon, part of the Lenten Just Water series, focussed on the living water of Jesus through the lens of Celtic spirituality. This morning I want to focus on the Samaritan woman herself.
Who was she? What sort of woman was she? And where and how does she fit into the Gospel narrative?
Some uphold that Samaritan woman must have been a marginalised woman, an outcast; perhaps a woman of low repute, for she was much married and she was out in the middle of the day on her own at the well, culturally odd for the time. Just two weeks’ ago we saw Justin Butcher’s comment about her in his amazing play “The Devil’s Passion: or Easter in Hell”. This is what he said:
… and along comes a woman, a Samaritan, bold as brass – the village bicycle by all accounts. Five husbands down and a new one on the go. Does he denounce her, send her packing, drag her through the dust? No he asks her for a drink!
Last Sunday, Jenny noted that the well in Biblical settings could be a place of tryst – Rebekah and Isaac met at a well (Genesis 24:10-27), so too did Rachel and Jacob (Genesis 29:1-12) and Zipporah and Moses (Exodus 2:15-17). So what was intended by the Gospel writer relating this encounter of Jesus with a woman at a well – and not just any well but a significant one both in Judaic history (Jacob’s Well) but also in the context of Jewish-Samaritan relations, for the location, Sychar, was at the epicentre of contested territory between the Samaritans and Jews?
Early readers and listeners of this passage would have felt perplexed at this juxtaposition of the encounter of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at such a significant place. Surely the story could not suggest a type of Biblical e-Harmony?
Firstly the woman was a Samaritan, something that itself would have shocked the disciples seeing Jesus in conversation with her – this conversation incidentally is the longest recorded of any of Jesus’ conversations anywhere in the gospels.
Secondly, she was by some suggestions, a woman of dubious morals. Married five times? Paraphrasing Oscar Wilde and his comment on losing parents, losing one husband might be a misfortune, but losing five ‘looks like carelessness’.
But there is a case which the Samaritan woman is entitled to have considered in her defence. To explain this case, let me first tell a story about Agnes Hamilton, one of my eight great-great grandmothers. She had gone out to India with her soldier husband, only to be widowed there within the space of just over a year. Then, barely six months later, she married again. When, through researching family history, we first discovered this brevity of grieving, we were a little disconcerted; until that is when, sometime later, we read that widows of East India Company soldiers received absolutely no support and were thus economically obliged to seek new partners as soon as possible after the death of husbands. Indeed a story has been told of a grieving widow from the British garrison town of Berhampore who had just returned from the out of town cemetery where her husband had just been buried. Upon reaching the town, a captain of the regiment went up to her and asked, with all politeness, if the woman would do him the honour of becoming his wife. The woman burst into tears, leading the abashed captain to say: ‘Madam, please forgive me; how could I have been so insensitive as to propose marriage to you on the very day of your husband’s funeral?’; to which the woman replied: ‘Oh no Sir, it is not that at all; I am crying because I have just accepted a sergeant’s proposal of marriage half way back to town.’
So, there is every chance that the Samaritan woman had probably first been married at a very young age to an older man and upon his death had had to secure her future by remarrying; and misfortune having struck again and again, remarried again and again.
Furthermore, there is one other clue in John’s Gospel that suggests the Samaritan woman was held in greater esteem within her community than many others have since believed. Verses 28-30 of John 4 tell us:
Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people. Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ? They came out of the town and made their way toward him.
This could not have been a woman who was shunned by the townspeople; this was someone they would be quite prepared to listen to and be impressed by what she said. Why else would they have come out of the town to find Jesus after hearing her story about Jesus having known everything she had ever done?
And let’s consider for a moment precisely what it was that Jesus indicated he did know about her. He had told her that he knew about her previous marriages and her current unmarried relationship. The presumption of many interpreters has been that Jesus related this aspect of her life from a critical perspective. But there is no evidence to support that – there was no concomitant call by Jesus to ‘go and sin no more’; instead he simply acknowledged the veracity of the woman’s statement. Jesus had simply confirmed the truth of the woman’s marital past; he did not, in this episode, cast any judgment upon the interesting nature of that marital past. In other words he was decidedly not saying ‘I know your secret’; rather he was letting her know just how omniscient he was; that he could know the personal history of a woman whom he had never met before from a town that he had probably never been to before. And the Samaritan women interpreted the incident the same way; she did not hear judgmentalism from this encounter with a stranger, she heard a prescience that not only amazed her, but awed her. So awed was she that she would drop her water jar and go tell her fellow townspeople: ‘Could this be the Christ?’ The episode had led her to assess Jesus to be a prophet not a judge.
Furthermore, this woman was clearly a person of an inquiring and thoughtful mind. Note her question to Jesus about the contention between the Jews and the Samaritans about the competing claims of Mt Gerizin versus Mt Zion as to which was the holiest of places. Her question and Jesus’ answer would be of such importance, that of all the events in Jesus’ life about which John said ‘if every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written’, John chose this one to be included in his gospel. For Jesus’ answer would be his first intimation of the universality of God and he would underscore the point by making it not to a Jew but to a Samaritan:
A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.
More than that, Jesus would continue his teaching by saying:
Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth.
And here it was, because of this, that this solitary woman standing by Jacob’s Well would enter history and theology – theologos – the knowledge of God.
This Samaritan woman who remains anonymous in western Christianity has received very different treatment over the past two millennia from the eastern church. For a start she has been accorded a name – Photine, meaning the luminous one. The early church father Origen would say of her:
Jesus … uses the woman as an apostle … to those in the city. His words to her are so forceful that she leaves her water jar to go to the city and tells them to her fellow townspeople.
And the fifth century orthodox hymnographer, Romanus Melodus, wrote this about her:
She departed bearing water; she became a bearer of God; and who does not bless this woman; or rather who does not revere her … as she brings exceeding great joy and redemption.
Here, hidden in an encounter that includes the longest recorded conversation of Jesus, occurs an amazing occurrence. By this point in John’s narrative a number of significant events had already taken place – Jesus coming into the world (the Word made flesh), Jesus encountering John the Baptist (his incarnate spirit attested to by God), Jesus calling the disciples (the call to ministry), Jesus partying hard (turning water into wine), Jesus rejecting crass commercialism (overturning the tables in the Temple), Jesus’ counselling the Pharisee Nicodemus (declaring the call of God) and then the conclusive testimony of John the Baptist. After all this happens, Jesus walked into Sychar, the town where Jacob’s well was located, a town on the tense frontier of Jewish and Samaritan worlds. The human side of Jesus was tired from a long day’s walk, the heat of the day was strong; most people had sheltered in the cool of their homes or workplaces – almost no-one was out on the streets. Tired and thirsty, Jesus asked the one person he encountered for a drink – a woman, a Samaritan woman. Whether he ever got his drink we will never know – but what we do know (from John 4:39) is that the outcome was that:
Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.
Thus a woman, an alien, a person of interesting life history, would become the first evangelist.
I have posited a view that the Samaritan woman was of better character than has often been assumed. What if that is not correct and that the woman was of dubious character? A woman, as St Augustine wrote, who ‘cast out lust and hurried to proclaim the truth’. Well, even so, nothing from the reported incident changes. The two met, Jesus revealed the woman’s history but, and note this well, did not either condemn her or call her to repentance. Instead of condemnation he offered salvation through grace. And so, St Augustine would conclude about the encounter that the Samaritan woman:
… received Christ the Lord into her heart, what could she do now but leave her water jar and run to preach the gospel?
A key point is that the climax of the gospel story had the woman leaving her water jar not her unmarried relationship as she rushed to relate the encounter with Jesus. Leaving a water jar by a well, what an ordinary act for John to focus on in retelling the incident. Maybe that is precisely the point that he wanted to relate – the Samaritan woman left her ordinariness to do something extraordinary. And from other New Testament references that was something extraordinary that she did. In the Acts of the Apostles we read of Philip going to Samaria to evangelise and that the Samaritans ‘gave heed with one accord’ (Acts 8:5). And then the report of Peter and John having success in bringing new converts amongst the Samarians (8:14-25). Through these later fruits of conversion, one can recall what Jesus said to his disciples after the encounter with the Samaritan woman:
One sows and another reaps is true. [John 4:37]
The Samaritan woman, having received the truth from Jesus, sowed the seeds amongst her kinspeople. And then later, after the Resurrection, the disciples would go to reap the harvest amongst them.
Knowing so much more about how things turned out than this Samaritan woman could ever know – Christ’s defeat of death through his resurrection; the victory of God’s grace over brokenness and the centuries of faithful testimony of countless Christians since then – what else can we do but consider how we might leave our jar of earthly water, our own ordinariness to partake of ‘a spring of water welling up to eternal life’, so that we might sow seeds of truth in others?