“The woman at the well” – the Samaritan woman with whom Jesus has a long conversation – is the text (John 4:25-42) we’re studying for Sunday, February 7. Actually, we’re focusing on the end of the conversation and its aftermath, the belief of “many” in the woman’s town. But we’ll probably want to look at the beginning of the episode, too, which starts at the beginning of John 4. Notes on this text might seem redundant, since it’s both familiar and widely commented on. [Some questions on the text are here.] Nevertheless, here are my notes on this text:
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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are reading in the gospel of John, also known as “the fourth gospel.” It’s different: it has a lot of unique material and a somewhat different chronology from the synoptics, it spotlights different characters (like Andrew, Philip, and Thomas), and it uses a different literary style. Jesus has long conversations with people, that are full of repeating symbols: day and night, light and dark, sight, water, word, among others. There is a lot of irony in John, especially because Jesus speaks metaphorically about spiritual matters, while many of his listeners take him literally, at least at first. Jesus’s conversation with the Samaritan woman has all these features.

Show of hands: who has never heard a sermon on this text? Thought so.

Because everyone who has spent any time in church has probably heard multiple sermons on this text, “everyone knows” some things about it already:

  • Jews hated Samaritans and vice versa, so it would be strange for Jesus to strike up a conversation with a Samaritan.
  • Jewish men were not supposed to talk with women who weren’t their family members, so it would have been strange for Jesus [a man] to strike up a casual conversation with this particular Samaritan [a woman].
  • It was normal for women to have the task of fetching water; however, normally this was a social task, and normally groups of women would fetch water in the morning or the evening, when it was cool. This woman is coming to the well at “the sixth hour,” that is, at noon, alone. This means [possibly or definitely, depending on who we heard this from] she is avoiding the other women of the town, and we will find out why [possibly or definitely, again depending] as the conversation proceeds.
  • This is a woman with a bad reputation. [That might be the most neutral way to phrase this. We could think of other ways. All of them have to do with s.e.x.]
  • The well is famous, by the way: “Jacob’s well.” This comes up in the conversation, too.

Let’s try not to forget that when everyone already knows all about a Bible story, sometimes we miss things that are right there in front of us.

I for one am dumbfounded that people do not remark a lot more often on the contrast between the night setting of the conversation with Nicodemus in the last chapter, and the middle of the day setting of this conversation, in light of John’s FAMOUS use of time of day to symbolize spiritual understanding. Sheesh, people. Whether John is telling us that this woman is alert, or that she can see clearly, or that some clear teaching is about to happen, or what, it would be hard for John to have made this conversation any more pointed of a contrast to that last conversation. Without hitting us readers over the head with a big, thick theology textbook.

[My observation: “The Jews” of the first century were not the only people who ever had difficulties taking women seriously as conversation partners. Just sayin’.]

John 4:5-42 is the lectionary gospel reading for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year A. It is paired up with Exodus 17:1-7, in which Moses gets water from the rock at Massah/Meribah.

[Why not Genesis 29, the one about Jacob meeting Rachel at a well, which is one clear literary antecedent of this text? Why not Genesis 34 or Genesis 37, which refer to Jacob’s close association with Shechem, a location that either is, or is near, the setting of this story, “a Samaritan city called Sychar”? OK, just kidding about Genesis 34, I can see why people wouldn’t want to hear that in church. But why not Deuteronomy 11, which refers to “the blessing on Mt. Gerizim” – again, a location near the physical setting of this story, and specifically referred to in this story, because of its ritual significance for the Samaritans? In other words, why push us in the direction of reading that Exodus text as “really” being about Jesus? Hmm. Well, not my call.]

For more on the Samaritans, there is a short article at Bible Odyssey, which points out that the Samaritans of Jesus’s day rejected the messianic eschatology familiar to the Jewish community. Doesn’t that make the woman’s claim to “know that Messiah is coming, the one called Christ” seem a little peculiar? Folks interested in diving down that particular rabbit hole might be interested in a long discussion of “the Samaritan messiah” that includes some commentary on John 4 – evidently the Samaritans have their own messianic eschatology – or a discussion of a much more recent Samaritan source that includes Samaritan liturgy that links “buckets of water” to the Samaritans’ eschatological prophet. Hmm.

There is more on contemporary Samaritans (there are some) here.
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CLOSER READING: It seems important to note that the woman mentions “our father Jacob” in verse 12, and “our fathers” in verse 20, both of which lead up to Jesus’s discussion of the worship of “the Father” in verses 21-24.

It also seems significant, surely, that “our father Jacob” would be a common ancestor of the Samaritans and the Jews. The woman’s speech in verse 12, mentioning that Jacob himself drank from this well, and his sons, and his cattle (a word that calls to mind a lot of baby animals, maybe), seems likely to be meaningful, because it is so ridiculously specific. Who talks like this? Unless their author is making some point. But what point? Good question.

Jesus’s point is that Jacob and his whole family – by extension, all the children of Israel – would have drunk this literal, material water and “thirsted again.” Unlike the people who receive Jesus’s kind of living water. The kind of father that Jacob is, the kind of father the fathers who prescribe worship on Mt. Gerizim are, is a different kind of Father than the Father Jesus is talking about worshipping in verses 21-24.

More like the kind of Father whose children would be “born from above.” [Because I think we’re supposed to remember that whole conversation from chapter 3.]

The kind of Father who seeks true worshippers who will worship in spirit and truth. And worship is clearly the main issue here, because it is stressed by repetition. The word “worship” in some form occurs ten times between verse 20 and verse 24.

Although Jesus comes right out and says “I am” – that is, “I am the Messiah” – here, the woman will present her invitation to the people of her town more tentatively, suggesting they themselves assess the possibility that Jesus is the Messiah. She will use language that has come up in this gospel before: “Come and see.” (See John 1:39, John 1:46.) We might want to ask ourselves why she does this, and what her approach tells us, if anything, about successful evangelism.

In verse 27, the disciples return from their shopping trip. Although they are astounded that Jesus is talking with a woman, they don’t ask him any questions. This is something the author points out specifically, so again, we might want to ask ourselves why it matters. The author uses the term “seeks,” which Jesus used earlier to describe the activity of the Father. The author seems to want to let us know that Jesus IS seeking something here.

Jesus will proceed to tell his disciples that he is trying to do the will of his Father. That nourishes him. We may be meant to recall this conversation when we get to the next chapters, about Jesus doing the Father’s work, and about being the bread from heaven.

One commentator suggested that Jesus’s remark about the fields being “white” and ready for harvest referred to seeing people, dressed in white, coming from the nearby town. This might make sense. On the other hand, he might be speaking more metaphorically.

The Samaritans of the town will press Jesus to stay with them; he stays two days. Whether this is significant as being short of a perfect number isn’t entirely clear. The narrator’s comment might nudge us in this direction, but it seems out of synch with what seems to have been a very positive reception in Sychar.

Because I’m under the influence of reading a book about literature, it occurs to me to notice something about the movement of the characters in the story. Jesus comes to the well. Then the woman comes to the well, to get [literal] water. They have a conversation. The disciples come back from town, with [literal] food – but no people. Then the woman leaves her [literal water] bucket at the well with Jesus, runs back to town, carrying a message about Jesus [metaphorical spiritual water?], shares that with people, and comes back to the well [of metaphorical living spiritual water?] with a lot of people. If Jesus’s food is to do the will of the Father, and if that involves sharing his identity as Savior of the world with people, the woman seems to have managed to bring Jesus a fair amount of [metaphorical] food from town, at the same time she brought the first drops of [metaphorical spiritual living] water to the townspeople. Neat.
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One thing we might take away: this Samaritan woman offers a model response to Jesus.
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Mosaic of eagle representing St John the Evangelist

Image: “St. John mosaic, All Hallows, Allerton,” by Rodhullandemu, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons