Summary: The Samaritan woman at the well was an unlikely candidate to become one of Jesus' first evangelists, yet that's exactly what she was. Jesus extended grace to the Samaritan woman, which changed her. How could she help but share the good news!
This morning, we sit down at the “foot” of Jacob’s Well. This passage from John about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well just outside of Sychar is rich with messages and lessons for all who seek Jesus. One commentator reflected that this is “a text with it’s own bucket, ready for filling. Let it down again and again, each time it comes up with another sermon of living water, another deep drink from the well that will not go dry.” How very true that is! There’s the message of “living water,” within this passage, there is a message about reaping the harvest (though I did not read this part this morning). This passage is rich in significance for our lives. But this morning, as will be the case for the next several weeks, we are going to focus on the woman at the center of this passage. The Samaritan woman who has come to Jacob’s Well in the middle of the day to draw water, but who ends up having an unexpected, life-changing encounter with a Jew named Jesus.
Just as there is a lot to take in with this passage as a whole, so there is also much to be learned from the woman herself. Let’s start with the fact that she’s a Samaritan. Samaria is the name given to the land between Galilee in the North, and Judea in the south. If one is traveling from North to South, as John tells us Jesus and his disciples were doing, the natural root is through Samaria. But Jews often avoided this route so they could avoid the Samaritans. Any of us who have even a cursory knowledge of the New Testament know that the Samaritans were not so very well-liked to say the least, and the Jews and Samaritans really didn’t get along well at all. In order to understand why, though, we have to go way back in Jewish history, to more than 400 years before Jesus’ birth. During the Babylonian exile, most of the Jews were carted out of their homeland and distributed elsewhere around the Babylonian Empire. In this time of exile, many Jewish practices came to be influenced by the cultural tendencies of the Babylonians. But there were some Jews who remained in the area of Judea, and so they came to view themselves as the only true descendants of Abraham because they were the only ones not influenced by outside forces. They came to be known as Samaritans, and they opposed the return of the Jewish exiles after the end of Babylonian occupation. The Samaritans and the Jews also disagreed about the place of true worship; the Jewish people, of course, pointed to the Temple in Jerusalem, while the Samaritans believed God’s dwelling was the Temple on Mount Gerizim.
In any case, the Jews and Samaritans at their worst would get involved in skirmishes, with bloodshed and murder, but at best they still avoided each other at all costs and simply did not mix. “The Jews wouldn’t have anything to do with the Samaritans. They would, especially, not share eating and drinking vessels with them. And yet, Jesus [asks] this woman for a drink.”
Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well was a sign not only of Jesus’ mission beyond the Jewish people to Samaritans and Gentiles and many others, but also something much greater. Because, you see, this woman was a Samaritan, but she also seemed to have a somewhat questionable past….and don’t we all?!? Many theologians over the years have pointed to this woman from Sychar as some sort of sinful adulteress. How else could you explain five husbands and a live-in boyfriend? But John does not tell us that this woman is an adulterer; nor does he say that she is even a sinner. And Jesus never forgives any sin. Yet it seems fair to say that there was something in this woman’s life that she was ashamed of. We can discern this because she came to the well outside of the city in the middle of the day. It was, indeed, customary for women to gather water from the well each day, but the women would usually go to the well first thing in the morning so that they could collect their water supply for the day. And there was a well within the Sychar town limits, so there was really no reason for this woman to traipse out of town in the middle of the day to get the water; unless she was afraid to interact with the other women of the town and ashamed to be seen by them.
Yet, whatever her colorful past, no matter her gender, or even her heritage as a Samaritan, when this woman encountered Jesus at the well, none of those things were of any consequence. He asked her for a drink of water from Jacob’s Well, and here is the next thing that is noteworthy about this woman. She was willing. She willingly dropped the bucket down into the deep well and drew cold, fresh, water to serve to Jesus. And that one action, willingly taken, to serve a stranger in need, was the beginning of this woman’s salvation journey. Jesus engaged her in conversation, debate, even. They talked about the well and it’s connection to their ancestor Jacob. Jesus told her about “living water,” and offered her a drink, even as she collected water for him. Then they talked about the woman’s life. The conversation was to be completely transformational for the woman. Though she didn’t initially understand what “living water” was, by the time she was on her way back to Sychar to tell the village people about her encounter at the well, she must have known that it had something to do with being valued even when you feel ashamed.