Whatever is Jesus doing up in Samaritan hill country? He’s Jewish and Samaritans aren’t. (Jn. 4ff)
They had a cordial hatred of each other, Jews and Samaritans. And for the usual reasons: it was religious, doctrinal, cultural, ethnic, political — all of those things. They were kissing cousins, really, but neither strayed near the other’s temple. A stinging criticism of Jesus (Jn. 8:48) from the Pharisees alleged he was a Samaritan, and had a demon. Why stop with one insult when you add a second, plus include an ethnic slur?
To a Jewish listener the “Good Samaritan” was an oxymoron. No Samaritan was good. That was just one strange story for Jesus to tell a Jewish audience, back in the day.
If you were a good Jewish boy from an average Jewish community you would have been warned from puberty on, stay away from Samaritan women. A snatch of folk lyric always comes to mind when I read this account: Leave them downtown women alone.
Jesus is at the well in the noontide heat and a Samaritan woman comes out, alone. Clearly, this looks like a woman to avoid.
There is a feeling that what she wanted you couldn’t take home in a bucket. Maybe for good reason. It appears to be the way John deliberately shaped his Gospel: Jesus is the new bridegroom and the woman represents all of us as the new bride. The scene resembles Jacob’s first encounter with Rachel, without the kissing. Jacob had swept Rachel up and kissed her. At the same well, you know. (Gen. 29:11)
At the well this time, Jesus talks about thirst and living water. “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Sure, but not yet. First, your life must flash before your eyes.
“You have had five husbands,” he points out, “and the one you are with now is not your husband.” Ouch. Nothing hurts as much as the truth, people say.
How does somebody go through five husbands, or five wives? This just isn’t the sort of thing that normally should happen to normal people. A woman with five former husbands and a live-in-of-the-moment, something’s wrong. One could make some very harsh judgments here. How would she fare under Twitter and Facebook scrutiny?
Some people get themselves in awful fixes they can’t get themselves out of; fixes not always of their own making, but fixes nonetheless. And once in a fix, it is so hard to break the pattern.What does this woman at heart truly seek? She wanted out of her fix, I’d suppose. So, in the noontide heat, alone, she sees a new guy at the well and saunters up bringing a bucket.
She is at the well alone because she is ostracized and shunned? She is not welcome to accompany the village women in the morning? She must wait? She has no women companions to hear her story, wipe her tears, or help her laugh?
It is Jesus who confesses his thirst, but she recognizes her thirst as well. In knowing that need, she glimpses a healing reality and escape from the fix she’s in.
There are some things to admire about her. She’s feisty, isn’t she? She is bold enough to remind him of what separates them — he a Jew and she a Samaritan. She also asserts what connects them, their mutual ancestor, Jacob. She is audacious, verbally sparring with Jesus, invoking the Messiah who will explain all things to them both.
But she is not much admired in the biblical interpretations of western Christians. That five husband’s thing, I think, sort of diminishes any respect for her. But among other Christian communities she is remembered and honored and regarded as an equal to the apostles themselves. She’s the first among Samaritans to assert faith in Jesus as the Christ.
In the Eastern Church, she is named St. Photini, honored as an equal of the apostles, for she is the first to summon others to this thirsty man at the well, wondering he might be the Christ.
Jesus tarries in the Samaritan village two days. The episode concludes, “Many in the village came to believe in him because of the woman’s testimony.”
On another day, a Friday noon, Jesus will again confess his thirst. He will not receive the sweet water of Jacob’s well, but only sour wine squeezed from a sponge. Afterward, on the third day, his disciples will remember this encounter of water and a woman at Jacob’s well. Only then will they announce to the world what the Samaritan woman had already learned: Jesus is the drink to satisfy our thirst for eternity.
Russell E. Saltzman publishes every Tuesday and Thursday usually by noon Central Time. He can be reached on Twitter as @RESaltzman, on Facebook as Russ Saltzman, and by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.