Sometimes I think that we are perennially fixed on the sin of others because this distracts us from our own. Most people who know anything at all about the most classic stories in scripture know about “The Woman at the Well”. If you ask most folks to tell you something about this story they can readily tell you that this woman was a sinner and not much else. Too bad, because that limited view point robs one of the richest and most joyful parts of this story. How can there be joy in sin you say? Depends on what you have eyes to see!
The details of this story (Jn 4:5-42) are at once elegant and tantalizing. Jesus has been left behind by his disciples who have gone off to buy food. He remains at Jacob’s well in the heat of the day (noon) and makes a clear declaration that he is thirsty while addressing a woman who is there drawing water. In the dessert culture, no one went to get water in the hottest part of the day; all were in the shade somewhere waiting for the worst heat to pass. The presence of this woman at this time of the day was out of the ordinary. Many have speculated at the reasons this woman was there, drawing water, at a time that didn’t make sense for the culture. Some say she was a woman of the night, some say she wanted to avoid confrontation or ridicule, some say that she did not want to subject herself to taunts and/or “dust ups” from the other women of the community who would have been present at the “usual time” for fetching water, in the cool of the early morning. Whatever is true, it is clear that her presence at the well at this time is not a mistake. Whatever is going on, isolation from the community was her reality. As a matter of fact, everything going on at Jacob’s well, that day was unusual. She was clearly shocked to see a Jewish man there and a Rabbi none the less. As a Samaritan, she is unusually brusque in addressing Jesus and tells him literally that he does not know what he is doing by speaking to her! She continues her rudeness as she points out to him that he doesn’t even have a bucket to draw from the well, in their second exchange. Samaritans were regarded with spite by most Jews because they rejected most of the Old Testament, diluted their Jewish roots by mixed marriages and often taunted Jews. This woman’s “attitude” towards a Jewish man is clearly “toeing the line”.
Where ever life had taken this woman, it is clear that there is little joy and much anxiety surrounding her. She is confrontational at the mildest of challenges. To make matters worse, Jesus is coolly consistent and not at all miffed by her sharp tongue and aggressive manner. Perhaps this has always been a successful defense for her, but in this case it’s not working at all. Jesus does not tire of her “sass” and continues to lay down challenges that contradict her obvious intellect and knowledge of her ancestral faith. He shoots a final verbal dart right back at her; ”Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” She cannot resist the prompting of her own deep thirst and instantly responds; “Sir, give me this water so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” He is quick to accommodate her and openly declare that he himself is the Messiah that she has cited as coming. He takes full advantage of the tiny window into her spirit that has just been thrown open and says; “Go call your husband and come back.” In a clever side-step, she replies; ”I do not have a husband”, hoping not to cast sin upon herself to a stranger. She has been “living with” a man for a long time and he is not the first one. Jesus is not fooled by the smoke screen and in a factual, rather than accusing, reply tells her that she is right; “You are right in saying ‘I do not have a husband’, For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.” Who knows how many of these guys were “former” husbands of women in the region and the real reason that this woman was so hated by the village women? She is nonplused and spins off into a discussion about religion and where God is worshiped. This woman is “slick” and not easily flustered! Her reality is clearly all about living a life that she desires and taking up any defense she needs to do to affirm that.
Jesus presses on; he has not come to Jacob’s well for nothing. At the very end of their conversation, the disciples return and the intimate conversation between Jesus and the woman is broken up. The woman is not recorded as having an epiphany and/or telling Jesus that his arguments are right. Some of the final details, though, are telling. She departs hastily and leaves her jar behind. She openly goes into the town and engages the people. Her message is not confrontation, though. She boldly declares; “Come and see a man who has told me everything I have done.”
In the space of a few minutes and in the middle of a mundane household activity, drawing water, reality has been forever altered for the woman at the well. She doesn’t even have an "ah-ha moment" in the presence of Jesus. Later, though, after thinking about the conversation, despite all her side-steps and quasi-truths there is a change. The last phrase she tells the villagers is: “Could he possibly be the Christ?” Reality for her has been forever altered. She appears in public, she witnesses, she becomes the evangelizer inviting all to come and see him. A reality that she never imagined in all of her sin, defense and secrecy, has taken hold of her life. Life, new life has been given to her on the spot despite the fact that she is arrogant, defensive and sinful. If we are willing to engage Jesus “new reality” is our gift too. This can happen at any moment and might be where you least expect it. Keep your eyes and ears open and have your heart ready to engage Jesus wherever he might find you. It might not be in the cool and quite of a beautiful shrine or church. When Jesus wants to change your reality, don’t argue. With love, he won’t take no for an answer!
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Copyright © Lent 2011, Kathryn M. Cunningham, All Rights Reserved
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