An old well. A tree or two to provide shade. Different paths leading to and from the well. Jesus comes from one direction (not the English-Irish pop boy band). The woman of Samaria travels from another. The disciples pass her on their way to find food. It never occurred to them that the next time their paths cross her life would be radically different. Was it a chance encounter? Was it just two strangers who happen to be at the same place at the same time?
Never underestimate the grace potential found in random moments. The unexpected has within it the seeds of potential new life. Chance encounters are pregnant with possibility. We are told that Jesus “had to go through Samaria” (John 4:4). It may have been the shortest route but for a Jew, travelling through Samaria was not really an option. With their complicated past, Jews tried to stay away from Samaritan territory. Jesus is in Jerusalem when he met Nicodemus. He was celebrating the Passover. After a while he goes to the Judean countryside. But now it was time to head back to Galilee.
Samaria is between Judea and Galilee. It makes sense to travel through Samaria but sometimes it is better to set a route that stays away from bad blood. In high school we stayed away from the hallway where our ex-girlfriend went to her locker. As grown ups, we take the long way to the restroom so we don’t have to go past the cubicle of the one who beat us to the promotion.
When the kingdom was divided Samaria becomes the capital of the Northern kingdom. In 722 BC the city falls to the Assyrians. They carry most of the leading citizens to places in Syria and Babylon. The Assyrians replace the deported Israelites with foreign colonist. These newcomers intermarry with the remaining Israelites. Eventually begin to call themselves Samaritans. They worship the God of Israel but we are also told they continued to import pagan gods from Assyria, “Every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the people of Samaria had made” (2 Kings 17:29).
A group of Jews, led by Zerubbabel, return from Babylonian exile, the Samaritans offer to help rebuild the temple. The returning Jews refuse their help. The Samaritans write a letter to the Persian king convincing the king that the temple in Jerusalem should not be rebuilt. The Jews are forced to cease work until King Darius of Persia comes to reign (read it in Ezra 4). Later, Nehemiah was opposed by the Samaritans in the rebuilding (Nehemiah 2 – 6). In an attempt to restore the racial purity of the people, Ezra, the priest, pressures all the Israelite men who marry foreign wives during the captivity to divorce their wives (Ezra 10:18-44). As you can imagine, all of this presents a huge challenge for the Samaritans and the Jews to live together in harmony. The final straw is that eventually the Samaritans build a rival temple on Mount Gerizim.
Jesus going”through Samaria” speaks to his mission more than his travel itinerary. Following Jesus means we are not afraid to do the hard things. We are not afraid to ask the real questions. Following Jesus means we are willing to be boundary-breaking radicals for the sake of peace and reconciliation. It means we are not afraid to go into territory that no one else dares tread. If Jesus would have followed his religion and culture, he would have went another way. If Jesus would have listened to common opinion, he would have stayed away from Samaria. Instead he did the right thing. He did the one thing necessary so that a bridge of reconciliation might be crossed between a Jew and a Samaritan.
What right thing is being asked of you right now? What bridge is waiting to be crossed toward the way of reconciliation? What boundary-breaking step needs to be taken so that forgiveness and mercy can be received? What hate must be destroyed? What prejudice must be removed? May it be said of all of us who follow Jesus, “She had to go through Samaria. It was where her faith led her.”
The sun is directly above. Jesus is weary from his travel. She comes to the well at the wrong time. Most women came early in the morning before the sun had time to heat up the desert. For some reason, she comes alone in the heat of the day to draw water. Jesus asks, “Give me a drink” (4:7). “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria,” She replies. (4:9)? Other words, “Are you an idiot! You know our past. You know we don’t associate with one another. And you are a man and I am a woman. Plus, you didn’t even bring a bucket. How can you hang out at a well and expect something to drink and not bring a bucket?” As the conversation continues and Jesus speaks to the core of her identity, she replies, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet” (4:19). The Samaritan woman is making a confession of faith by declaring she has “seen” Jesus. She understands him to be more than a thirsty Jew who just so happened to be hanging out beside Jacob’s well in the middle of the afternoon. Throughout the Gospel of John, the idea of light and “seeing” stood for those who came to believe in Jesus. In John 8:12 Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” The Gospel begins by affirming Jesus as the light that “shines in the darkness” (1:5).
Her realization of who Jesus is has led her to ask the central question that has divided her people from the Jews for centuries, “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem” (4:20). I disagree with those who say she is trying to change the subject. I believe she realizes that she is standing in the presence of the one who speaks truth and because of that she needs to know what is true about one of the core foundations of what she believes about herself and her people. The light of Jesus creates a hunger to know truth.
He responds, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (4:21). The Samaritans believed God’s presence was on Mount Gerizim. The Jews believed that God’s presence was experienced in Jerusalem at the Temple. Jesus says, “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him” (4:23). Don’t think we can pin God down in a building or a specific location. Jesus says, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (4:24). If Jesus believed God could be wrapped up in a specific religion, he would have never gone into Samaria. If Jesus was convinced that God could only reside in one place, he would have stayed in Jerusalem. But as we have seen in his conversation with Nicodemus, “the Spirit blows where it wants.”
Now this doesn’t mean that Jesus believes God is universal and can be worshiped in any way that someone desires. Jesus does believe in the particularity of salvation. There is a true way and that way is through him. He says, “For salvation is from the Jews” (4:22). Salvation through Jesus is a part of the narrative of the Jewish story because Jesus is a child of Abraham.
She sees Jesus because Jesus has seen her. He recognizes her. He speaks to her. Her offers her a gift of living water that quenches more than her physical thirst. Jesus sees her worth. He sees her value. He sees her significance. All of which she probably didn’t see in herself. Jesus spoke to her past with truth and yet, with compassion. Jesus is inviting her to not be defined by her circumstances. He offers her an identity that lifts her above the shame that she carries. As a result, she recognizes she is in the presence of someone special. Jesus sees us beyond our shame. He has the power to remove our guilt. He adds value to our life. He reminds us of our worth.
In the presence of someone so great we can’t help but be excited. She leaves her water bucket and goes back into town. She says, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he” (4:28, 29)? The town folks go and see for themselves. Jesus stays with them for two days. After the two days, the people say to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you have said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world” (4:42).
Everyone who has been touched by Jesus has a “come and see” story. The woman of Samaria can’t wait to tell her neighbors about Jesus. She invites them to “come and see.” After Jesus calls Philip to follow him, he invites his friend Nathaniel to “come and see” (John 1:46). When you have truly experienced the grace of God, you will want to invite others to “come and see” for themselves the one who offers this grace. When you have tasted the forgiveness of God, you will want others to “come and see” this one who offers forgiveness. Being a witness is a response to encountering the love of God in Jesus. When was the last time you invited someone to “come and see” what Jesus can do for them? When was the last time you said to someone “come and see” as a response to a changed life that can be found in Jesus?
The woman was so eager to get back to town that she leaves her bucket behind, “The woman left her water jar and went back to the city” (4:28). The bucket is the thing that carried her need. It is her security. It represents her sense of identity. She is the woman at the well. After meeting Jesus, she leaves it behind. The water he offers is a spring of living water that cannot be kept in a bucket. It flows from the inside. It is an eternal water source that quenches the deepest of thirst.
If her bucket represents all that is important to her, then she has reason to leave it behind after meeting Jesus. What do you need to leave behind? What are some things that you are carrying in your bucket that you need to no longer carry after encountering Jesus? What are you trying to quench your thirst with? It will never satisfy. It will always have you coming back to the well. It will have you always trying to run in shame, hide in guilt, and ignore the truth in front of you.