19 March 2017
Third Sunday in Lent
Lent 3A (RCL)
Most of the patriarchs met their wives at a well. Abraham’s servant met Rebekah at the well at Nahor, in the evening, “the time when women go out to draw water” (Genesis 24:11). Jacob met Rachel at the well at Haran, in broad daylight (Genesis 29:7). Moses met Zipporah at a well in Midian (Exodus 2:15). The stories of the Patriarchs and the story of Moses were initially the founding stories of Israel, the Northern Kingdom of the United Monarch under David. John is certainly aware of these stories and aware of their connection to the Northern Kingdom, whose capital was at Samaria.
The story of the woman at the well is complex and layered. Much like Nicodemus serves as a foil for the Pharisees as a group, the woman stands in for Samaritans as a whole. When Jesus asks of her a drink, in line with the patriarchal stories, he is initiating a much deeper relationship with her. Her surprise at his request (What have you, a Jew, to do with me, a Samaritan woman?) points to a much more complex set a animosities. Jesus’ offer to give her living water echoes Moses striking the rock in the wilderness from which gushed forth living water. Her question, “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob (Israel)?” is deeply ironic. We, the reader, know the answer in a way she does not yet.
Jesus then invites her to go call her husband and come back. In much of the prophetic literature, God is seen as Israel’s husband. In some Semitic languages, a single word means both husband and lord. Part of the hatred that existed between Jews and Samaritans had to do with Israel’s conquest by Assyria, and the resettlement of foreigners in Samaria. The Northern Kingdom had had five overlords since its first collapse: Assyria, Babylon, the Medes, Persia and finally Alexander. Each had imposed the worship of its own gods on the region. And now, Rome was overlord, with its chaos of gods and Emperor worship. At the level of the narrative, the woman’s status raises questions. She had been widowed and/or divorced five times, and probably married off to a dead husband’s brother more than once. Her status, and Jesus’ willingness to speak to her, is as much an indictment of the social system responsible for that status as of her.
Samaria’s status as a once-great kingdom, now conquered and oppressed, and Jesus’ willingness to speak to a Samaritan is as much an indictment of the Jewish hatred of Samaritans as it is of the Samaritan predicament itself. When Jesus invites her to bring her husband, the woman and Jesus enter into a theological debate, about the correct place to worship God, the correct mode of worship, and the expectation of the Messiah. This debate makes it clear that John has in view the complicated religious history of Samaria as much as the complicated personal history of the woman. The fact that he opens the story with a meeting at well indicates that he means to overlap the two histories. This is a love story between God and Samaria as much as between Jesus and the woman.
Interestingly, the woman leaves with well without filling her water jar. Indeed, she leaves the jar at the well. Neither she nor Jesus got a drink of the water from the well. Presumably, she has begun to taste the water welling up in her to eternal life. When the disciples come, they urge Jesus to eat, but he claims to have food they do not know about. When he encourages them to look around at the fields ripe for harvest, he is including in that view the Samaritans athirst for God. This story probably reflects (in much the same way as in Acts 8:4-25) the Samaritan “mission” — others had laboed to plant the word, and now the disciples could reap the harvest.
When the villagers from Sychar meet Jesus, and after hearing him for two days, they confess him to be “the Savior of the world.” That was a title of Augustus, and his successors, granted him for bringing an end to the civil wars. The Samaritans were now married to their true lord.
The complexity of the story invites us to see our own situations in it. Who do we despise in the same way society then despised multiply-married women? Who do we despise the way the Jews did the Samaritans (as conquered people and half-breeds)? Precisely these people will reveal to us the true nature of Jesus, if we are willing to engage them in conversation. However, first, their very existence and our despite will indict us and the systems of society that put them in that position in the first place. They, in turn, will evangelize others (the orthodox consider the Samaritan woman the proto-evangelist).
And if water stands as a sign for the spirit in John’s Gospel, it is from the restoration of such relationships, the restoration of the despised into the community, that the Spirit will issue forth in abundance.