By Cathy George
The story of the woman from Samaria who meets Jesus when she comes to draw water from the town well in the noonday heat is found only in John’s gospel. That gospel’s stories of Jesus focus on the healing power of friendship, of genuine human connection.
Sit at the well, stand at the shore, come and have breakfast, dip into the pool, drink, eat and talk. Jesus’ encounters bring people out of isolation as he steps into their life. The woman from Samaria needs to fill her bucket with water. Jesus needs a drink of water on a hot day. Their needs bring them to the water at the well. And the water they come for, in the connection that develops between them, becomes living water, welling up to eternal life, as the Scriptures put it.
I sense that Jesus found this quick-minded, bright woman, with her honest and forthright personality, a breath of fresh air. It might be that there were not many others in her life who saw her as Jesus did.
Between Galilee and the long walk to Jerusalem, you travel through the region of Samaria, unfamiliar and uncongenial country. Jews did not share a temple or Scriptures or familiar history with Samaritans. Different tribes of people were all together, which signals the reason the popular story of the Good Samaritan is so astounding. While the esteemed priest and politicians walk by that poor man, the supposed enemy, the Samaritan is the good person who stops and takes care of him.
On his way to the well, Jesus “had to go through Samaria,” the story tells us. Jesus comes from the lovely lakes region north of Jerusalem, the country of high lands, open places, rolling hills, and wide skies. This is where Jesus stands in all his glory on the hillside above the Sea of Galilee and preaches, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven,” words that lifted the hearts of the poor country folk who listened to him. Samaritans are not found in the Jewish region of Galilee. They are not welcome there.
Jesus stops and makes a friend in unfriendly territory. “Tired from the long walk,” the Scriptures tell us, Jesus “sat wearily beside the well about noontime.” The scandal of his talking to a woman in public, which was not allowed in this era, went deeper than that; he was a Jewish man speaking with a Samaritan woman, who was oddly fetching water at midday. No one did that unless they wanted to be sure to escape encountering others. Water is fetched in the early morning or before the evening meal, not during the oppressive heat of high noon.
Jesus arrives first, sits down at the side of the well, and she comes to draw water. The first thing he does is ask her for something — something right at hand. Jesus says, “Please, give me a drink.” It’s a unique and subtle form of evangelism. He does not say, “Hello, I am the son of the living God, and if you believe in me, you will be saved” No, he speaks out of his need and says, “Please give me a drink”. He does not tell her anything about what she needs. He is tired. The heat of the day is peaking; he asks for something he needs from her: “Please give me a drink.”
“You are a Jew,” she says, “I am a Samaritan woman, and you ask me for a drink?” Jews had no dealings with Samaritans, and she knew men did not speak to women. And he wasn’t asking for directions, so he could quickly get away from her. He was asking for a drink of water that would touch the flesh of his human lips, handed to him by the flesh of her unclean hands.
Their conversation is a humorous interplay of practical questions and spiritual answers. “You, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink of water?” Why? He answers, “If you only knew who this was speaking to you, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.” What?
“Hey,” she responds, “if you’ve got such great water to offer, smart guy, where is your rope and bucket?” She is no fool; she has had men promise her things without any ability to deliver. No rope and bucket? Don’t promise me water. And one more thing, she adds: “This well is deep — so where do you plan to get that living water? You have no rope and bucket? “Are you telling me that you have a source of water better than this well? A source greater than Jacob, who in this dry desert has given us this highly prized possession, that usually only rich people can use, but thanks to Jacob is a public well?”
This woman has carried water her whole life, for how many households, how many children? She adds the practical afterthought, once she hears Jesus say she will never be thirsty again, “and I will not have to come here day after day after day to draw water!”
Jesus sees her. His sight is filled with insight. He speaks to the truth of her life. Drink this water and 20 minutes down the hot dry road into town, you will be thirsty again. The water I have to offer you, the well inside me that gives life, is a divine, eternal source that will never go dry, run away, leave you alone, divorce you, or die on you.
And then it happens: this young prophet and this wise woman meet. “Go get your husband,” Jesus says, testing her, wondering if she will tell him the truth, and she tells a half-truth: “I have no husband.” And he says, “You speak honestly,” sort of. You are not married to the man you live with and were married five times before him.
Did all those husbands die or did they divorce her? It was not lawful for her to divorce them. Did they love her or leave her, revere her or mistreat her? Were there children or was she barren? We do not know. We do know this: anyone who has lived through five marriages, for any reason, no matter how good or how bad she was, has endured grief, disappointment, and loss.
Is there, in a life filled with death and tragedy, love and passion, anything that will not dry up, or fail us, or leave us? Does anything last? Is there anything in life that endures?
They talk in the noonday heat, a woman and a man, unlikely conversationalists, and their actions speak louder than words. Their words — disjointed bits of dialogue float surrealistically back and forth like fragments from a play. Jesus faces her, talks to her, tired and weary. She replies quickly and honesty. There is no pretense, no holding back, no trying to impress each other. This story’s healing power is in the living water of friendship that Jesus offers her and she offers him.
Returning from the village after lunch, his disciples’ jaws drop when they see who he is talking to. Flouting convention, he is engaged in a conversation. They see this woman’s sex, her foreignness, her marital history. Jesus sits with a woman of intrinsic dignity and infinite worth, and dispenses with social custom, risks ostracism and condemnation to drink water with this woman, to offer her friendship, the living water of friendship. This friendship knows us and sees us for who we are, unlike the water we fill in a bucket, used up so quickly every single day that we have to walk back for more.
“He told me everything I ever did,” she told the others in town. “He told me everything I ever did.”
“Please, sir, where do I get that living water?” she asks. It’s the water of a personal, intimate, connection with Jesus that knows us and values us for who we are. This divine human friendship removes the mask, lowers the veil, sees with lenses unlike anyone else’s, and offers us what will never fail us: the living water that wells up to eternal life.
She is not alone. She is not the only one who has been through divorce, had a loved one leave, watched while a spouse died. We have lost parents, or marriages, or jobs, our dignity, and are thirsty to be known just as we are in the pain and challenge of those losses and of our life as it is on an ordinary day at noon at the well.
Give me something that will last! Give me that water! “Here I am” Jesus says. “I am the living water, the one who is speaking to you.”
He does not hold himself apart in sanctimonious exclusivity. He is a man of clarity and compassion, and she risks, as he did, being ridiculed, and rejected, because she wants to drink from the fountain of eternal life with this odd stranger who has accepted her and broken all the rules to know her.
So, there they stand, in the noonday heat, at the edge of the desert, this much-married woman, this eccentric, zealous young rabbi with a radical vision of justice and love. There they stand, drinking and talking in the noonday heat. It is after all, a love story, your love story and my love story. It’s the love story of God, who seems to find all we have ever done acceptable, forgivable, and wants us to sit down next to him, and drink a glass of water, and laugh and talk in the noonday heat.
The Rev. Cathy George is chaplain of Epiphany School, Dorchester, Massachusetts.