Woman At The Well Part 1: Thirst and Avoidance

by admin

One of the first times I ever spoke was on John 4 – the woman at the well.  It’s a fascinating little anecdote from Jesus’ early ministry, and it holds a number of unique insights about both Jesus’ purpose, method, and outcomes, as well as a couple of unique insights about human nature and how people deal with stuff in their lives.

It’s a very contemporary story, because the woman Jesus encounters sounds very familiar to us.  She’s an intelligent, independent woman.  She has been educated.  She is up on the issues of her day.  She doesn’t sound like an undereducated, burkha-wearing middle eastern woman of 2000 years ago that most people imagine.  She isn’t a beaten down woman.  She isn’t a woman who is enslaved.  She follows her heart.  She makes her own decisions.

What plays out in this story is something many women and many men can relate to, because while the above description sounds quite modern, she carries burdens that most of us don’t carry today.  So I am going to do a series of posts here on this story, drawing out 6 fascinating truths from John chapter 4.

The first detail I want to point out is – the story begins with thirst.  And avoidance.

On the way from Jerusalem to Galilee, Jesus needed to travel through Samaria.  It was a pretty good distance to trek on foot, he wasn’t the kind of guy who had the money for a litter or a beast of burden to carry him.  Plus, he had some of his friends with them and they all travelled together.

After walking for half a day, the group stops at a well near the village of Sychar.  It’s around noon, almost the hottest part of the day.  The people of the village would have all drawn water in the morning, so it was a surprise that they meet a Samaritan woman at the well when they arrive.

Jesus sends the rest of his group into the village to obtain some food but he stays at the well with this woman.  Now, culturally, Samaritans are close to the Jews.  We’d probably call them something like cousins, culture-wise – much like the British and Americans.  Except imagine it was an American travelling from Buffalo, NY to Detroit, MI in about 1820.

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Passing through the British territory of Upper Canada (today, southern Ontario) was definitely the fastest way to go from one point to another on foot, but a bad choice given the events of, oh, 1776, 1812… let’s just say at this time Americans thought Brits were a bunch of ogres trying to strip the rest of the world of their wealth and send it all to London, and the British thought the Americans were rebellious cretins who wouldn’t know civilization if it slapped them in the face and draped them in a Union Jack.  That was the kind of relationship Samaritans and Jews had.

So Jesus is sitting there with this woman, and she fully expected Jesus to ignore her at best, mock or even attack her at worst.  Now the last was pretty unlikely as she was on her own turf, but then again, let’s look closer at the woman who was at the well.

She’s drawing water – a thirsty job.  Each household needed a fair amount of water to operate – and she was going to pick it all up in one trip per day.  In many third world countries they still have to do this – draw water from a source and then pack it home – sometimes miles home.  50 – 100 pounds of water would not have been surprising depending on the size of the household.  This was a job that you didn’t want to do in the middle of the day.  It would have been hot and heavy to carry at noon.  Why would she be collecting water then?

We discover as the story unfolds why.  Her lifestyle was embarrassing in that day.  Not just embarrassing, but scandalous.  Today, it’s news in that in just the last couple of years the marriage rate has dropped so low that there are more single adults in Canada now than married.  But playing around the 50% number would have been unthinkable in the 1st Century.  If you were an adult, you were married.  Of course you were!  The only reason you wouldn’t be married was if your spouse had died – if you were a woman, your man might have been lost to disease, war, workplace accident, while if you were a man it was likely disease or childbirth that you lost your wife from.  One of the reasons the Bible never really addresses premarital sex, but talks all the time about adultery is because for most people, they simply didn’t have sex before they were married.  Often marriages were arranged early, or puberty was hit later, so the big problem wasn’t having sex before you were married, but having sex with someone you weren’t married to.

So when we read John 4:18, we need to read the absolute shock and embarrassment that this woman lived with every day.  Everyone looked at her with judgement in her day.  Everyone thought it was positively indecent that she had been married 5 times.  There are a number of reasons that she might have had this history – maybe a few of them had legitimately died.  Maybe she had been divorced once or twice – it is possible that her ex might have been the one who had wronged her by cheating or something else.    These are all possibilities, but the fact of the story was that whatever the reasons for her previous marriages’ failures, she had given up on marriage.  The man she was with now was not her husband.  And that made her pretty much a pariah.  She knew her current life left her at odds with God, but the wounds she had gained over time had finally hardened into calluses that insulated her from obedience to God.

I read this story, and I think about this woman, and I see in her so many women today.  Bruised, battered, used, and abandoned by men who are really only after their own pleasure.  I see the hardened heart she bore and I see in that picture the lies that women are telling themselves – like that this is the way life is, that no man would ever love them enough to stay with them forever. That they should be able to have the same kind of attitude as the men that hurt them, that the bonds that form every time they get into a sexual relationship that get torn off like a sticky bandaid don’t get weaker every time that the used bandaid is reapplied to another man.  That sooner or later, like this woman, they simply won’t be able to be close to a man, or anyone, anymore.  We tell ourselves we are creating an equal society, but the truth is we are creating an equally broken society – where men and women are all broken in the same direction – relationally isolated from each other, just using each other for a moment’s pleasure instead of becoming one the way they were designed, and then from that union showering safety and love on their children.  I actually agree with some friends of mine, who have no use for church or what they call “traditional morality” – that if this is the life they want, then they should not have children at all – because those children will bear the costs of having a new daddy every few years, of moving constantly, of never knowing who they can really trust, with no hope of ever knowing what true, lifelong love looks like.  Why should we be surprised that people today cannot grasp the idea of a God that loves us sacrificially, and forever?  So many of us have never even seen a marriage go the distance – and if we do encounter one, we view it as miraculously as if we just saw pigs fly.  Sacrifice ourselves for another?  Who does that?  Put another’s happiness before yourself?  That’s crazy talk!

This woman at the well knew who she was, and was doing her best to make her life bearable.  Her road to bearability was isolation.  Keeping everyone at arm’s length so they wouldn’t have a chance to judge her, scold her, make her feel guilty for her choices.  She was desperately thirsty, not just for water, but for people to simply love her.  She had to be – why would she have run into the arms of 6 different men if she was not desperate for love?  For someone to care about her?  For someone to see in her what nobody else would, and care for her above others?

And into this lonely life, this hurting world, entered a dusty, travel-worn Jew, sitting by Jacob’s Well alone.

In my next post I will be looking at the barriers that Jesus crossed, journeying in simple words across cultures, attitudes and emotions to meet this woman.  Click here to read part 2: Crossing Barriers.


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