Woman at the Well, Part 3: Cutting to the Chase – Herstory

by admin

The Woman at the Well is a fascinating anecdote in John’s Gospel.  It is featured in no other account of Jesus’ ministry but so much is going on in this story that I can’t help but reflect deeply on this story and all of the layers of impact it has on life today.

In Part 1 of this series, I reflected on the beginning of the story – the reason the story even came about.  Jesus was on a long hot journey by foot from Jerusalem to Galilee via Samaria.  He stopped at Jacob’s Well for water around noontime, and began an innocent conversation with a woman drawing water for her household.  Sounds normal right?  In that day, at that time, a Jewish man interacting with a Samaritan woman at a well in the heat of the day add up to a bizarre, almost singular occurrence.

In Part 2 I pried into the reality of how many cultural norms were being shattered by Jesus in addressing this nameless woman.  Many people today view Christianity as the conservative, regressive religion that oppresses people but this story as it unfolds demonstrates the shocking irreligious nature of Jesus and His message.  It spells out a countercultural Jesus, a Jesus who had enough of people treating Samaritans like scum; women like chattel; sinners like pariahs.

In part 3, I am going to expand on what the real issue was.  It wasn’t her Samaritan background that was keeping her from the living water that Jesus was offering.  It wasn’t her femaleness.  It was her story.  Her history.  It was the emotional aftermath of the life she had been living to this point. Let’s begin by returning to the story where we left off.

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.”
(John 4:15-18 ESV)

Where we left off, Jesus was spelling out to her what exactly he was offering.  He was offering living water that would spill out of her and grant eternal life.  It was an amazing offer.  Now, at this point, all she really knew about him was that he was a Jewish man, hanging out at the watering hole at midday, obviously on his way somewhere.  Then he starts talking about water that comes in abundance, that is better than any water.  Her question to him at this point may have been sincere.  She might have grasped what it was that Jesus was saying, but I don’t think that’s the case.  Because that would have meant she knew who Jesus claimed to be, and there isn’t enough in their relationship to draw that conclusion yet.  No, I think she may have been sarcastically responding to the offer of water that she didn’t have to pack on her shoulders to and from her home in the middle of the day.  I think she was simply thinking of the joke that such a thing were even possible.

Jesus is going to make this real for her though, right now.  There are a number of miracles in this story – things that only God could accomplish.  The first one in my mind is actually getting into a conversation with a Samaritan woman at midday at a well, when you are obviously a Jewish man.  But the second one begins with Jesus, naturally, wanting to include her whole household in revealing what He wanted them to know.  He asks her to get her husband.  In the culture of Palestine, this is totally appropriate.  To address the head of the household made complete sense – in that day, and even today in many cultures of the world, the patriarch is looked up to and deeply respected. The decisions he makes have huge impacts on the whole household.  So naturally, he brings it up.

This innocent, totally appropriate request opens up a kettle of worms as it were.  I have been reading Sherlock Holmes, and I wonder if his miraculous powers of deduction would have read as much information from this woman’s facts as Jesus does.  It probably would have been possible to deduce that she was living with a man not her husband.  The fact that she was drawing water at a time of day designed to avoid all the townspeople.  Telltale signs in her clothing choices and so on.  But this innocent question was designed, much like Holmes’ inquiries, to require the person to respond with more pertinent information.  In this case, she had no recourse but to divulge a personal detail.  So she does it in the least shameful way possible.  She denies she is married.

This fact is true.  Jesus acknowledges this and he expands on it.  I believe this is where Jesus goes beyond simple deduction, to the realm of “there is no way he could have known all this without being God Himself.”  That he says right back to her that she has had 5 husbands, and either divorced or been widowed by them all.  And now, she is living with a man without marrying him.

In Part 1 I talked about the shame of being that woman in her culture.  Today, I want to point out that there are perfectly reasonable reasons for her situation.  1st Century Palestine was not a peaceful time, or a safe time.  Accidents happened.  Businesses didn’t have safety coordinators, people did not wear personal protective equipment.  When injuries happened, infections often followed, and there were no antibiotics to take.  Beyond this, some of the men she was married to may have served in the army.  Playing with weapons was a dangerous business as well.

Some conclude that her story was one of chronic sin, that the 5 men she was no longer married to all divorced her.  Or she divorced them, though that is unlikely as divorce initiated by women in that day was very unlikely.  I don’t see that as necessity to understand that for a long time, her life had been out of control.  And that even if it wasn’t her fault that her first marriage ended… or maybe first two… or first three… at some point sin did enter in, and she began to believe lies.  Maybe that no man would love her the way he was supposed to.  Or that the grass was always greener.  Or that she was better off alone.  Or that she could not trust anyone.  At some point she began to withdraw.  To hide.  To cut herself off from others.

In any case, whatever the reasons for her predicament, there is no question that she chose her current state.  The man she currently shared her home with was not her husband.  She had given up on doing things God’s way.  And that was what was really holding her back from the living water that Jesus offered her.


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