Woman At The Well, Part 2: Crossing Barriers

by admin

The Woman at the Well – John Chapter 4 was one of the first texts I ever spoke on.  As the years have passed I have become more and more mesmerized by this anecdote from Jesus’ ministry and all the different issues it impacts in our life today in the 21st Century.

In Part 1, we began this study by examining the woman herself.  Why was she fetching water at midday?  What is the significance of this?  Who was this woman Jesus was talking to?  Can we relate to her at all?  Turns out, her story is becoming more and more common today, but the biggest difference between her day and ours is that today the zeitgeist tells us that this woman is a healthy, successful woman who has had a life of personal self-fulfilment.  In contrast, what led to her isolation in her day was both her own acceptance  of and society’s censure of the outcomes of the immense pain in her life, and the calluses that were forming over those wounds insulating her from love, closeness and intimacy both with other people and with God.

Here in Part 2, I want to wrestle with the reality that this conversation should have never happened.  There were too many reasons that Jesus, an unmarried devout Jewish man, should not have been talking to this half-pagan, Samaritan five-time divorcee, living with a man she was unmarried to.  How did it happen?  What does it mean that Jesus set aside all these barriers to speak to her?  And what was it that he had to share with her that carried such urgency?

Jesus crossed many barriers in his conversation with the woman at the well.  The first one we will discuss was the gender barrier.  To us today, it seems bizarre the way certain middle eastern peoples seclude women.  The idea that a woman should not be seen in public at all seems extreme, and even degrading.  But these traditions are quite ancient.  Greek and Jewish traders held this same viewpoint, though perhaps not for religious reason but to identify with certain social strata.

A respectable woman was not allowed to leave the house unless a trustworthy male escort accompanied her. A wife was not permitted to eat or interact with male guests in her husband’s home; she had to retire to her woman’s quarters.

He crossed gender barriers – men and women not related or married did not talk to one another.  This was a real thing.  Note: the author’s use of the word “respectable”.  Unrespectable women could often be found in public, but their necessity demonstrated their social position.  A well off, upper class woman would never be caught out fetching water.

But it wasn’t just about social status.  She was a woman.  Naturally inferior in the view of every culture of the day – Roman, Greek and Jewish.

“The rabbinic oral law was quite explicit: “He who talks with a woman in public brings evil upon himself.” Another rabbinic teaching prominent in Jesus’ day taught, “One is not so much as to greet a woman.””

These interpretations of the Mosaic Law would be proven to be incorrect, because Jesus Himself claimed to be the fulfilment of the Law.  He would never break the Law’s intended meaning.  From the beginning mankind was created male and female.  Both in the image of God – and that is what gives them equal value in God’s eyes.

Further, He crossed cultural barriers – a Jew did not talk to a Samaritan.  In my first post I equated the relationship between the Jew and the Samaritan with that of Americans and British in the 18th Century.  They shared a common ancestry, though one group definitely considered themselves more “pure” than the other.  They shared a common language – Aramaic was the default language of the region, though Jews still taught Hebrew in their synagogues and to be used in the Temple.  But like the British and Americans, they despised each other and each suspected the other of all kinds of treachery, almost by default.  This viewpoint stretched all the way back to the times of Ezra and Nehemiah who were involved in rebuilding the temple and the walls of Jerusalem after the Exile had come to an end.

He even crossed religious barriers – offering peace with God to people who worshipped God with pagan rites.  The place of sacrifice the Samaritans used was called Zeus Xenios.  While they still utilized the Pentateuch as Scripture and believed in only one God, there was such a broad influence from the many different people groups that had been resettled in the former Israel since the Exile that to Jews they considered their rites pagan.

Through all these barriers Jesus carried this message:

A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

(John 4:7-14 ESV)

He wanted to tell her about Himself.  About what He is bringing to all mankind.  And He wanted her to be the one to carry this knowledge to her people, her town.

Think about that: many of us have pondered the strangeness of Jesus picking fishermen, tax collectors and rebels as His disciples.  Those are odd choices to say the least, when there were rabbis, pharisees, scribes and highly learned men available who could have taught the truth of Jesus to the Jews.  But consider: the person he sent to the Samaritans was a woman with a more than checkered past.

Jesus broke gender barriers, religious barriers, cultural barriers and glass ceilings demonstrating that He wanted the Living Water He wanted to give would not be limited by human ideas.  Whether the wall was built of stone or of prejudice, Jesus would overcome it.

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