I’ve been moved afresh by Jesus’ authentic and gentle way of engaging with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in Sychar according to John 4. The way Jesus handles his Jewish-male believer status before a woman of another faith in heart of her territory informs and inspires me. How does Jesus deal with outsiders’ perception of his Jewish male supremacy? How does he embody the fullness of grace and truth attributed to him as the Word become flesh?
Jesus first meets the woman when she arrives at the well to draw water. He is already there ahead of her, weary and thirsty from a long journey from Judea. He requests a drink from the woman, provoking her to question why he, a Jewish man, is asking this of her, a Samaritan woman.
Jesus doesn’t apologize for himself and skirts her question. He is secure in his identity and mission. In response to her resistance to him, Jesus shifts from unwelcomed guest to generous host. He offers her living water, a faith-filled move that shows his confidence in what he has to give. After a prolonged conversation where she expresses her reservations and he responds, she finally asks him to give her living water.
When Jesus tells her, “Go call your husband and come here!” the woman denies having a husband. Jesus exercises his power at this point, showing her that he knows what is true about what she’s said, and then brings into the light what she’s left unsaid.
“You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly” (4:17-18).
Jesus first affirms the truth that the woman doesn’t have a husband. In revealing that’s she’s had five husbands and is currently living with a man not her husband he makes use of his prophetic power. I see him revealing this personal background info as a way of addressing her personally, as she’s been keeping him at a safe distance.
Jesus’ use of power does not result in the woman experiencing any visible shame, or admitting the truth of what he’s revealed– though she does acknowledge that he’s a prophet. Nor does Jesus’ use of power keep her from freely bringing up what she considers a serious religious difference that might disqualify her from receiving the desired living water.
“Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”
The woman doesn’t state her own opinion about whether God should be worshipped on “this mountain” rather than in Jerusalem, but expresses her ancestor’s (“our fathers) distinct belief. Is she baiting Jesus to see if he agrees with her portrayal of where Jewish men believe they should worship—Jerusalem? Is she probing Jesus to see if he’ll require she break with her tradition and religion should she accept his living water?
Jesus’ response takes their conversation and relationship to another level. He boldly and directly tells her to trust what he’s going to say to her next: “Woman, believe me!”
In John’s Gospel, believing Jesus is essential for entry into his family-community-kingdom: “As many as receive him, who believe in his name, he gives authority to become children of God” (1:12). “Whoever believes in him will have eternal life” (3:15; see also 1:7; 2:23; 3:16,18,36).
He goes on to share revelation that fits in the category of prophetic teaching that includes her and her people directly:
“An hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you (pl) worship the Father” (4:21).
Jesus declares to this woman that in the future she and her people will worship the Father, a familial title for God that Jesus uses, which is not attached to a particular, exclusive place.
Jesus states matter-of-factly that the proper location for worship that divides her Samaritan fathers and their descendants who worship on “this mountain,” from the Jews who worship in Jerusalem will no longer be relevant.
In one fell swoop Jesus dismisses a divisive distinctive separating Jews and Samaritans in favor of a more inclusive approach- which I like. Jesus removes the borders, de-valuing his homeland, though he devalues hers at the same time. There is nothing inherently sacred about Jerusalem, which certainly means America or the West are put on the same level as marginalized Sychar (which means drunken town).
But then to my dismay Jesus appears to backtrack from his inclusive approach by directly stating to her that she and her people worship what they do not know- something that would make me very uncomfortable. Then he goes even further by unashamedly affirming the particularity of the Jews as the bearers of the message of salvation for all.
“You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (4:22).
Jesus doesn’t protect the Samaritan woman from non-negotiable truths or minimize his difference from her in ways that make me uncomfortable. He openly includes himself in the “we” of “we worship what we know,” differentiating himself for the Samaritan woman, who is among the “you” of “you worship what you do not know.”
Yet he follows this statement with a hope-inspiring prophetic declaration for all people that begins with a “but”- which effectively over-rides his Jewish exclusiveness.
“But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be his worshipers. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (4:23-24).
Here Jesus takes up his earlier prophecy about future worshippers of the Father, but actualizes it into the “now” of the present. In the “now” referring to that very moment that Jesus and the Samaritan woman’s encounter at the well? I believe it is.
I love how Jesus doesn’t present the Father in an exclusive way as “my Father,” which would leave her out. Nor does he assume she’s on board, by calling the Father “your Father” or “our Father.” The use of the definite article “the” before Father frees her and any other listeners to choose to join (or not) the present or future worshippers- accepting to be found by the Father who seeks his worshippers.
At the same time Jesus defines God’s nature as Spirit, and requires his worshippers to worship in spirit and truth.
Despite Jesus’ bold and clear prophecies, the woman doesn’t appear to feel obligated, or to come under Jesus’ control of power. She appears free to set her boundaries, and astutely establishes a sort of checkpoint blocking this potentially dangerous intruder to infiltrate and possibly start up a heretical cult. She wisely says to him:
“I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when that one comes, he will declare all things to us” (4:25).
The Samaritan woman will not believe Jesus’ prophecies without knowing his identity “in truth.” The coming Messiah has the final word, and she affirms her conviction that “he will declare all things to us.”
At this point Jesus does not hold back his identity. He takes of his camouflage and reveals himself to her clearly: “I who speak to you am he” (4:26).
Here John’s Gospel uses the Greek equivalent of the Lord’s revelation of his name “I am” (ego eimi) to Moses in the desert (Exodus 3:14). Just then the disciples return from buying provisions in town, and the woman leaves her water jar there at the well and heads into her town.
She tells her countrymen: “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?”
Even after Jesus’ direct revelation of himself, the woman appears free to contemplate, and is not overcome by his power and influence.
Jesus’ way of carrying himself, of living within in Jewish male body, offers help and hope to people like me. I am not proud of my distinctives: my whiteness, Americanness, associations with Western Christian religion– and other status markers that associate me with what feels like a heap of negatives regarding power and privilege.
Jesus reveals a way that is humble and true. He knows who he is and what he represents. He freely offers living water in a way that is at first resisted but then asked for. The rightly-wary Samaritan woman border guard has interrogated him, but finally invites the people to consider confirming him with her tentative endorsement: “this is not the Christ, is it?”
The Samaritan woman does to not herself invite Jesus over the border into her community. The residents of Sychar come out to him and many believe in him because of the woman’s testimony—showing that the effect of Jesus’ power is to empower and deputize.
The final effect of the woman’s testimony is that the community lets Jesus in, welcoming him to stay with them two days. Many more believe because of his word, which shows that finally the best results of bearing witness is that people would encounter Jesus directly for themselves.
The Samaritan villagers’ assessment of Jesus’ identity goes beyond the woman’s question about whether Jesus is the awaited Messiah he’s told her he is. They confess him to be the entire world’s Savior!
“It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this one is indeed the Savior of the world” (4:42).
For another angle on this encounter check out my chapter “Jesus’ recruitment behind enemy lines,” in Bob Ekblad, Guerrilla Gospel: Reading the Bible for Liberation in the Power of the Spirit, available here.