If you’ve read many gospel passages at all, you probably already know that Jesus does outlandish things. This encounter with the Samaritan woman, though… it might take the cake. I like this idiom, because it has a double meaning (how very Johannine). To ‘take the cake,’ can mean either to, “be the most outrageous or disappointing,” or, “to win the prize; be outstanding.”[i] I’m relatively confident that Jesus accomplishes both when he asks the Samaritan woman, “Will you give me a drink?”[ii]
Jews did not associate with Samaritans.
Men did not associate with women.
Rabbis did not associate with sinners.
Let’s just break all the rules at once.
Now, in Jesus’ defense; he was tired. The narrative of this encounter with a sinful Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well begins with a controversy over a different quality of water in Judea. John’s disciples have recently engaged in an argument regarding Jesus’ role in baptism, and the Pharisees have caught wind of this new development that indicates Jesus is gaining disciples and baptizing at a faster clip than John. This stop in Samaria almost seems incidental, as Jesus takes the fastest route away from Judea and toward Galilee. It’s approximately a seventy mile trek. He has to stop for water somewhere, or so we might think.
Human beings are terribly preoccupied with food and drink.
Interestingly, Jesus asks for water, but there is no indication (at least in this passage) that he ever receives any! The closest we get to this is when the woman leaves her water jar, and even then nothing suggests that Jesus picks it up to take a nice, long gulp.[iii] I’m not convinced this journey was about a beverage at all.
Perhaps, instead, it was about a connection—an inclusion.
It’s a curious thing that this woman, whom we are about to learn is quite comfortable with men, bothers to question the integrity of Jesus’ decision to speak to her. She has some sass, because regardless of the social norms; she is at a disadvantage in this interaction, in every way. She is a minority among minorities, but she essentially looks at Jesus and says, “You can’t have my water.”
Jesus’ response is surprising, though: “You can have mine.” I doubt anyone has made this offer to her in the past.
“Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.’”[iv]
If she had an agenda, these words completely unnerve her. This man who has nothing with which to draw from the well is offering water that will quench her thirst forever. Sure, she’s skeptical. I would imagine men have been something of a disappointment to her (five husbands, current guy won’t commit… wait, I’m getting ahead of myself), but if this man can give her something that will allow her to obliterate the daily hike to the well (that probably isn’t even the closest one to her home); she’s going to take it—Jew or not.
But there’s a catch.
“He told her, ‘Go, call your husband and come back.’”[v]
That’s going to be problematic, because here we learn of her sordid past. There is no husband—not anymore. There is a man, but it’s complicated.
It’s a common conception (or perhaps, misconception) that the woman’s next words are intended to throw Jesus off the trail, but I don’t think she’s using flattery or religious debate to distract him, because I think she’s still genuinely trying to figure out how she can gain access to this living water. If it’s going to require a husband, she’s out of luck, but maybe there is something else she can do. She’s already standing at the well talking to the man who is probably the least permissible person on the entire face of the Earth with whom she should converse. At this point, she might as well keep pressing.
Again, Jesus astonishes with his answers about worship, “a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”[vi]
In fact, the answer is so unexpected that the woman metaphorically throws her hands up and declares she will go ahead and wait for the Messiah to explain it.
I think it’s just about time for this woman who has no husband to bring to Jesus to go ahead and fetch the entire town, but not before the disciples come on the scene at just the wrong time. Truthfully, they’re a little taken aback, themselves.
“What is Jesus doing with this woman?” asked no one. But, of course, they asked about food. The disciples are not so different from the Samaritan woman.
Jesus, who has just explained the notion of living water to an unsuspecting and unlikely audience, dives right back in with, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about,”[vii] and he clarifies that, as well.
Jesus is very clear, in fact, as he speaks to the disciples about the harvest for which they have not worked. It feels as if Jesus reaches back to the words of John, to the foreshadowing of the Messiah, to the very reason the Pharisees’ words about baptism and concerns about tallying the score were unwarranted. This reaping—this gathering—is a collective effort, and it’s bigger than they have imagined.
And with that, the Samaritans come out in droves.
The Samaritans, who do not associate with Jews, come out.
The Samaritans, presumably even the men, believe the woman’s testimony.
The Samaritans, whose religion fused Judaism and idolatry, stop to listen to the Rabbi!
And they exclaim, “…we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”[viii]
[ii] John 4:7 (NIV)
[iii] See v. 28
[iv] John 4:10
[v] John 4:16
[vi] John 4:23-24
[vii] John 4:32
[viii] John 4:42