The Woman at the Well - wednesday 2009-01-21 2204 last modified 2009-02-01 2259
Categories: Christianity
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I started jotting this down maybe years ago when better understanding the context of Biblical accounts was becoming more important to my view of the Bible. I never quite finished, so there's no ending to this particular thought process, nor can I vouch for its accuracy. You might read John 4:1-42 to get the requisite background.

This is one of those accounts that looks a little suspicious: it's a conversation between Jesus and just one other person, explicitly so as the disciples only show up to bring their talk to a halt. It becomes clear that everybody in the village knows the story at the end, though you might legitimately ask how close the re-telling comes to what actually transpired.

This chance meeting is apparently entirely incidental to the travels and purposes of Jesus as it takes place during a move from one city to another to avoid the perception of competition between him and another in his public activity. He just happens to encounter a Samaritan woman at a stopping point.

What about this Samaritan woman? She's had many husbands and probably several lovers. There is something about her that makes it obvious on sight, in the way she dresses or just carries herself, that she isn't a well-adjusted member of society. Likely she is quite poor, perhaps still on the young side, and without a family to shelter her to have married and divorced so often. Women of her time period had little recourse when left on their own. Perhaps she's unable to bear children as well, leaving her past husbands disappointed in her. As a Samaritan she is used to being dehumanized by Jews; the old story of oppression suggests unscrupulous neighbors may have taken advantage of her.

She shows up to draw water from the well, a daily (if not more than daily) chore she clearly detests. Who should be there but an unfamiliar Jewish man? What could he possibly want? He wants her to draw water for him. Maybe that's normal for everybody, but it can't be anything but offensive to her. What better opening line? "Woman, get me water." A man and a woman, alone at the well. There could be trouble, and tensions must be riding high in her mind.

But he doesn't act like a demanding goon. While she's trained to be on the defensive and to take the offensive, attacking his maleness and his Jewishness, he doesn't respond in kind. Left thirsty, he sees in her offended reaction an opportunity. Using the scenario at hand - the drudgery of getting water out of a well - he begins to paint a portrait of eternal life. But she's not yet reached a mindset of being taught anything, much less something about the nature of the universe. Then again, most of us wouldn't make the leap from water to everlasting life.

It's clear she's not getting it, taking him to mean that he is literally offering her an impossible solution to her well visits, that she never actually be physically thirsty again. So he gets to the point of what he means by thirst when it comes to her life: she's been trying to satisfy all of her life's needs through men. If she was defensive before, she's even moreso now.

He can see she's expecting to rehash the tired old divisions between Jews and Samaritans. He doesn't do that either. In every major way available to him, and in a short time period, Jesus defies conventions and finally conveys to her this: that there's a way to live that isn't defined by a man nor by cultural divisions. Taken as a whole, this conversation does actually sit together (it didn't make much sense to me before): everything was going against this being an even remotely civil encounter, yet he took in hand their circumstances and her life experiences and found a way forward. There are still hard questions about what a lone woman can do daily with her lot in life. But she has something to go on with her change in outlook - her village followed her lead.

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