Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:

John 4:4-26

     4 Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

     7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

     9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

     10 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.”

     11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?”

     13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

     15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

     16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

     17 “I have no husband,” she replied.

    Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

     19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

     21 Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet 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. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

     25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

     26 Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.”

As you might remember from past cycles of the lectionary, this is one of my favorite stories in the Gospel of John. Like several of the stories in John, it’s pretty long. In fact, the daily lectionary devotes three days to this story of the encounter of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar. But we’re going to cover the story in two days’ Reflections, which will make this Reflection a little longer than usual, so thanks in advance for your patience.

John tells us that these events took place as Jesus was traveling through Samaria. That would be more significant to the first readers of this gospel than it is to us. Many of the Jews of Jesus’ time – and especially rabbis and Pharisees and other strictly observant Jews – considered the Samaritans unclean, so they wouldn’t set foot in the region. They’d walk all the way around Samaria if they had to get to the other side.

The Samaritans’ ancestors had been Jews who intermarried with gentiles, so the Hebrew religious types considered the Samaritans to be ethnically inferior. The Jewish leaders refused to allow the Samaritans to worship at the temple in Jerusalem. There were also some theological differences between Jews and Samaritans. For instance, the Samaritans only read the Torah – the five books of Moses – and not the rest of the Hebrew scriptures.

So by walking through Samaria, Jesus was making a point – he was demonstrating that his mission in the world would break down some of the walls the covenant people had built between themselves and others. Jesus was reaching out, as he would on so many occasions, to those who were considered inferior and unworthy.

In the story, as Jesus sits by a well alone outside the town of Sychar, he speaks with a Samaritan woman who comes to draw water. That would be as surprising as walking through Samaria. Religious Jewish men – and especially rabbis – were taught to avoid conversations with women other than their families. Women were considered frivolous, as well as objects of sexual temptation. But Jesus asks the woman for a drink, which would presumably mean drinking out of her jar. The woman expresses surprise – Jesus’ request would be something like a white southerner during Jim Crow days asking for a drink out of black person’s bottle of soda.

But when the woman expresses her surprise at his request, Jesus starts saying other things that surprise her just as much. He says that he has something for her – a “living water” that would satisfy a deeper thirst in her. And what’s more, Jesus says, this living water would start to flow out of her, so that she would become a source of eternal life for others. And then he goes on to reveal that he knows details of the woman’s unusual personal life. She’s had five husbands, and now she’s living with a guy she’s not married to.

Almost all Christian interpreters have described this Samaritan woman as promiscuous, or at least as not committed to the marriages she’s had. But that might say more about the interpreters than it does about the woman. We have no idea how her five marriages had ended, or anything else about her circumstances. Jesus doesn’t speak a word of criticism or condemnation.

Some New Testament scholars have suggested that the woman’s unusual marital history might have made her the target of gossip in her community. It’s common in hot climates for women to go to the well for water first thing in the morning, when it’s still cool. But since this woman was there at mid-day, when it was hot, commentators suggest there must have been some reason for that. And avoiding gossipy neighbors is at least a reasonable possibility.

But whatever the reason for her unusual schedule, Jesus just tells the Samaritan woman that God is doing a new thing. God is washing away the barriers between people – ethnic distinctions, gender boundaries and apparently perceived notions about what was “appropriate.” Now, Jesus says, God is concerned only with finding those who are willing to worship him “in spirit and truth.”

When you really step back and look at this story, the one theme that runs through it is surprise – in this story Jesus does and says a lot of really surprising things – even things that would have been considered shocking.

And there’s one more surprise to come, because it’s to this unlikely person – to this Samaritan woman with an unusual past – that Jesus reveals something he has revealed to no one else in the Gospel of John: that he is the Messiah.

The woman doesn’t exactly get the message right away, but it starts to sink in, and she responds by leaving her water jar at the well and running back to town. When she gets there, the woman starts spreading the word that the long-awaited Messiah might be sitting out at the town well.

We’ll think about the rest of this story tomorrow.

Let’s pray: Lord, we know you often work through surprising people in surprising ways. Guard us against rejecting your work when it is done through people who might seem ‘inappropriate’ to us. And guard us against being shocked to learn that you intend to work through us, as well. Amen.