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The Samaritan Woman, Part One

July 13, 2009

John 4:1-42

Perhaps it surprises you that a story about the Samaritan woman and Jesus would find its way into a blog discussing women in ministry leadership.  But maybe then it might not.  If you’ve not read through this story in John I would invite you to take several days and read it through the eyes of the different people in the story – Jesus, the Samaritan woman, the disciples, and the townspeople.  One thing I have noticed is that with Jesus there are always surprises and these surprises are usually not a random coincidence, but intentional moments when Jesus reveals more for us concerning the kingdom of God; what it is from God’s purpose, not ours.  Once again this is true in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.

The challenge for us in familiar stories is to not lapse into reading along familiar thought patterns that lead us to get to the end of the chapter so we can close our Bible and say we’ve read God’s Word.  Or to think we already know what it says.  This is much easier than we think.  Amazingly enough there were many years (too many) when I would “just sort of read the gospel accounts” but I was thinking “the real meat of God’s word” was in reading Paul’s epistles.  Strange isn’t it, I was reading Jesus in the gospels through the lens of Paul, instead of the other way around.  As I’ve talked with other Christians I find they do (or did) the same thing.  I realize now and say with conviction that I think Paul would have frowned on this.   We find new understanding as we read this story with tradition rather than through tradition.

This is a story with nuances, to the right, to the left, front and center, and from underneath.  In other words it is not a story that you read once and say “I’ve got it” and now know all there is to know about the Samaritan woman, the well, and Jesus.  It is a story of revelation.  It reveals to us something about the kingdom of God and how God and people operate in this kingdom.

It starts off by Jesus taking the direct route “home” instead of taking the round-about way.  When you or I need to get somewhere and need directions we use Google maps or Yahoo maps or even a “real map” to get us from point A to point B.  Almost always, unless you specify in your request the route that comes up will be the one that is the most direct, meaning it is going to get you there faster (unless of course you hit traffic, which is likely in the Seattle-Tacoma area) or the shortest meaning you travel the shortest distance in miles.  When you are familiar with the way to go and the roads along the way, you can take an alternate route and often avoid heavy traffic.  My husband and I did this when we were traveling back to Gig Harbor from Oregon on the Sunday after the 4th of July.  Less traffic=less stress and a much more enjoyable ride in the car.

Heading back to Galilee, Jesus is taking the direct route which takes him (and the disciples) through Samaria.  If we read this through the lens of a 21st century American Christians looking back we miss how remarkable this was, but for Jesus it was no big deal.  Although it was Jewish custom – a matter of keeping oneself pure to not have interactions with Samaritans, and therefore avoid going through Samaria, Kenneth Bailey reminds us that for Jesus defilement came from within, not from without.[1] Therefore Jesus takes the shortest (and the quickest) route by going through Samaria.  Before we go on we need to let this sink in.  I grew up when Christianity was identified through outward actions and appearances (even going forward to accept Christ was an outward action).  These were not necessarily wrong.  The original motivation behind them for all intents and purpose were genuine efforts and expressions of an inner life.  But as is often the case with our Christian life (down through the centuries) the passing on often changes the intent.  For me this meant or I perceived in my innate intuitive sense that outward appearances and actions defined who I was as a Christian.  In our call to be separate from the world we have often not realized the guiding principle that defilement comes from within, not from without.  By taking the direct route into and through Samaria Jesus is mapping out a lifestyle that flowed from an inward life that informed the outer life.  Some remarkable things happen in ministry as a direct result.

But this does not mean that the route they took was easy.  From the text we learn that Jesus was tired and thirsty.  As a side note, we often think that to be effective ministers or witnesses or “just plain” Christians that we have to be happy, upbeat, have it together, or be successful.  This entire story results because Jesus had a physical need that he could not meet for himself.  It’s about noon and Jesus is tired and thirsty.  The disciples have left him and gone into the village to get food.  So he is waiting and sitting on Jacob’s well (which had a cover on it to keep out dust and dirt as well as children and small animals, the hole in the center was so the leather bag could be lowered to fill with water).  A woman comes out to draw water.  You and I go and get water whenever we want.  But in most of the world there are certain times of the day when water is drawn.  Noon was not one of those times.  John informs us that a Samaritan woman comes out to draw water.  If it is not the “usual time” to draw water why is she drawing water now?  Many of us have heard in prior sermons or Bible studies that this woman was drawing water at that time of the day because of the type of woman she was – the explanation to this comes later in the story.  But the point is the time of day identifies this woman – she is in all likelihood a social outcast, coming out to draw water when no one else would be present (in the heat of the day) or she has come out intentionally because she knows that travelers will be at the well and she wants to encounter them.[2] Women have often been seen as the “temptress” (Regretably this view affects authentic human relationships within the Church and we should deal with it).  But it is possible  in this particular situation the application may indeed apply.

But this does not faze Jesus, he is thirsty and he asks her for a drink of water (Men and women should pay attention).  Bailey notes that this type of encounter recorded by John is not something that would happen even today in Middle Eastern cultures. Jesus initiates the conversation with a woman, who just happens to also be a Samaritan.  What we are reading and therefore witnesses to thousands of years later is just down-right remarkable.  By engaging in conversation he is also putting aside hundreds of years of hostility between Jews and Samaritans.  Please just stop and think about this. There is more here than just Jewish and Samaritan relations that are being affected.

Jesus asking demonstrates a powerful, not to be missed principle of mission.  Today in the church there is a great deal of talk about being incarnational—being the hands and feet of Jesus in our present situations—responding to others as Jesus would.  Bailey points out that Jesus does not begin by explaining why she needs him and his message (don’t we often do this?).  Instead he acknowledges his need and asks her for help.  Bailey quotes from Daniel T. Niles: “He was a true servant because He was at the mercy of those whom He came to serve…This weakness of Jesus, we His disciples must share.  To serve from a position of power is not true service but beneficence.”[3]

Up to this moment there are two people at the well.  A man and a woman, who is about to find out is no ordinary man.  But here the Son of man, the Son of God is in need and he asks a woman to meet that need.  He could have waited until the disciples returned.  Jesus could have maintained protocol.  But he did not.  Tomorrow we will continue in John 4, but I think this quote from Daniel T. Niles, a Sri Lankan theologian bears further reflection.

“The only way to build love between two people or two groups of people is to be so related to each other as to stand in need of each other.  The Christian community must serve.  It must also be in a position where it needs to be served.”[4]

There are two areas I invite us to specifically consider, first within the Church – local and the broader Church– how does this quote apply between men and women?  How are we as the body of Christ related to each other as to stand in need of each other?   Honestly I question whether this is so.  How do we develop relationships between men and women?  How should or how could the Christian community mean and women serve one another?  If relationship and service are connected, what is revealed?  Do men in the Church value the gifts and abilities of women or is that only within certain roles or expectations?  Do men serve in the Church, but only in certain roles or within certain expectations?  What happens when men or women express their gifts and abilities that are outside the preconceived roles or expectations?

Secondly, as more and more church fellowships desire to serve in the community in what ways are we serving from a position of power and/or privilege (we know what to do and how to do it, so we are going to help you out) or something we do that ultimately makes us feel good?  Yes I am suggesting that we need to recognize our tendency to serve from positions (or expectations) where we are in control and lay it down.  Starting with our initial efforts we can develop relationships that result in allowing us to be in position to receive from those we are serving, thus upending the power structure of privilege.

How are we developing relationships with those we serve?  How are we placing ourselves in a position of need to receive from those we desire to minister too?


[1] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2008], p. 201.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p. 203. Bailey quoting Daniel T. Niles in This Jesus…Whereof We Are Witnesses [Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1965], p. 23-27.

[4] Ibid., p. 204.

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3 Comments
  1. Paul Jones permalink
    July 14, 2009 6:33 am

    Well-written, Carol. I look forward to reading more —
    The call to serve — even from the point of need (Jesus was tired and thirsty) is a powerful challenge for the church today!

  2. July 14, 2009 10:01 am

    Jesus did need water from the woman and received her service of drawing it. I love this passage because it humanizes Jesus and the woman. If I look at it from one side, I see a man needing water and a woman giving it to him. They had a conversation. You told us that the man did not pay attention to the cultural barriers – he was just a thirsty man, and she was just a outcast woman drawing water from a well.

    Hmm…are not all leaders human? Are not leaders both men and women? If we took away all other barriers – positions of power, cultural barriers, etc – what would it be like to engage with each other as human to human? Is it possible in or outside of the church?

    Thanks for your stirring thought Carol.

    • pathwayjourneys permalink*
      July 14, 2009 10:27 am

      Makes me wonder…there is so much more within Scripture and we have so much to learn. Thanks Darla for giving us additional insights and more stirring.

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