Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” —although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labor.”
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.”
This morning, let us sit down at Jacob’s Well. This passage from John about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well is rich with messages and lessons for all who look for Jesus. I am however, going to focus on the woman at the centre of this passage. She has come to the well in the middle of the day to draw water, but she ends up having an unexpected, life-changing encounter with a Jew named Jesus.
Just as there is a lot to take in with this passage as a whole, so there is also much to learn from the woman herself. Let’s start with some facts. She is a Samaritan. Samaria is the name given to the land between Galilee in the North, and Judea in the south. If you are traveling from north to south, as John tells us that Jesus and his disciples were doing, the natural route is through Samaria, but Jews often avoided this way so they could avoid the Samaritans. They were not very well-liked to say the least, and the Jews and Samaritans really didn’t get along at all well. In order to understand why, though, we have to go way back in Jewish history to more than 400 years before Jesus’ birth. During the Babylonian exile, most of the Jews were forced out of their homeland and spread elsewhere around the Babylonian Empire. During the exile, many Jewish practices came to be influenced by the Babylonians. However, there were some Jews who remained in the area of Judea, and they came to view themselves as the only true descendants of Abraham because they were the only ones not influenced by outside forces. They came to be known as Samaritans, and they opposed the return of the Jewish exiles after the end of Babylonian occupation. The Samaritans and the Jews also disagreed about the place of true worship; the Jewish people of course, held to the Temple in Jerusalem, while the Samaritans believed God’s dwelling was the Temple on Mount Gerizim.
In any event, the Jews and Samaritans were frequently involved in skirmishes, with bloodshed and murder, but at best they still avoided each other at all costs and simply did not mix. They would, especially, not share eating and drinking vessels with them. And yet, Jesus asks this woman for a drink.
Surprisingly, John does not tell us that this woman is an adulterer; nor does he say that she is even a sinner, but it does seem fair to say that there was something in this woman’s life that she was ashamed of. We can assume this because she came to the well outside of the city in the middle of the day. It was, indeed usual for women to gather water from the well each day, but they would normally go to the well first thing in the morning so that they could collect their water while it was still cool – and there was a well within the Sychar town limits, so there was no reason for this woman to walk out of town in the heat of the day to get the water; unless she was afraid to interact with the other women of the town and ashamed to be seen by them.
Yet, whatever her colourful past, no matter her gender, or even her heritage as a Samaritan, when this woman encountered Jesus at the well, none of those things mattered. He asked her for a drink of water from the well, and she willingly dropped the bucket down into the well and drew fresh water to serve to Jesus.
That one action, willingly taken to serve a stranger in need, was the beginning of this woman’s salvation journey. Jesus engaged her in conversation. They talked about the well and its connection to their ancestor Jacob. Jesus told her about “living water,” and offered her a drink, even as she collected water for him. Then they talked about the woman’s life. The conversation was to be completely transformational for the woman. Although she didn’t initially understand what “living water” was, by the time she was on her way back to Sychar to tell the village people about her encounter at the well, she must have known that it had something to do with being valued even when you feel ashamed.
Jesus saw straight to the heart of what was happening in this woman’s life. The woman had been through one emotional upheaval after another. Whether or not her various marriages ended in death or divorce, she must have felt defeated every time. In the midst of it all, there was something in her life that caused her great shame. Like women and men everywhere, she wasn’t a villain, she was just a sinner with a messed up life. Jesus, in all his infinite love and wisdom knew she needed to be loved and respected for who she was – a female, a Samaritan, a sinner – so he offered her living water.
And her life was changed! It wasn’t just that the woman left the well with a smile on her face and feeling a little better on that particular day. It wasn’t just that she gave herself a pat on the back because she had given some water to a thirsty stranger. No, she knew that she had encountered the Messiah. She was valued, even though she was a woman. She was respected, even though she was a Samaritan and felt ashamed. She was loved even though something made her feel unlovable. This woman did what I hope any of us would do. She went back to her town to tell anyone who would listen. With her enthusiasm, with her honesty, with her testimony, people came to believe in Christ. John says “Because of her testimony, many people in the village believed in Jesus.”
So here’s why the woman at the well matters for each of us. We have all felt like a nobody at times; some of us may have felt that we don’t matter because we are women, or because we’re not part of the “in crowd”? I’m sure that there have been times when we are ashamed about all the mistakes we’ve made in our lives. I have certainly felt in the past that nobody values me or respects me because I don’t have the best job or the best house or the coolest car (in fact, I score all three!) This is why the story of the Samaritan woman at the well is so completely wonderful because in her story, we learn that none of that stuff matters to Jesus. He loves us for who we are. He values us even when the world might not. He’s not concerned with all the mistakes of our past. He just wants to offer us “living water.” He just wants to have a relationship with us. He wants us to know that our messy lives are not so horrific in his eyes, and that if we will drink from the well of life, we can be made new.
In the dry wildernesses of our lives, and in the days of heat and thirst, you offer us living water, We thank you, life-giving and generous Father.
When we begin to doubt your presence, and disbelieve your motives, you offer us living water, We thank you, life-giving and generous Father.
When life’s regrets and the bad choices we have made leave us feeling excluded and unworthy, you offer us living water, We thank you, life-giving and generous Father.
When circumstances, or the cruelty of others, have left us alone and our souls wounded, you offer us living water, We thank you, life-giving and generous Father.
We thank you and praise you, our Father, that however we may thirst, whatever we may need to satisfy our souls, you offer it freely and abundantly in Christ;
So we drink deeply of the living water and, as we draw from the well of your Son, we seek to pass the cup to others who like us, are thirsty for your grace.
Ann Barton is the Facilities Manager of Church House.