John tells a story of an encounter between Jesus and a woman that is both attractive for its simplicity and intriguing for its eccentricities. It makes us wonder why John, who admits to being selective regarding the events he includes in his gospel (21:25), told this particular episode, especially since it seems to have no clear resolution or obvious purpose.
Jesus is passing through a town and, encountering a woman at a well, asks for a drink and then proceeds to have a short discussion with her. Afterward she reports this encounter to others and invites them to come and decide for themselves who Jesus might be. What did John wish to convey with this story?
The context provides a partial answer to this question about John’s intent. The story of the Samaritan woman appears after the account of Nicodemus’ meeting with Jesus in chapter 3. Nicodemus provides an interesting contrast to the Samaritan woman. Nicodemus is an important leader of the Jews, a teacher of Israel. This unnamed woman is an outcast for a number of reasons: She is a foreigner, and worse, she is from Samaria, which had a long history of animosity with the Jews. She is not only a woman but one apparently shunned by her own townspeople for a morally reprehensible lifestyle that included five husbands.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, seeking him out to ask a question about his identity. The woman arrives at Jacob’s well at noon, the brightest hour of the day, and she is startled when Jesus speaks to her. She had come for a practical purpose: to draw water, not to question Jesus about theological matters or to debate his answers. Nicodemus appears to be left on the fence and in the dark. He is not ready to accept or understand Jesus’ revelation. Nicodemus remains at the literal level of the dialogue with Jesus, confused about how a grown man can reenter his mother’s womb and be born again (3:4). The woman begins at the literal level, identifying Jesus as he appears, as a Jew. But she shows that she is receptive to a deeper understanding of his identity, calling him a “prophet” (4:19), opening herself to the possibility that he is “greater than our ancestor Jacob” (4:12), and finally hearing Jesus’ self-revelation, “I am he” (4:26)—the one, as the woman says, who will “proclaim all things to us” (4:25). She rushes to share her belief that Jesus is the Christ with others. And based on the word of Jesus, the Samaritans come to believe that Jesus is the “Savior of the world” (4:42).
John leaves open the enduring significance of Jesus’ encounter both with Nicodemus and with the woman. But it seems as if the contrast John presents between the two would mean that the woman was much more ready to recognize Jesus, accept his revelation of himself, and spread the message to others than was Nicodemus.
Interpreters suggest we read this story of the Samaritan woman at the well in two parts: verses 7-15, about the woman’s practical errand and her private encounter with Jesus; and verses 16-30, about the implications of this encounter for the mission of the gospel and for John’s readers, including ourselves. In John 4:7-15 Jesus encounters the woman and asks for a favor. It may be significant that the cup of water he requests is the basis for Jesus’ recognition of those who are “blessed of my Father” according to Matthew (see 10:42 and 25:34-35). John’s Gospel is very interested in symbols such as water, food, and blood. It is the symbolic meaning of this encounter that dominates the second part of the story. The woman had come to the well seeking water to drink; she became interested in what Jesus had to say so that she would not have to continue to come to the well every day. Although Jesus initially asks her for a cup of water, he actually wishes to give her the gift of life-giving water. It is as if John forgets or simply drops the initial basis of this encounter, because he never does say whether Jesus received anything to drink or whether he drank from the cup the woman almost surely offered him.
The moment of the encounter, “about noon” (4:6), is significant. Women usually went in groups to draw water, and normally they did this either early morning or later in the day, after the heat of the sun had burned off. In the withering heat of noon, women were usually busy at home, cooking, taking care of the children, and performing other domestic duties. That the woman appears by herself suggests that she may have been reluctant to endure the comments of her peers or to risk being shunned by the other women because of her marital history and questionable morals.
John places a great deal of emphasis on community. When the woman first encounters Jesus, she is alone. She engages him in theological and spiritual dialogue, and she herself is transformed into a believer by her encounter. Then her personal “respond-ability” becomes social and communal. She cannot keep her experience and her faith to herself. She is compelled by joy to share it. She forgets the reason she initially went to the well. She leaves her water jug behind and rushes off to enthusiastically proclaim her experience to her neighbors and to invite them to “see” (4:29) for themselves.
In the end it is possible to make a number of observations about the meaning and purpose of this story. John makes clear that people considered outcasts and insignificant, like the Samaritan woman, were frequently more receptive to the gospel than were many of Israel’s leaders such as Nicodemus. Even the disciples were amazed that Jesus would engage in conversation with a woman. But Jesus seems not to linger a moment with this reservation. The woman, instantly upon recognizing Jesus, undertook the responsibility of telling others, echoing Jesus’ own initial invitation to the first disciples, “Come and see” (John 4:29; 1:39). The Samaritans receive the woman and her witness to her encounter with Jesus. As a result, they also come to believe. Samaritans and women become representative figures of eager acceptance of the gospel and its implications for transforming lives.
The new age begun by the coming of Jesus the Messiah means that the original grace exemplified in the equal status of men and women as the image of God can be expressed in their relationships. Jesus consistently elevates this woman’s dignity—first, by asking something of her; then, by engaging her in theological discourse; and finally, by inviting her to bring others into the circle of faith. She is to be counted among Jesus’ disciples and missionaries. Her being female and non-Jewish is no deterrent at all to her willingness, her ability, her worthiness, or her effectiveness as a minister of the gospel. Any bias against her is a product of the former age. On the basis of what Jesus has done for her, the townspeople hear her testimony and come to faith. They will believe, not only because of her, but because their own experience of Jesus has affirmed the truth.
This selection is from Women of the Gospels: Missionaries of Love by Mary Ann Getty Sullivan (The Word Among Us Press, 2010). Available at wau.org/books