Jesus and the Samaritan Woman
by the Reverend Noel E. Bordador
“Give me a drink.” – John 4:8
“I thirst.” – John 19:28
More than ten years ago I took a “sabbatical” and volunteered as a kasambahay and hardinero of sorts in a religious hostel run by the Notre Dame de Sion sisters in El Quds (East Jerusalem). On my days off, I would cross from Israeli territory to the Palestinian West Bank not only to visit religious shrines, but also to learn about Israeli occupation of Palestine. On one occasion, I was able to travel to Nablus in northern West Bank where Jacob’s well is located. Nablus is one of the flashpoints of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, a conflict rooted in the dispossession of Palestinians of their ancestral domains (Nakba). Sacred to the Jews as well as Christians, Jacob’s Well is located inside a church built to commemorate the meeting between Jesus and the Samaritan woman who, though not named in John’s Gospel, is given the name Photine by ancient Eastern Christian tradition. On the right side of the church is a shrine- a reliquary tomb- of a priest who was once a custodian of the well. He met a violent end when he was hacked to death by Israeli settlers hostile to the presence not only of Palestinians, but also of Christians.
I do remember sitting by Jacob’s Well from which one could still draw water. Water is such a precious thing in Israel and Palestine. Unlike the Philippines, my country of 7100 islands surrounded by water, in Israel and Palestine, water could get scarce. Sometimes, Israelis (the Occupying Power) would siphon water off from the Palestinians. This was (is?) the case in Bethlehem (located in the Palestinian West Bank). The Israelis took over the water supply to divert it for use in the Israeli territories. As if that wasn’t unjust enough, the Israelis also decided to sell water back to Palestinians from whom they stole water. Anyways, there I was in Nablus and it was a good thing to be able to sit there in that church and pray for peace in the Holy Land, to pray for the cessation of hostilities and hatred that have claimed so many lives on both side. I could only pray for that day to come when enemies lay down their weapons and embrace one another in mercy and love.
The Gospel story today should be understood against the background of the Jewish-Samaritan conflict that originated hundreds of years before Jesus was born. One theory concerning the conflict centers on the split of the Davidic/Solomonic kingdom into two around 930 BCE – with the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south. The split produced not only political but also religious rivalries. Samaria became the capital of the north with Mount Gerizim as the focal point of worship while Jerusalem was the capital in the south with the Temple on Mount Zion as the center of cult. When the northern kingdom was later destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BCE, the Israelites were carted off into exile, but a remnant remained and intermarried with non-Israelites in violation of the Deuteronomic law against intermarriage (Dt. 7:3-5). The people of the southern kingdom of Judah- who came to be called Jews- came to consider these northern survivors “impure” and had nothing to do with them.
Despite the conflict, it should be remembered that Jews and Samaritans both acknowledged themselves as descendants of Abraham and Jacob, and shared the first five books of the Hebrew Testament (Mosaic books). They were, after all, siblings, albeit, in rivalry.
The animosity lingered into the time of Jesus. Jews avoided Samaritans. In fact, if one were to travel up north to Galilee from, let’s say, Jerusalem, one had to pass through the hostile area of Samaria and so, Jews would rather take a longer route along the Jordan so as to avoid contamination with Samaritans. So when John 4:4 says “…he had to go through Samaria”, in fact, Jesus did NOT have to go through Samaria. It was the usual practice to avoid going through Samaria.
Why would Jesus, a Jew, travel through hostile territory and not avoid it? Also, if one opted to pass through Samaria, it would be better to go through as quickly as possible so as to avoid contamination with these “dogs” or “half-breeds” as the Samaritans were disparagingly called. But it appears that Jesus took his sweet time, even making a detour to Jacob’s Well. The Gospel (v.6) says he went through the city of Sychar and in that city Jacob’s Well “was there”. But based on one archeological theory, the well was about one kilometer away from the city. The well was not in the city proper it seems. So Jesus lingered in a hostile area, first, going through Sychar and then past it to go to the well. That’s a long way off just to get water! These two details should alert us that Jesus was up to something.
What was his purpose? What did he want? As the story unfolds, we discover that he deliberately entered into an area of conflict seeking dialogue and reconciliation with the “enemies”. He was pushing the “social envelope” so to speak when he deliberately entered Samaritan territory. He was about to dismantle the centuries old hostility not by violence but by the force of love.
A Samaritan woman came along. Did she, too, come from the city? If so, that would have raised the question why she had to come from afar. Were there no working wells in the city? Or, perhaps she was just living nearby. It was “noon” (v. 6). If it was during the hot months, noontime would have been a brutal time to be fetching water. [Believe me, I lived there during the summer and it was miserable!] If (a) she came from a great distance and (b) in such inclement weather, perhaps (a) she was avoiding people from the city, and/or (b) avoiding people, period. A loner of sorts. More on this later.
So when she got to the well, the woman was surprised on many levels:
So the presence of Jesus would have created an atmosphere of emotional tension- of unease, to say the least.
“Give me a drink”(v. 6), Jesus says to the Samaritan woman. One wonders why Jesus didn’t simply draw water from the well for himself. He could have avoided speaking to the woman, and that would have spared both of them from some discomfort. But with these words of request, a Jew abased himself before a person considered by his people “inferior” and “impure”. With these simple words showing his need, Jesus tried to disarm the woman who viewed him with not a low degree of suspicion. Importantly, he manifested his humility, and clearly the woman did not expect it.
In reflecting on the life of Jesus- particularly Christ’s helplessness in infanthood, and powerlessness in his suffering passion, and his thirst on the Cross- the Discalced Carmelite nun, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), said that in Jesus, God shows his vulnerability.1 As a baby and child, Jesus had to depend on human love; on the Cross, Jesus expressed “thirst” for human love. Before us, God makes himself vulnerable. God in Jesus shows himself as needing us to love him as much as we need God’s love. Jesus longs, and thirsts for us.
Something like what Saint Thérèse said, I believe, is at work in this story. Jesus started with a literal request for water to quench his thirst but the request came to have a mystical meaning. Jesus had a deeper thirst which he would like the woman to quench- even if she was a “dog”. As God, Jesus chose to need her. Here, Jesus shows us the vulnerability of God in his approach towards us. He comes to us poor, making himself powerless, in humility and in need of our love. God chooses to feel a “lack” that we alone can satisfy through our love. God feels a deep thirst for our love which we alone can satiate. God who is Plenitude comes to us in need! That is, God chooses to need us!
Now, the woman wasn’t too inclined to be hospitable and she did not readily provide the needed water. In fact, she chided him (paraphrasing her): “You, a Jew, asking a Samaritan for a drink?” Then Jesus shifted to a mystical level of talk about some “living water” (v. 10) that he would like to give her. This “living water” is a “spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (v. 14). And those who drink this living water “will never be thirsty” (v. 14). From the eternity of God’s being flows this “living water” of love that will satisfy human thirst for God. Those who seek to quench the thirst of God for human love will in turn have their thirst for God satisfied. When we respond in our feeble ways to fill God’s thirst and need for love, he will flood us with his living water that wells up from his innermost being. Abyssus abyssum invocat. (Ps. 42:7) The abyss of our thirst for love calls forth to God’s abyss of love, and the flood of his “living water” will sweep us away into himself.
What is interesting here is that Jesus did not set any precondition in offering this “living water” of divine love. He offered it readily to an “enemy”. He offered it readily to a religious rival. He offered it to a person of questionable moral status. As my former professor, the late Fr. Raymond Brown said, Jesus refused to “be blocked by the obstacle of a far-from-perfect life”.2
When the woman asked for this “living water” she was still probably thinking literally of water so that she did not have to fetch from a far off well. In any case, Jesus responded to her request with a request of his own: “Bring your husband” (v. 17). That was a strange request, and the woman wasn’t expecting that. She tried to hide the truth from Jesus. But Jesus called her out by saying that he knew she had had five husbands and was currently not married to the man she was living with. Now, talk about a conversation stopper! Why did Jesus have to mention that at all? The impact on us (and I bet on the woman) is disorienting.
The woman became defensive. To deflect Jesus, she conjured a theological smokescreen to hide the painful truth by engaging in a theological debate regarding the rival religious claims as to where God’s exact “seat” on planet earth was (v. 20). But Jesus wasn’t interested in engaging with her on this level. He wasn’t interested in playing puny theological games, and he dismissed her with these words “… 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” (vv 23-24). Jesus declared universal salvation which would have been shocking: God comes to everyone and anyone who seeks in truth and spirit of charity. No one has a monopoly on God- Jew or Samaritan.
I remember my seminary days when I did hospital chaplaincy. When I would go into a cardiac or cancer ward, patients would usually try to engage me initially through some church talk or some points of creed or doctrine (as if the reason why I came to visit them was to have a catechism class), but sooner or later, I would divert their attention from such talk to what truly is crucial, asking, “So, how are you with this cancer?” “How are you doing with having this heart attack?” “How are you holding up?”
One of Leonard Cohen’s song contains these lyrics: “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” It is through the cracks, the brokenness in our souls, our brokenheartedness where the light of grace comes to shine through. When the woman began pontificating about the correct and proper locus of worship- Is God in Mount Zion or Mount Gerizim?- Jesus cut her short. He was more interested in reaching her where it hurt so that the light of grace could come through. Jesus said to her (I am paraphrasing): “Let’s not talk about theology. Let’s really talk about what’s hurting you. I know you’re hurting, and I want to reach out to that pain.”… And that pain has something to do with the shame she was hiding. Was she avoiding people because she had been the talk of the city for having had five husbands, or living with a man who wasn’t her husband?
Many things have been said about the woman having five husbands. Was she a woman of loose morals? Maybe, or maybe not. A woman living in a patriarchal society put her in a social and economic precarious position. Women at that time depended on male kin- father, spouse or sons- for economic support. Perhaps the Samaritan woman’s previous husbands died or divorced her, and she could have survived only by remarrying, or in the absence of marriage and male relatives willing to support her, through cohabitation. If her previous spouse(s) died, she might have been deemed a “cursed” woman (a black widow), and perhaps that was the reason why her current live-in partner would not marry her. We really don’t know of her situation. Whatever the case might have been, the woman would have been considered a person with an irregular status that brought shame.
The woman tried to hide her hurt: “I have no husband” (v.17). But Jesus delved deeper into her pain and told her he knew about her situation. All he wanted to do is apply the salve of love where it hurt. What the startling thing about this is that Jesus did not really care about her marital status. Not even her moral status. He didn’t tell her to confess her sins first before she could avail herself of grace. Jesus didn’t make an initial demand of a moral change by leaving her live-in partner. He sets no moral precondition for grace and love.
More than thirty years ago when I was in seminary, I read a book by E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism.3 In it, he painstakingly tried to show that the historical Jesus was an observant Jew, a follower of the Mosaic Law. However, he did mention that what separated Jesus from his peers was that he did not rigidly insist on religious observance when it came to the proclamation of the merciful love of God. He admitted the “irregulars” into his presence without reservations. John Dominic Crossan called this- in his book, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography- the practice of open commensality- i.e., Jesus sitting down in “open” table fellowship with tax collectors, sinners, and the ritually impure of his day without any preconditions.4 Jesus tells us that we don’t earn, or merit or buy God’s love. God is simply ready to flood our souls with the “living water “of his love. Our failings do not repel but only attracts the mercy and love of God. Another Discalced Carmelite nun, Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity (1880-1906), once said, “The abyss of our misery attracts the abyss of God’s mercy”. But pastors could forget the primacy of grace and what Pope Francis termed as the “logic of pastoral mercy”. The Pope warns us of this danger in his Amoris Laetitia (2016),
For this reason, a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives. This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings, ‘sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality difficult cases and wounded families’… By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God. Let us remember that ‘a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties’… In every situation, when dealing with those who have difficulties in living God’s law to the full, the invitation to pursue the via caritatis must be clearly heard. Fraternal charity is the first law of Christians (cf. Jn 15:12; Gal 5:14). [305, 306]5
When the Samaritan woman experienced Jesus’s unconditional love, she wanted to let everyone know of this. And we read that Jesus’ unconditional love transformed her into a missionary. She rushed back into the city, informing the people about the presence of the Messiah: “Come, and see…” (v.29) She brought them into personal contact with Jesus. Love empowered her to proclaim the Good News.
And in this story that has been told of her in many generations, the Samaritan woman continues to invite us to “Come, and see…” Come and see the God who awaits you- this God who thirsts for you, and is ready to fill your own thirst with the “living water” of his mercy and love…
2 Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (MA: Yale University Press, 1997), 343.
3 E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (MN: Fortress Press, 1985).
4 John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (NY: Harper Collins, 1995).
© 2022 Noel E. Bordador
Noel Bordador is a queer Episcopal priest in the Philippines. He runs Nazareth House, a Catholic Worker House of Hospitality for persons with HIV/AIDS in Manila.
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