The Samaritan woman whom Jesus meets at the well has consistently made it onto every list of “the bad girls of the Bible” ever compiled. The usual interpretation paints a picture of a woman living on the outskirts of the society, so much so that she prefers to come to the well when all others would stay out of the heat of the noon-day sun: presumably, she just can’t stand facing the villagers who are all too fully aware of her habit of changing lovers like gloves. So, as the one who’s got so little to lose by way of a reputation, she can afford to speak at lengths to an unfamiliar male. But when she does so, she sounds cynical, and hostile. Finally, once Jesus manages to impress her with supernatural knowledge re. her past, she is convinced of the inadequacy of her beliefs.
Now… What if I told you a different story? By the way, I wouldn’t want to do it in order to argue about which one is more plausible; but simply to say that stereotypical paradigms occasionally benefit from revisiting. For example, what if this woman was widowed multiple times and passed along from one brother-in-law to another, as prescribed by the Mosaic law – and, as the only way to ensure her survival? For she doesn’t seem to be a woman of means if she has to fetch her own water. Worse, what if she wasn’t widowed, but abandoned by her five husbands due to her infertility or physical/mental illness, like another woman whom Jesus healed from her chronic bleeding? If such scenarios did not exist, would the Pharisees keep trying to trick Jesus with questions regarding divorce, or which man would claim a woman in heaven if she was widowed multiple times? Imagine having to adjust to a life in six different households, always assuming the lowest social standing among possibly several other wives (polygamy was not yet quite extinct, despite the Roman law!). Any one or a combination of these circumstances could have made her depressed and uninterested in the chatter at the well. That’s if she was avoiding others at all, given that in the summer, noon-time is not yet the hottest hour, and in the winter, it would have been the most pleasant.
When we expand some of our assumptions, suddenly the mysteriously scandalous “femme fatale” begins to look more and more like a woman burdened by the tragedies of her past and present, and who has little hope for anything different in the future. Her questions do not sound cynical, but reveal a thirst for healing – physical and spiritual, not at all different from that of our own. St John Chrysostom once wrote that the depth of the well at which Jesus meets the woman speaks to the depth of the suffering God has shared with us. This woman knows of the covenantal promises God made to the ancestors she shares with Jesus – if one looks far enough down the genealogy lines, for example, towards Joseph, presumably, buried at this very well. This long-suffering patriarch experienced a full measure of pain, from the sibling rivalry rooted in two generations of preferential treatment, to near murder and enslavement, and wrongful imprisonment at the peak of his power in Egypt. But in meeting Jesus, what she finds at the well is not an old grave, but a place of new life, new love, new relationships – much like Joseph’s grandma Rebekah once did, upon serving a drink to Abraham’s servant and in exchange, receiving a marriage proposal! Of course, in our story, the woman doesn’t get to marry Jesus and live “happily ever after” like a fairytale princess; but theologically, she represents the Church, which in some traditions is called “the bride” or Christ because of the covenantal nature of our relationship with the Creator.
Many of us who are here today are well acquainted with suffering and grief. Yet, we are willing both to serve Christ, and to receive from him healing, learning, and dignity. We desire a deep sense of belonging, as that which sustains us and inspires us to treat others how we want to be treated. We seek to understand what it might mean to worship him in “spirit and in truth”. May we find encouragement in this story, as it shows us that Jesus has a real desire to give the woman a gift of faith. He spoke to her about himself, in a way that was much more direct than he ever used with the Jews or even his own disciples, and she did come away filled with new hope and understanding.
And, here’s another symbol of her inward change: in contrast to the disciples, who went to the village to bring OUT of it the ordinary bread, she brought INTO it the “bread of life”. If she was truly a woman of ruined reputation, I doubt her people would pay her much heed. I also doubt she would be so eager to announce that Jesus “knew her past”. Instead, what she seems to say with the words “he knows all about me” is that Jesus has fulfilled her greatest need – that is, the need to be truly understood. This kind of patient, non-judgmental, empathetic understanding, realistic of both one’s weakness and gifts, is indeed that healing draft of love we can offer to each other; that metaphorical water that quenches all thirst forever. It is the kind of an approach to meeting people that will not put a label of “badness” on someone without first hearing her full story. Or cause us to look at each other, or on Instagram, and only see “normal” people whose seeming successes give us a reason to be sad or jealous. Of course, this kind of willingness to truly know one another comes at the cost of occasional discomfort and awkwardness, and involves an element of risk taking. That’s what Jesus chose to do. And, he also said that by giving a drink to the least of those around us, we give a drink to him. So this Lent, let us continue to journey with the God who knows us perfectly, and begin to truly “see” and know each other.
Leave a Reply