Mistaken

The encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at a well is one of the more popular stories told from the gospels. It’s often pointed out that she was three times an untouchable. First she was a Samaritan, considered despised half-breeds by any good Jew of the time. Samaritans were unclean, worse than pagans because of their apostasy of a temple and meshing of Hebrew and Gentile worship. Second she was a woman, considered little more than the property of a husband or father. Third, she was (as we find out near the end of the story) five times divorced and living with a man. Today we would call her, well, a harlot let’s say.

Because she came to draw water during the hottest part of the day, not in the cool of early morning with the other women from town, we can assume she wanted to avoid their sharp stares and sharper words. But beyond this, the woman is a little confounding. I’ve heard many interpretations of her questions, her attitude toward Jesus, her moral character. And I have to say that I think I disagree with most of them.

The most obvious one, for me, is the idea that she is a tramp, a whore. We see that she’s had five husbands and assume she’d just flitted from one to another as suited her. But that assumption is based on several other, flawed details. Women in that day weren’t permitted to file for divorce as they are today. It’s highly unlikely that she requested to end any, much less all, of these marriages. Rather than being driven to seek nights of passion with different men, as many preachers have said, I see her as having been tossed away, rejected by five different men who had committed to protecting and providing for her. Women had very few options in providing for themselves in that day, and the main one was prostitution. Rather than turning to this, she continued to subject herself to the increasingly hollow promises of “good men” to take care of her. Then, because she burned dinner or spoke out of turn, she was cast off. She is a woman who has been used up and tidily disposed of according to the rules of the day.

Now she’s found a man who has dispensed with the false promises. At least he’s honest. He puts a roof over her head and food on the table, which is as much as she can ask for. I don’t think her driving need has been lust; I think it’s been survival.

Another thing I think we’ve gotten wrong is her religious orientation. The girl has spunk. She’s at least learned to stand up to a man, speak to him directly rather than cowering. So when Jesus addresses her, she addresses him right back. He speaks in riddles; she answers very directly. And the thing I love about her responses is that they reveal a woman who has thought about God. About worship. About Jews and Samaritans. She believes in prophets. She believes in worshiping Yahweh. She believes the Messiah will come. We have to remember that many Jews had given up believing that God would make good on His covenant. They had placed their bets on allegiance with Rome. So to find this broken, discarded, half-Jewish woman alone at a well claiming that when the Messiah comes He’ll clear it all up – this should amaze us.

I think she’s longing for Him. I think she knows she’s used up. She knows this world has nothing to offer her after being let down by it time and time again. So when He comes to her, she draws close. And when He pulls her into His love, she finds in His fierce purity what she never found in all the sexual embraces she’d known. He fills her with living water, and it changes her. I don’t think Jesus converted her from whore to believer. I think He converted her from resigned seeker to a knower of God.

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