Five Minute Devotions: John 4
Jesus’s conversation in John 4 is a sharp contrast to his conversation in John 3. Nicodemus is a well-respected leader of Israel, one of the seventy legislators called the Sanhedrin. The woman at the well is a social pariah, a community outcast. It would have been anathema for Jesus to talk with her for any number of reasons.
Any well-respected Jew would have avoided Samaria completely. When the Assyrians drove out the nation of Israel some six hundred years prior, they brought in a whole host of other conquered people groups. This hodgepodge of refugees were forced to come together as a community in order to survive and became the Samaritans.
Because of the pagan beliefs of Assyria (and Israel) at the time, the Samaritans were also forced to take Yahweh as their God. In the Ancient Near East, the gods were seen as regional and territorial. To conquer a geographical area meant to take on its god as well. In 2 Kings 17, the settlers write to the king of Assyria:
The settlers said to the king of Assyria, “The nations that you have deported and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the requirements of the god of the land.
The king sends back an unnamed priest who had been deported, tasked with teaching the people the worship of Yahweh. And thus begins a pagan form of Judaism, taking on the name of Yahweh, and even building a temple.
When the Jews returned to the land some two hundred years later, the Samaritans refused to give up their homeland. This was a source of always uneasy and sometimes broiling tension. The Jewish army destroyed the Samaritan temple in the first century BC. Roman rule had only brought further division. Walking through Samaria as a first-century Jew would the equivalent of a twenty-first century Jew walking through Saudi Arabia. It shouldn’t have ended well. But Scripture says he “must needs” (KJV) travel through it.
In this unlikely of journeys, Jesus meets an unlikely person. The male-dominated culture of the first century didn’t look too kindly on women. It would have been culturally inappropriate for Jesus to have struck up a conversation. For a rabbi, especially, to speak to a woman would have been seen as shocking.
So many retellings of this story seem to place the blame for the woman’s failed marriages at her feet. Five times divorced and currently shacked up with her latest fling. But nothing could be further from the truth. Women didn’t hold that kind of power in the first century. Their marital status was rarely their own. Women had no power to divorce. Men could divorce for any reason.
Marriage—or at least the financial provision of a man—was a societal necessity. Her story tells us that her father is dead. That she has no sons. Perhaps this is what has led to her multiple rejections from multiple husbands. Perhaps this is what has kept her current man from committing to a marriage relationship.
Whatever the case, her situation would have been a source of social shame. What must her life be like? Despised and rejected by men, she would meet someone who knew exactly how she felt.
Further, she is a Samaritan. So when Jesus asks her for a drink, she is shocked. Like Nicodemus, she asks a “How?” question. How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a Samaritan woman? She isn’t asking about Jesus’s method of speaking; she’s asking about the nature of this man who would flout social convention to speak with her.
Jesus’s reply is enigmatic. If only you knew who you were talking to… He establishes this metaphor of living water, which contrasts to the still water of a well. This leads to a sarcastic question from the Samaritan woman that hits upon the truth. You’re not greater than our father Jacob, are you?
It was Jacob who dug out this well over a millennium before. To the Samaritans, this ancient well was the source of life. Jesus points her beyond the physical and into the spiritual. Their conversation ends with Jesus’s clearest admission of who he is:
The woman said to him, “I know that the Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Jesus told her, “I, the one speaking to you, am he.”
Unlike Nicodemus, who seems to have become a secret follower or at least a quiet skeptic, this unnamed woman immediately takes action. And the result is incredible. While the people of God seek to kill him, the mongrel interlopers with their heretical religion repent and recognize him as Messiah.
If this was written as a fiction, Nicodemus would have received the acclaim and the glory. He would have been the one using his power and platform to transform the Jewish community and inaugurate the Kingdom of Messiah. Instead, that honor goes to an unnamed woman, the first great missionary, who used her own testimony to bring others to Christ.
Lord of the harvest, give us the courage to overcome our position in society to boldly share your Gospel. The field is ripe; help us find our place with others in the harvest. May others find the testimony of our changed lives reason enough to explore who you are for themselves.
What might the initial reaction to the Samaritan woman have been? From the disciples? From the townspeople? The man she lived with?
How does John use this narrative to contrast with the reactions of the Jewish people?
The header image is from a 12th century Georgian manuscript of the New Testament, currently housed in the Center of Manuscripts, Tibilisi, Georgia.
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