Living Water – Br. James Koester

John 4:5-42

Religious art is fascinating, not simply because of what it depicts, but how the artist portrays the subject matter. Art, in whatever form, is about interpretation, and the arts acts as the interpreter, using a particular medium or form to do so, with each interpretation radically different than the next. It is fascinating to see how different artists interpret and portray the same subject.

One such piece of art that fascinates me, and I’ve seen it several times, is a small porcelain figurine that depicts this encounter between Jesus, and the Samaritan woman. [1]

Jesus sits on one side of the well. He is tall, handsome, masculine, with lots of shoulder length hair. He is deep in conversation with the woman. She stands, leaning over with her elbow resting on the wellhead. She looks directly at Jesus. Her hair is loose and flowing, and her dress is falling off one shoulder. Her hand is under her chin, just so. She is enticing, alluring, and attractive.

What this piece of art says about the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is no mystery. In spite of the fact that these figures are purest white (and perhaps that’s on purpose), the message is in technicolour. There is no mistaking that a seduction is in the process. The women, and Jesus, ooze sexuality. You can’t miss the message.

But then, this is how the story has been told to us over the years. It is, after all, the story of an encounter between Jesus and a woman who has had five husbands, and the one she has now is not [her] husband.[2] Why else would she find herself at the well in the middle of the day, when the heat most intense, and no one else is around? Because of her lifestyle, she is humiliated, isolated and ostracized from her community. It’s clear from the context, and what is revealed about her, that she is someone with few morals. She is someone to avoid.

That’s what the porcelain figurine tells us. That’s what the Fourth Gospel tells us. Or is it? Is it?

In the last generation or so, biblical scholarship, like artists, has been looking at Scripture though different lenes; seeing other possibilities than the ones we have always seen. This is especially true as more women examine gospel texts through the lens of their own experience, as scholars, and as women, and try to discover the experience of the women in Jesus’ inner circle of friends, intimates and disciples.

This is certainly true of this passage, which for so long has been subject of certain stereotypical assumptions about the character of this particular woman.

So how might we read this story differently than the way we have read it in the past?

The same day some Sadducees came to [Jesus], saying there is no resurrection; and they asked him a question, saying, ‘Teacher, Moses said, “If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.” Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother. The second did the same, so also the third, down to the seventh. Last of all, the woman herself died. In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.’[3]

One reading of the text is that she is the unfortunate widow of five brothers, and now finds herself widowed once again, this time with no one in the family left to marry her. No one else in the community dares marry her, fearing she is somehow cursed, having had five husbands die. All she can do is to abandon hope, and seek the protection of any man who would take her in, even if it means living with him outside the bonds of marriage.

Another reading of the text suggests that she is equally unfortunate, having married five men, all of whom divorced her for a variety of reasons.

Some Pharisees came, and to test [Jesus] they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ [4]

Divorce was simple, and while a man could divorce his wife for many reasons, a woman could not divorce her husband. Perhaps childless, her husbands had divorced her one by one, in order to marry another to secure an heir. Whatever the reason, it is not her morals, but her situation which has left her reputation in ruins, and forced her to allow herself to be taken in by anyone who would offer her the security of a home.

In both these more sympathetic interpretations, the Samaritan woman’s visit to the well in the heat of the noonday sun retains its power. Alone, isolated, craving kindness, goodness, sympathy, even intimacy and companionship, she makes her way to the well, and to her surprise she finds sitting there a man, Jesus, who takes her seriously; doesn’t condemn, or demean her; and offers her the one thing necessary,[5] living water. [To] those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’[6]

Laying aside for a moment the Samaritan Woman’s husbands; the numbers of them; why she had five and was currently living with one not her husband; and her reasons for being at the well alone, during the heat of the day, what other details in the story bear significance to its meaning as a whole?

There are details in the story that follow the pattern of other gospel stories, especially stories that tell of the call to discipleship.

Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’[7]

After the conversation about water and living water, the revelation about her husbands, and the meaning of worship, the disciples return with food. It is at this point that the women leaves her water-jar, and returns to the city telling people to come and see. It’s important to note that in other encounters with Jesus, others too leave things behind.

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.[8]

Like other disciples who left all in order to follow Jesus, the Samaritan woman leaves behind her water-jar, in order to call others into an encounter with the Lord. Like other disciples who say come and see[9] she too invites the residents of Sychar to encounter Jesus: Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’[10]

While her profession of faith is not quite that of Andrew: ‘We have found the Messiah’[11] or that of Nathaniel: ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’[12] Or that of Martha: ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’[13] It is none the less a step toward faith, and she begins to see Jesus as the Messiah, and invites others to see him as such.

In this way, the Samaritan woman sets the stage, and invites others into an encounter with Jesus, just as do other disciples.

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’[14]

It’s in this way that the Samaritan woman brings us back to the opening verses of John’s gospel: to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.[15]

Read in this way, the story of the Samaritan woman is a story of discipleship, of conversion, of confession. It is a reminder that God’s invitation to belief is not for the select few, but rather for all who long to drink deeply from the well of living water and eternal life.

The story of the Samaritan woman is a story of longing for connection and reconnection, not only to the communities from which we come, but a connection to God who calls us from our past, into a future, God’s future, where we know ourselves to be born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

In this way, the story of the Samaritan woman is a reminder that we too have been invited to become God’s children, and like the Samaritan woman, to come to drink from Jesus, the living water of eternal life. And that is good news, no matter where you are from, your situation in life, or what others think of you.

Lectionary Year and Proper: The Third Sunday in Lent, Year A

[1] For a fuller analysis of the Samaritan woman see the essays by Harold Attridge, Steven Hunt and Peter Phillips in Character Studies in the Fourth Gospel, Eerdmans, 2013, pages 269ff, as well as The Women in the Gospel of John by Judith Kaye Jones, Chalice Press, 2004, page 13 ff, and The Women in the Life of the Bridegroom, by Adeline Fehribach, The Liturgical Press, 1998, page 45ff.

[2] John 4: 18

[3] Matthew 22: 23 – 28

[4] Mark 10: 2 – 4

[5] Luke 10: 42

[6] John 4: 14

[7] John 4: 28 – 29

[8] Matthew 4: 18 – 20

[9] John 1: 46

[10] John 4: 29

[11] John 1: 41

[12] John 1: 49

[13] John 11: 27

[14] John 4: 39 – 42

[15] John 1: 12 – 13

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