Fifteen years ago, a friend shared an insight from scripture. I lay awake most of that night turning over what she’d said, and I’ve remembered it ever since, mostly because I profoundly disagreed.
She was talking about the story of “the woman at the well“. Quick recap: Jesus strikes up a conversation with a woman drawing water and reveals himself as the Messiah, first to her and subsequently to her whole village. My friend’s observation was drawn mainly from this line: “Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.'”
“I read this story a bunch of times,” she said, “and this time it just hit me: Jesus is callin’ her a ho! He is totally in her face! We gotta confront people over their sin, because look what can happen if we do… she and her whole village got saved!”
Now first let me say, balancing Jesus’ message of grace and truth is a tricky business and none of us consistently gets it right. Maybe my friend had been way over on the side of ignoring damaging behavior, even among those close to her. Maybe, with this new conviction, she was emboldened to show them a better way out of their self-destruction (think of an alcoholic intervention). I do believe that, reading it as God intended in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, scripture is alive and active, and different aspects of a story may strike different believers differently, depending on the word that God has to speak into their particular situation.
That said, here is how the story of the woman at the well strikes me. (For convenience, for the remainder of this post, I will refer to “the woman at the well” as “Allison”.)
Who is she?
To me, the first thing worth noting in the story is that confrontation about her sin (a form of social pressure) is the last thing that Allison needs. The social pressure on her is already turned to 11. How do we know? Just take a look at where Jesus found her:
So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon, when a Samaritan woman came to draw water.
Things to know:
Nobody goes to collect water at noon. Have you heard the expression, “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun”? It originated in India, but it could equally well apply to the Middle East. Carrying a heavy water jug in the midday heat is lunacy. Instead, normal women go at the crack of dawn, all together. It’s fun! They chat, they socialize. The only way you’d go at noon is if you were such a social outcast that you couldn’t tolerate any of that.
She’s an hour outside of town. Jacob’s well was a mile and a half out into the middle of the desert from Sychar, about an hour’s walk. Lots of other wells were closer. Again, what is Allison doing out there? The most obvious answer is that she badly, badly wants to avoid running into anyone.
What she’s used to
Jewish men of the first century were not shy. Doubly so for a religious leader like Christ. Suffice it to say, when one of them called you a whore, you knew it. It didn’t take multiple close readings of the text to tease it out.
Most of the time, however, they said nothing at all, because Samaritans were their northern heretic cousins, so in their view, any Samaritan (and especially a woman) was simply beneath contempt. The text clearly reflects Allison’s astonishment when Christ even condescends to speak to her: “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)”
They begin to converse somewhat comfortably, until Christ ventures onto a sore spot, bringing out an answer from Allison that is all half-truth and evasion:
He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
“I have no husband,” she replied.
Much of the bible is culturally pretty inaccessible to us, but a world where a woman would rather walk an hour into the mid-day heat than see another person… that is not so far removed. Her story could just as easily have been set in Puritan America; she is only missing the scarlet letter. In a world like that, our heroine only meets two categories of people: those who know what she is and shun her, and those who don’t know what she is.
The Jesus surprise
In that kind of context, what do we make of the statement that seemed so confrontational to my friend? Is Jesus really “calling out her sin” and “getting in her face”? As I read it, the answer is no. Rather, Christ is pulling one of his favorite tricks and confounding expectations.
By restating the source of her shame in the gentlest and most non-confrontational language possible, Christ declines to fit into either of her pre-defined categories. He is something new, unexpected, revolutionary: a person who knows what she is but doesn’t shun her. That’s the point that blows the doors off, and it’s only ten verses later that the woman who was too ashamed to show her face at the watering hole that morning is running down Main Street announcing the coming of the Messiah.
Regular old confrontation, regular old judgment, regular old shame… we’ve had all these available to us for thousands of years before Christ. None of that is transformative; none of that was why Christ needed to come, and live, and die, and rise. We sell our birthright for pottage when we walk up to a stranger and casually condemn. Let us rather walk up to a stranger in unexpected love and grace and mercy; it is in that context that the message of Messiah can be spoken and heard. Remember John 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
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