Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Third Sunday of Lent, 12th of March 2023
Today’s story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is one of my favourite stories in the entire Bible, with one of my favourite characters. I love it so much that I asked to have it as one of the Bible readings at my ordination, because I have long identified with this nameless Samaritan woman. I am, however, swimming against the tide of biblical interpretation, because throughout history this Samaritan woman has been defamed.
The story starts with Jesus sitting alone by a well, when a woman approaches to draw water. John tells us that it is about noon. Immediately we know that there is something wrong in this woman’s life. She is coming to the well in the heat of the day, rather than in the cool of the dawn or early evening. She is coming alone, rather than with the other women of the village. This woman is an outsider, isolated from her community. And yet Jesus, a Jewish man, asks her for a drink.
The woman is naturally astonished and asks: ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ The answer, which the woman is not given explicitly but which is implicit in the story, is that neither her gender nor her nationality matter to Jesus. Jesus speaks with her as a human being, not as a ‘Samaritan woman’. As he did in the conversation with Nicodemus that we heard last week, Jesus relates to her as a teacher to a disciple. He tells the woman that he can offer her ‘living water’. The woman responds: ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’ Like Nicodemus, who responds to Jesus’ statement that one must be born from above by asking how anyone can re-enter the womb, the woman at first misunderstands and takes Jesus’ metaphorical language literally.
Then comes the part of the story with which I identify most, when Jesus tells the woman that he knows she has no husband, but that she has had five in the past and is now living with a man who is not her husband – and the woman instantly asks him a theological question. This woman has obviously been pondering how to worship God properly for a long time: where is the right place to worship?; are the Samaritans or the Jews right? Suddenly, she comes across a prophet, someone who might have the answer, and so she immediately asks him.
This is one of the reasons that this story is my favourite; because of the eagerness of this woman to learn, an eagerness that leads her to ignore the strangeness of the whole encounter or anything Jesus says about her personal life. And Jesus answers her question. He does not say anything more about her private life, which does not seem to be important to him, either. In the same way that the Uniting Church decided that my sexuality was not an impediment to my ordination, Jesus does not believe that the woman’s unusual life is an impediment to their engagement. Instead he talks theology with her, taking her desire to learn seriously: ‘the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.’ Then he announces to the woman who he is, the Messiah for whom the woman has been waiting.
‘Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that [Jesus] was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?”’ It is interesting that the disciples are more shocked that Jesus is talking with a woman than that he’s talking with a Samaritan. Their response reminds us just how extraordinary Jesus’ interactions with women were in the world in which he lived. Jesus had women disciples, who accompanied him and supported him and were present at his death. Jesus allowed Mary of Bethany to sit at his feet in the position of a student. And Jesus has his longest theological discussion with this Samaritan woman.
My final reason for liking this story is because it tells us of one of the first Christian evangelists. The Samaritan woman had been isolated, shunned by the people of her city. Maybe no one would marry her because she was seen to be bad luck – a woman whose husbands have all died. Maybe as a childless widow she had no choice but to live with a man who was not her husband if she wanted to survive. We do not know the full story of her life, we only know that she is shunned by her community, to the extent that she comes to the well at noon. And we know that none of that matters when she returns to the city to tell her community about Jesus and to begin the process that brings them to faith. They listen to her; they meet Jesus themselves; and they come to believe: ‘that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’
This is a wonderful story. Jesus’ interaction with this woman is not restricted by her gender or her nationality; she gets an answer to her theological question; and an entire Samaritan village comes to faith. This is something to celebrate, and the Samaritan woman is rightly remembered as one of Christianity’s earliest evangelists.
Often the story has not been read that way. The Samaritan woman is not seen as a theological seeker and evangelist. She is seen as a prostitute, because surely only a prostitute could have had five husbands and now be living with a man who is not her husband. One well-respected biblical commentator (Raymond Brown) describes her initial approach to Jesus as ‘mincing and coy’. Another commentator (Francis J. Moloney) says that when the woman asks Jesus ‘Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ she is speaking with ‘mocking surprise’. When her response to discovering Jesus is a prophet is to ask him a theological question, commentators suggest that she is simply changing an embarrassing subject.
One sermon on this passage that I have read, admittedly one from 1984 but which the preacher still has available on his website, imagines Jesus’ inner monologue to be: ‘I will show my disciples the worship that my father seeks and how he seeks it in the midst of real life from the least worthy. She is a Samaritan. She is a woman. She is a harlot.’ To this preacher the Samaritan woman is only of value as an object lesson to the disciples.
Why is the story read this way? I suspect it is because if this is not the story of a mincing and coy harlot who is trying to distract Jesus from her sins, then what we have here is a story of Jesus seriously engaging with a foreign woman who asks a theological question. And if that is what we see in this story, churches might need to take women seriously, too. All churches, not just the Uniting Church and others like us, might, for instance, have to ordain women.
This does not mean, of course, that the Samaritan woman could not also have acted as an object lesson to the disciples. We know that they were surprised to find Jesus talking with her. Teaching an insider like Nicodemus, a male leader among the Jews, would have been an expected and respected undertaking for a rabbi. Teaching an outside like this woman, a foreigner, would have been profoundly shocking. Last week I talked about Nicodemus’ journey, from someone who approaches Jesus under the cover of darkness, to someone who speaks up for Jesus among the religious leaders and teachers, to someone who bravely helps Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus’ body. I certainly do not want to condemn Nicodemus. But where he approached Jesus by night, this woman speaks with Jesus at noon; while he obviously needed time to move from ‘How can these things be?’ to faith, this woman immediately accepts that Jesus is the Messiah, and evangelises on his behalf to her community. I particularly like her evangelistic process: ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ She does not simply tell her community who Jesus is; she invites them to discover his identity for themselves. And they do! ‘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.’ Just as in the picture book scaredy cat Louise turns out to be as brave as Sheila Rae, this Samaritan woman is as brave and theologically astute as the ‘Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews’. Her story reminds us that Christianity has always been the faith of the outsiders, the over-looked and excluded. If we ever worry that our own situation, or things we have in our past, might exclude us from being part of the people of God, we can remember the faith of this Samaritan woman.
I am going to end with someone who said all this long before me, the author Dorothy L. Sayers. Today she is best known for her detective stories, but she was also an Anglican theologian, and in a talk she gave in the late 1930s she described the way Jesus interacted with women. The talk was titled ‘The Human-Not-Quite-Human’ and I’m going to leave you with what Sayers said:
Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man – there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious.
Imagine how different the history of Christianity would have been if more male church leaders had imitated Jesus.
 Dorothy L. Sayers, ‘The Human-Not-Quite-Human’, Unpopular Opinions, London: Victor Gollancz, 1951, pp. 121-2.