It was mid-day when Jesus approached the well outside the Samaritan village of Sychar. It was near his path as he traveled from Jerusalem to Galilee, a lengthy journey through the heart of Samaritan country. By this time, the sun was hot and hard, baking the ground and the travelers who walked upon it; it is no small wonder that Jesus found the well to a welcome place of rest, choosing to sit near its edge.
By all expectations, he would have sat alone. The scorching assault of the noon-day sun made for a poor time to draw water, and the common practice was to draw from the well in the early morning or at dusk, as the heat of the day had dissipated and the task of carrying a water-laden bucket was less arduous. Perhaps even more prescient, however, was the simple fact that the village of Sychar already bore a well within the confines of the village itself. The idea that a resident of Sychar would travel beyond the walls of the village to an out-of-the-way well under the oppressive heat of midday belies the deep need to go unnoticed, to avoid one’s peers, and the willingness to endure undue hardship simply to remove one’s self from the possibility of awkward and unnecessary interaction.
In other words, these were the behaviors of an outcast.
So, then, when the Samaritan woman approached the well to discover Jesus already seated there, I imagine her heart stopped. Every social convention was about to be broken: the social outcast, a woman despised by her own society, now encountering a Jewish male alone near a road beyond the edges of her village. Worse, Jesus then spoke to her.
Her response makes sense. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?”1 That there was animosity between the two cultures is an understatement. Josephus, the great Jewish-Roman historian of antiquity, records a history of violence between the two people groups. Jewish caravans would be raided by Samaritan brigands; in response, Samaritan villages would be attacked and slaughtered by Jewish militias. The woman’s hesitancy went beyond mere convention; she had good reason to fear for her safety.
But then, Jesus did something amazing. He went deeper. He piqued her curiosity with tales of living water that would sate an eternal thirst. This woman who traveled beneath the noon-day sun to an out-of-the-way well saw an opportunity to be freed from the hardship imposed on her by the society which cast her off. Her excitement is palpable as she leans in, and we can hear it in her voice, even through the text thousands of years later. “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”2
And water he gave, though not as she expected. He exposed her shame; but here, too, it was a shame imposed upon her rather than one she took on herself. Five husbands she has had, and the man she was then with was not her husband at all. It should be recognized that in this ancient patriarchal culture, women had no power to divorce. Men, and men alone, were awarded that “privilege.” That she had five such husbands spoke of abuse, not immorality. She was used, and then she was discarded. Even now, the man with whom she lived was unwilling to marry; that is, he was willing to make use of her, but unwilling to take responsibility in caring for her.
Jesus was different.
He used a well beyond the outskirts of town to reveal living water; he used her secret escape from the village to reveal her need for a messiah; he then used that revelation to introduce her to the messiah, the savior of the world.
This woman became the first evangelist. Her brokenness became her strength. Her shame became her witness. It was this woman, the same woman who went out of her way to avoid the villagers that despised her, who then left the bucket which drew her to the well and ran to the same village she avoided. It was the brokenness of her life that became the window to the Messiah. Her evangelistic cry was not the Roman’s Road, nor was it some intellectualized Christian Apologetic. Her cry was authenticity.
“Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?”3
Something shook this woman. The impact was clear and notable. The people came… in droves. Through the outcast, Jesus entered the village. For two days he remained, proclaiming to them the kingdom of God. By the end, not only was the village itself changed, but so was the woman. The outcast, the rejected, the shamed and despised one now stood as the herald of truth, the beacon of the Messiah, and the first caller of the Way.
This is our calling as well.
When the faith to which we cling becomes something trapped within our intellect rather than something lived and embodied, then we have lost much of what gives Christianity its power. When the call to “go” overrides the call to “come and see,” then we have forgotten the Light of the World that blazes forth out of our own brokenness and personal darkness. Christianity is never something that can be merely told; it must be entered into, it must be lived, it must put on flesh and come to reveal the Spirit-driven presence of the Messiah that comes to dwell in the hearts and minds of the children of God.
For the woman at the well that day, her encounter with Jesus led to the transformation of an entire village. Perhaps more importantly, however, it led to a transformation of her. The encounter healed the rift that had torn apart her life, and by the end the village welcomed her back amongst them. This same process – encounter, redemption, proclamation, transformation, and reconciliation – is the hope that Christianity brings to the world. It is in the merging of the personal encounter with societal transformation that the kingdom of God shines forth. It may begin with a call to go, but it finds its power in the call to “come and see.”
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 indeed the Savior of the world.”4
About the author: T E Hanna is the author of Raising Ephesus: Christian Hope for a Post-Christian Age. He blogs regularly on issues of faith and culture at OfDustAndKings.com.
1 Jn 4:9.
2 Jn 4:15.
3 Jn 4:29.
4 Jn 4:42.