So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
In 922 BC, the ten northern tribes of Israel seceded from the union, and took the name with them. Israel--the northern kingdom--lasted almost exactly 200 years. It was defeated by the Assyrians in 722 BC. In order to decrease the possibility of future rebellions, the Assyrians moved some of the people out, and others in. The region became known as Samaria.
In 587 BC, the Babylonians conquered the remaining southern kingdom, Judah, and marched its leading citizens off to exile in Babylon. Soon after, the Persians conquered the Babylonians. The Persian leader, Cyrus the Great, allowed the exiles to return to Jerusalem. The exile had lasted about 50 years. In these intervening 50 years, as Ezra put it, the residents of Samaria had become "the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin"--the two tribes that had constituted the southern kingdom (4:1).
The returning exiles decided to rebuild the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians. The Samaritans asked to help, but were rebuffed. In a fit of pique, the Samaritans appealed to Cyrus and argued that allowing the building of Jerusalem's temple would inspire religious nationalism among the Judeans. Persia withdrew its support, but the Judeans proceeded anyway. (They disregarded the message cancelling support, and, instead, appealed to Cyrus' earlier permission--rather like Robert Kennedy at the time of the Cuban missile crisis who recommended disregarding Khrushchev's second, more hostile, message and appealing to the Soviets on the basis of Khrushchev's earlier, more conciliatory, message.) The dispute over the temple set hostilities between Judeans and Samaritans in concrete.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)* 10Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ 11The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ 13Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but 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.’ 15The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
Despite the mix of nationalities in Samaria, the Samaritans considered themselves descendents of the tribes of Ephraim and Manassah. This gave them a direct line to Jacob and Joseph. One irony of the situation was that the Samaritans actually held to a more conservative form of Israelite religion. They worshipped Yahweh, preserved a line of Levitical priests, and accepted the Torah as their holy book. (They did not accept the Writings or the Prophets.) Samaritan religion, in other words, turned out not to have been influenced by other religious traditions as much as the Judeans thought they were.
The Judeans, however, considered the Samaritans mongrels and half-breeds, thought their priesthood didn't count, and believed the Samaritan Torah was textually corrupt. The mutual hostility occasionally broke out into violence. In 110 BC, a Judean army destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim and burned Shechem. The Samaritans, for their part, twice disrupted the passover in Jerusalem (6 BC and 9 BC).
By the time of Jesus, Judeans, if traveling from Judea to Galilee, might cross over to the other side of the Jordan River in order not to set foot in Samaria. That Jesus entered Samaria at all is a significant statement by itself. Moreover, he goes to a town which is heavy-laden with cultural and religious symbolism as evidenced by references to Jacob, Joseph, and Jacob's well.
It was "about noon." In the previous chapter, Nicodemus had come to Jesus "by night." Themes of light and dark abound throughout the fourth gospel. Here, Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman takes place at high noon, in, you might say, the "fullness of light." This augurs well for the ensuing dialog.
The Samaritan woman comes to "draw" water. (This is reminiscent of the servants "drawing water" in the story of the wedding at Cana just two chapters previous.) As is customary for Jesus, he makes the first move to cross a racial, religious, and social barrier. In that culture at that time, it was unthinkable for a Jewish man to have a conversation with a Samaritan woman. What's more, considering the association of wells as places for "courting and sparking"--think Jacob and Rachel--there are even some sexual overtones to the encounter. The Samaritan woman appears taken aback--‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’
Jesus breaches this cultural-religious divide through a simple encounter. He does not make a speech to crowds, or go on some campaign through the region. Jesus arrives unobtrusively, without an entourage. (His disciples had gone into town to buy food through the established market system. Meanwhile, Jesus is breaking down established barriers, and talking about water, not food.)
Jesus moves the conversation to another level. They are no longer talking about a mere drink of water, but a "gift from God." He references his own identity, and shifts the conversation so that she is challenged to ask him for water.
No fool, the Samaritan woman gives all kinds of reasons for the absurdity of Jesus' remark. How can she ask him for water when he doesn't even have a bucket? And where, pray tell, are you to get "living water"--flowing water, in other words, not well water?
She also refers to "our ancestor Jacob." On the one hand, if "our" means Samaritan, this is an affirmation of her own identity. On the other hand, if "our" means "you and me," then she is affirming the common ancestor she shares with Jesus. The former is more likely. "I may be a second-class human being in your eyes, but I am a daughter of Jacob, and this well comes to me from him."
Jesus again takes the conversation in a spiritual direction. The water from this well does not permanently quench thirst, he says. Then, he kicks it up a notch, and his language turns effusive. The water that comes from him "will become"--genesetai, a creation reference--in them a fountain of water gushing up into life eternal"--pege hudatos allomenou eis zoen aionion.
As in the Nicodemus story in chapter three, Jesus seems to be at one level in this conversation, while the woman seems to be at another. For example, the woman keeps referring to phrear--cistern--while Jesus keeps referring to pege--fountain. Yet, unlike the pharisee Nicodemus--"a leader of the Judeans"--this half-breed Samaritan woman opts to continue the conversation. ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
16 Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ 17The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet.
The passage is not about the woman's sexual life. Nor it is about her marital history. In all of the gospels, Jesus never expresses even a scintilla of interest in anyone's sex life, except to stick up for so-called "sexual offenders" when they are criticized or derided by others.
The passage is symbolic. As Craig Koester puts it, the woman's marital history "parallels the colonial history of Samaria." Five nations had settled in the region and, as people are wont to do, they intermarried with each other. These nations are the woman's "five husbands." The one she is currently with, who is "not her husband," is Rome. (Herod had re-located foreigners in Samaria--about 6000 of them--but they did not intermarry with the local population.)
There is not even the hint of a negative stereotype in what Jesus says. He makes no judgment whatever about her supposed "checkered past." Instead, Jesus redefines the woman. She is not an outcast, half-breed, heretic--she is a truthteller! The Samaritan woman acknowledges and ratifies Jesus' interpretation of her national history. "Sir, I see you are a prophet."
20Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you* say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ 21Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But 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. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ 25The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ 26Jesus said to her, ‘I am he,* the one who is speaking to you.’
The Samaritan woman, in response to Jesus' non-judgmental, honest, and open attitude, begins to open up herself. She brings up a fundamental point of contention between Samaritans and Jews, i.e. worship at Mt. Gerizim as opposed to worship at the Jerusalem temple. The woman wants to know: Who is right?
Jesus addresses her as "woman," the same term he used with his mother at the wedding at Cana. This is not a perjorative, but rather a term indicating equality. (To call Mary "mother" in chapter two would have been to affirm a heirarchical relationship--parent and child--rather than the relationship of equality expressed by "woman.")
The time of geographically localized worship--Mt Gerizim or Jerusalem--is coming to an end, says Jesus. Wes Howard-Brook argues that the "we" of "we worship what we know" relates to the Johannine community. Throughout the fourth gospel, it is the Johannine community who not only "knows," but also "does." The time for "true worship" is "now here" in the Johannine community.
Jesus spoke of "water and spirit" to Nicodemus. To the Samaritan woman, he speaks of "spirit and truth." "Spirit," you might say, is the bridge from water to truth. Psychologically, "water"--a feminine symbol--would have an association with the concept of nation. It is the nation's women who give birth to the nation in the first place. "Truth" is worship that moves beyond all national boundaries and historical traditions. Making that transition is the work of "spirit," and it will apply to both Samaritans and Judeans.
The Samaritan woman says she knows that the Messiah is coming--interesting since the concept of a "messiah" did not enter Samaritan thinking until the 16th century. Their somewhat parallel concept of taheb--"revealer"--may be reflected in the Samaritan woman's description of the one who, as she puts it, "will proclaim all things to us."
Jesus responds "I am"--ego eimi. (The NRSV has "I am he.") Ego eimi--"I am"--is the name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Ex 3:28). In the fourth gospel, this is the only time that Jesus directly acknowledges that he is the Messiah. Moreover, this acknowledgement is not expressed to a Judean, or Galilean, but to a Samaritan, and not to a man, but a woman!
27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ 28Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah,* can he?’ 30They left the city and were on their way to him.
The disciples return--literally, "upon them came his disciples." Notice that the Samaritan woman and Jesus seem to have a bond--"them"--and are intruded upon by the disciples. Firmly tradition-bound, the disciples are shocked to see Jesus speaking with a woman. They ask no questions because they are embarrassed to have witnessed the episode. They don't even ask "what are you seeking?" Too bad they got there a little late since Jesus had already said to the Samaritan woman that the Father was "seeking" those "who worship in spirit and truth"--beyond national and gender boundaries, in other words. The disciples would have profited by hearing that!
The woman left her water-jar. The same word is used to describe the "jars" at the wedding of Cana. Is she leaving behind her tradition? She goes into her town to say "come and see" to her fellow Samaritans--the same words Jesus himself had said to two of John the Baptist's disciples in chapter one. From the beginning of this encounter, the woman's awareness gradually grows. Jesus has moved, in her eyes, from Judean, to sir, to prophet, to Lord, to, quite possibly, "Messiah," and, just in case this is so, urges her fellow Samaritans to "come and see."
31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ 32But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ 33So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ 34Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving* wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’
The rather bossy disciples tell Jesus to eat. Jesus speaks to the disciples a bit like he has spoken to Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, i.e. at another level. Nicodemus' comments are brief, concrete, and questioning. The Samaritan woman is wary, but intrigued. She continues the conversation. In contrast to both Nicodemus, and especially the Samaritan woman, the disciples do not engage in dialog with Jesus, but speak only to one another, and, like Nicodemus, maintain a literalistic and concrete view.
Jesus encourages the disciples to "see," which is a synonym for "faith" in the fourth gospel. (For example, the man in chapter nine was blind, but now he "sees.") The NRSV's uninspired translation: "But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting." Literally, it should be: "Behold," I say to you, "Lift up your eyes and look upon the land that is brilliant white to harvesting." There are four references to "seeing" in that brief sentence. If the disciples would only look up, they would see Samaritans coming out to them!
Moreover, the harvest is already happening. The reaper (Jesus) is already "gathering together fruit"--sunagei--"in order that the sower-together might rejoice and harvest." The NRSV has something different, but I think this makes as much or more theological sense. The sower--God--rejoices at the "gathering together" of fruit. The "sower-together"--God--is all about mutuality.
39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They 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.’
The Samaritan woman turns out to be an evangelist. As is typical for the fourth gospel, the role of witness--"testimony"--is lifted up. "Many believed"--"faithed"--in him through the "word"--logos--of the woman. The Samaritan woman thus joins some lofty company. Her witness is affirmed. The only other person whose witness has been similarly affirmed is that of John the Baptist.
The Samaritans ask Jesus to stay with them. The word is menein--"stay" or "remain"--and it is one of the key words in the fourth gospel. It reflects the mutual-indwelling between Jesus and his people, now here extended across ethnic and religious boundaries to Samaritans. Many more people "faithed" because of Jesus' "word"--logos, again. Now, the Samaritan woman is honored even more. Both she--and Jesus!--are said to have the "word."
The Samaritan woman had been the mediator between her people and Jesus. They no longer need her testimony because they have heard from Jesus himself. Now, they "know" that Jesus is the "Savior of the world." This is the only use of the word "savior" in the fourth gospel. The first to proclaim Jesus as "savior" are half-breed foreigners. The full title--"savior of the world"--is found only here and in 1 John in the entire New Testament. Moreover, it was a title which belonged to Caesar.
There are words associated with Samaritan identity sprinkled all through this text--Jacob, Joseph, Jacob's well, Mt. Gerizim, father, fatherland. When Jesus "remains" with the Samaritan, and speaks "the word" to them, the Samaritans move out from being bound by their historical and national self-definitions which separated them from others. They move into the "light" of the "savior of the world" who dissolves and transcends these boundaries and "gathers together" all people.