Unnamed Women, The Woman at the Well
Sharon W. Betters
So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” They went out of the town and were coming to him (John 4:28-30).
Jesus’s treatment of women shocked not only religious leaders but also His disciples and perhaps nowhere more than when He spoke to the woman at the well. Jesus and His disciples were traveling from Judea in the south back to Galilee in the north. Instead of detouring around Samaria to avoid Samaritans, He leads His disciples right through Samaria. He stops in Sychar, a town near Jacob’s Well, and sends his disciples to buy food.
Suddenly a woman appears. Jesus is about to break numerous social barriers: talk to a woman alone, a Samaritan woman, an immoral woman. We immediately know something radical is about to happen. Our first clue is that this woman is alone, drawing water at the hottest part of the day. Women typically traveled in groups early in the morning to draw water before the sun-baked the ground. Younger women either carried out this task or helped the older women because it was heavy work. No doubt, lots of chattering and catching up happened, making this job a little easier. So why was she alone in the heat of the day? We learn the answer in the longest recorded conversation of Jesus with anyone in John 4:1-10, and it is with a woman.
It's hard for us to understand in our western culture why this vignette is so dramatic, but Jesus rocks His world by being alone with a woman, let alone a Samaritan woman. Jesus initiates the conversation with a request, “Give me a drink?”
The woman appears surprised when Jesus spoke to her since Jews considered Samaritans “dogs” and half breeds resulting from the Assyrian conquest in 721BC (2 Kings 17:13-34). Jews had no dealings with Samaritans (John 4:9) and if forced to walk through Samaria couldn’t wait to shake the dust off their feet.
The Samaritan woman speaks boldly to Jesus. Her response to Jesus’ request opens a dialogue that should never have taken place between a Jewish man and a woman, let alone a Samaritan woman. Once more, we see Jesus’ inclusion of women as equal to men, included in His redemption plan. Not only that, but Jesus is also revealing salvation as inclusive. It is not just for the Jews but also for people considered lower than the low. A picture of pursuing grace unfolds as Jesus confronts contemporary social mores and pursues what others perceived to be unredeemable.
Her bold response to Jesus gives us a glimpse into her character. This is not a young woman. She is worldly-wise, and as we will see, knows rejection, loss, and grief. Instead of suffering softening her, it creates a spine of steel that will not back down from any challenge.
She does not wait for permission to speak and easily talks theology with this rabbi, questioning His authority. Jesus sees beyond her facade and offers her living water that will spring up into eternal life. She mistakenly thinks He is offering her a quick fix to the problem of drawing water every day and wants that gift and says:
Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water (John 4:9).
Don’t miss what is really happening here. Every day Jesus talked with His Father to determine what plans the Father had for Him (John 4:34). On this day, it is no mistake he ended up at this well in this city at high noon. It is no mistake He sent His disciples shopping and He is alone. This story showcases the pursuing grace of our Father. This is a picture of salvation that is tailored and individualized, not corporate and generic. Jesus pursued her. She was not looking for Him. Her salvation will not come through a church, a denomination, or even good works.
Like so many of us, the woman misses the point of Jesus’ offer. It’s likely she waited until noon to draw water because she didn’t want to experience the derision of the other women. Drawing water was hard work, especially in the heat. She wanted Jesus to fix that problem and so missed the eternal gift He offered. Instead of pointing out she is missing the point, Jesus seems to change the topic and tells her to get her husband.
When she replies she has no husband:
Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’, for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true” (John 4:17-18).
Yikes! Definitely not a seeker-friendly approach!
Suddenly the tenor of the conversation changes, this woman realizes the rabbi knows everything about her. Though the words are few, they tell us a lot about this woman. Only men could divorce their wives, the woman had no marital rights. This woman either suffered five divorces, was widowed five times, or a mixture of both. It doesn’t take much to imagine the pain she carried: betrayed, rejected, abused, grieved, left alone in a culture where a woman alone could barely survive. Is it any wonder she sought out another man, perhaps just so she could eat and have a place to sleep? Sunday school papers and artists portray her as beautiful and young but I imagine a woman whose lined face reads like a roadmap through a war zone. She probably thought she was in charge of the conversation, but now she knows that despite her immoral choices, Jesus does not view her with disdain. He might be the first man who treated her with dignity.
Jesus continues and tells her He is the Messiah. Just then, the disciples return to find their beloved leader breaking every rule when it came to women. Interestingly, they kept their thoughts to themselves, but I feel for those men. They never knew what Jesus was up to, though they probably began to realize He always had a reason for His outrageous behavior.
Overcome by Jesus’ declaration that He is the Messiah, she leaves her water pots, runs into town, and declares:
So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (John 4:28-29).
Many Samaritans believed in Jesus because of her story and many more came to hear for themselves what He was saying. As a result, they invited Him to stay in their town, which He did for two days.
What hope and encouragement this woman’s story offers, especially to those whose sin seems too horrific to bring out into the light of Jesus. Jesus knew everything about this woman. Likewise, He knows every detail of our lives. How does such truth affect your relationship with Jesus? Jesus calls each of us from leaning on our own understanding and efforts to make it on our own, to see Him as our Messiah, the only one who offers forgiveness of sins and redemption. Jesus offers us the same pathway to forgiveness. Will our blind spots – those sins we do not see in ourselves – keep us from experiencing freedom from guilt?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sharon W. Betters is a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, pastor’s wife, and cofounder of MARKINC Ministries, where she is the Director of Resource Development. Sharon is the author of several books, including Treasures of Encouragement, Treasures in Darkness, and co-author with Susan Hunt of Aging with Grace. She is the co-host of the Help & Hope podcast and writes Daily Treasure, an online devotional.
For more from Daily Treasure please visit MARKINC.ORG.