Today’s gospel reading for churches using the Revised Common Lectionary was John 4:5-42, one of the more titillating stories in the New Testament. Believe it or not, the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is filled with romantic tension. For instance, John tells us that the two are meeting at Jacob’s well, a subtle reminder that Jacob first met his wife Rachel at a well in Genesis 29. In the biblical idiom, “meeting a woman at the well” tends to have significant implications for single men. Not only that, but in the first century, the phrase “living water” was euphemistically associated with certain aspects of an adult relationship (that’s as specific as I’m willing to get in this “PG” rated post). With all of this in the background, I think we’re meant to read some innuendo into the interaction between Jesus and the Samaritan woman.
And it’s pretty clear that there is a flirtatious dynamic to their conversation. Jesus begins by asking the woman to buy him a drink. The Samaritan woman, surprised by Jesus’ confidence, initially rebuffs him. But Jesus persists, and the woman begins to play along: “You have no bucket; how am I supposed to get this living water?” The back and forth continues until it becomes fairly clear that she is interested in possibly pursuing some kind of relationship with this handsome stranger at the well. It is here, however, that Jesus throws cold water on the proceedings when he asks her to get her husband. All of a sudden, the woman is reminded of why she is alone at the well: “I have no husband,” she replies somewhat sheepishly. In all likelihood, this Samaritan woman had a reputation. There’s a reason she is at the well in the heat of the day rather than in the early morning; she is probably trying to avoid the judgmental stares of the other women in the village. Indeed, Jesus goes on to remind her that she has had five husbands and is not even married to the man she currently lives with. Their brief flirtation, in other words, ends in the most awkward way imaginable.
This awkward moment, however, leads to the most interesting element of this complicated story. After talking with Jesus, the Samaritan woman does not hang her head in shame; rather, she returns to the village where she probably has been an outcast and proclaims, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” In some ways, this is not particularly impressive. After all, this woman was at the well by herself at an odd hour of the day; most people would have assumed that she had a reputation and probably could have guessed at some of the things she had done. There is, however, great significance in what is implied by the woman’s statement: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done…and did not condemn me for it.”
In all likelihood, this woman was made to feel nothing but shame and condemnation her entire adult life. She was “one of those girls” that parents warned their children about. Her entire identity was tied up in the mistakes that she had made. Yet in this sacred moment, this nameless Samaritan woman with a reputation met a man who saw her not as an object of sexual desire, not as a Samaritan, not as “one of those girls,” but as a child of God. Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman is the embodiment of that text from last week’s gospel reading: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” This woman was freed from shame and grief because she experienced not condemnation, but the deep and transcendent love of God.
There are far too many places in our lives where we are told to be ashamed of who we are. We are told to be ashamed because of how much money we make or where we are from or who our family is or how much we weigh or where we went to school or who we love or how we are parenting our children or what we believe. So much of the “self-improvement” culture in our society seems predicated on making people feel bad about about themselves. In his interaction with the Samaritan woman, however, Jesus demonstrates to us that God’s love transcends limited preoccupation with shame. Jesus shows us that God loves us for who we are and who he has called us to be. I pray that all of us will recognize our identity as beloved children of God and live our lives unashamed of who we are.