The woman answered him, “I have 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 have now is not your husband. (John 4:18)
Here is the way one very well-meaning preacher tackled the interpretation of the passage above. He wrote:
We see in verse 18 that she was most likely a prostitute for she had had five husbands and is now just living with a man. We can tell people how they need Jesus; we can tell them how much that Jesus loves them and gave His life on the cross for them, but they will never understand unless we tell them how lost in their sins they are. This woman wants to drink, but Jesus shows her that sin is keeping her from the living water. She desires the gift of salvation, but she sees her sins are keeping her from eternal life.
This is a classical interpretation of this part of the provocative and illuminating story of Jesus and the Woman at the Well; namely, that Jesus can see into the heart of sinners, and by asking her one simple question, he is able to expose the fact that this woman has gone through five husbands and is now living with a man outside of marriage. In a matter of only a few moments, our Lord has exposed her dry riverbed of promiscuity and licentiousness. Jesus judged her, but he does it so gently and so graciously that it causes the woman to repent and then to spread the Gospel in her own community.
The first thing I want to say about this interpretation, is that it completely ignores First Century Palestinian history and replaces it with a sexist post-Victorian version of the events that unfold in what otherwise is a tender, beautiful and inclusive story.
The second thing that occurred to me is that it is amazing that there are any women left in the Western Church. The biblical stereotype is that women are promiscuous and therefore must look down and away in shame.
It is a fact that this woman had five husbands. She does not dispute it! But one cannot interpret that in Twenty-First century terms. Women were possessions in the world of Jesus. A woman was never allowed, under Jewish law, to divorce her husband, but a husband could do as he pleased. A man could discard five, or even more wives, simply because they were no longer attractive to him. He could do this and still maintain his reputation. Whereas the woman he divorced would have to scrape and beg for perhaps the rest of her life. Her reputation would have preceded her at every turn, even when performing such minor tasks as going to the public well to fetch a pitcher of water.
This Samaritan woman at the well is a silent screamer, carrying the pain of loneliness and isolation deep in her heart. She has not devoured husband after husband; she has been devoured by the dominant social system that, for whatever reason, has passed her from man to man until she no longer has even the dignity of marriage.
Jesus is not exposing her sin in this Gospel. He is identifying with this woman as a victim of injustice.
This woman at the well doesn’t represent the need for sinful women to confess their sins; she stands for the rejected and dejected in all of us, men and women alike. We have all sat at that well in the heat of the day. . . ALL of us!
The woman was surprised that Jesus would ask her for a drink, because Jews wouldn’t even drink out of the same vessel as a Samaritan. Not only is the Samaritan Woman a member of a rejected race, but she is doubly rejected by her own people.
Normally, no one went to the well in the middle of the day in Israel, especially in the drier region of Samaria. It was a task that was generally done in the cooler early morning, but, you see, if she had gone then, she would have had to face the ridicule and sneering of people who would always be happy to look down on those less fortunate than themselves.
Our churches are well springs of spiritual nourishment, but I must wonder, how many out there don’t come to the well in the early morning hours because they can’t face the perceived embarrassment. And how many sit beside the well in one of our pews, but carry a large measure of pain and rejection in their hearts?
In 1985 there was a unique celebration in the city of New Orleans. It was a celebration at the municipal pool. The mayor and the city council wanted to honor the city’s life guards because the first summer in memory had passed with NO drownings in that pool.
Two-hundred people showed up for that party, nearly half of them were certified lifeguards. They had a great time, but as the party began breaking up and the crowd cleared away, someone noticed a body lying face down in the deep end of the pool.
Jerome Moody, age 31, had drowned in a pool surrounded by nearly 100 certified lifeguards.
It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Could it be possible, right in the middle of our Sunday gatherings, right in the middle of the Body of Christ, with all the certified lifeguards, the priest, the wardens, the vestry, the choir and all the leaders, could someone still be drowning?
Who’s out there, or perhaps right in the middle of our morning services that is that desperate, that just needs to be accepted enough and loved enough to share their pain and to drink from the well of everlasting life?
As I thought about this Gospel this week, I couldn’t help but remember a few other biblical stories about men and women at wells. Isaac met Rebecca at a well, and he took Rebecca for his bride. Jacob met Rachael at a well, and he took Rachael for his bride. Jesus met the Samaritan Woman at the well, and once again he took humanity, with all its wounds, for his bride.
Whether he’s lying as a baby in a manger. . . whether he’s stepping into the muddy waters with his people and submitting to baptism. . . whether he has dinner with tax collectors and sinners. . . whether he’s touching lepers. . . or whether he’s sitting at the well with a doubly rejected Samaritan woman, he always disregards convention in favor of community. He sets aside the practical in favor of the pastoral.
The woman says to those virtuous townsfolk, Come and see the man who knows everything about me. What was she really saying? She was saying, Come and see a man who knows all about me and still wants to be my friend. The story of the woman at the well isn’t a story about judgment and confession. It’s a love story.
My prayer and hope are that each of our lives can be dramatically changed when we take the time to sit next to Jesus at the well like that strong and powerful Samaritan woman, throughout the rest of this wilderness experience of Lent. I hope we’re willing to drink the living water of inclusivity, acceptance and universal love. I pray that we can come to know Jesus as intimately as he knows us. I hope we just can’t wait to tell others about him.
But most of all I hope that we can also sit down at the well with others who are silently screaming, and although we may think we know everything there is to know about them, to be able to set that aside in favor of community and friendship.
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