Read: John 4:1-29
The woman had a reputation. Maybe she had just been looking for love in all the wrong places. Or maybe . . . ? After each failed marriage, her chances of meeting and marrying the right man reduced significantly. After five such failures, she had given up on all her little girl dreams. Finally, she just settled for the next man who would have her, without benefit of formal marriage. She was reduced to just trying to get by from one day to the next. In her own eyes, her sense of self-worth was next to zero. In the eyes of the good women of the community—it was absolute zero. Or lower.
She carefully avoided every occasion that might require her to spend any significant time in the presence of such women. So, she avoided the community well in the early mornings and evenings when they all gathered for small talk, town gossip, and oh yes, water. Her self-appointed time to be at the well was high noon. The heat of the day. That way, she would have the well all to herself.
Jesus felt he had spent enough time in Judea. Already, his followers were beginning to outnumber those of John. It was time to go back to Galilee. Samaria lay between the two. John simply said that “he had to pass through Samaria.” (v. 4) This wasn’t just about geographical necessity, however. The animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans was so great, in fact, that most good Jews routinely took the long way around, avoiding Samaria altogether. But Jesus couldn’t do that. Remember that Jesus was being led by the Holy Spirit throughout his entire ministry on earth. (cf. Mark 1:9-12) I believe that same Spirit, who had earlier driven him into the wilderness to confront Satan, was driving him into Samaria to meet one heartbroken woman in a lonely place.
As was the case with Nicodemus in the last chapter, this was a divine appointment with a person in desperate need. The teacher of the law needed assurance that he would be granted admittance into the Kingdom of God. The woman seemed to go through men like she used up buckets of water. Always thirsty—again. Always needing to come back for more. The water never lasted long. Neither did the men.
By the time she arrived at the well, she was surprised to see someone-anyone already there. And the surprises were only beginning. Here was a man, which ordinarily wouldn’t have been a problem for her; but he was a Jew. And she knew how Jews could be, especially toward Samaritans. Furthermore, she was what the good people of the community call a “fallen woman.” Funny, how such labels can haunt our subconscious. Before the man said anything, she felt her own shame asserting itself, as if she were already condemned before the trial had even begun. She was at an emotional disadvantage from the start. Maybe he would just do the proper thing and move to one side, trying to ignore her, while she completed her task and got away. But he didn’t.
He fixed her with a penetrating gaze, and asked, “Please, would you give me a drink?” With that simple request, Jesus broke through every imagined wall that separated them, including the gender wall, the racial wall, the religious wall, and of course, that great wall that separated the “good people” of a society from the “bad” ones. And since Jesus had poked the first hole in all those walls that separated them, the woman responded with an astonished question. “How can you, a Jewish man, ask me, a woman from Samaria, for a drink?”
The question came like a dam burst, pouring out her pain, collected over a lifetime of rejection, insult, and injury. But it wasn’t her pain alone. It is the pain shared by the entire human race, since our first sin in the Garden of Eden. It is the pain of separation.
First, we have been separated from a holy God. Our own sin erected that first great wall. After that, our shame, and the resulting pain from that first offense has driven us to build more walls. We build the walls for self-protection. But it’s lonely inside our walls, and our pain increases. On the other side of our walls, others feel the pain of our rejection, so they respond in anger toward us. Brick upon brick, insult upon insult, pain upon pain, we all build our walls, tall and thick. And inside, we all suffer.
So, the first thing Jesus did when he met the woman at the well was to begin tearing down the wall. As shocking as that was, there were more surprises to come.
The first part of the conversation was about the living water that Jesus had to offer. The common water this woman came to draw always left her thirsting for more. Jesus described a completely different kind of water, “a spring of water, welling up into eternal life.” (John 4:14 ESV) Later in this gospel, we will learn that Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit. (John 7:37-39) Yes, this same Holy Spirit who produces the new birth within us, sustains that life by his own continuing presence.
In the last chapter, Nicodemus misunderstood about the new birth Jesus told him about. In this chapter, the woman misunderstood the nature of the water Jesus gives. Both people continued to limit their thinking to this material world, (i.e.) natural birth, or natural water. In these chapters, Jesus is introducing us to the world of the spirit. This is perhaps the greatest wall God wants us to get beyond, the wall separating our physical world from the world of the spirit. When he created us, he gave us the necessary equipment to live in two worlds. Our bodies make us ready to participate in the physical world. Our spirits make us capable of walking and talking with God. If that sounds strange, it’s because our sin has surrounded us with walls of separation, cutting us off from all possibility of fellowship with God. Jesus came to destroy every wall of separation, shining light into our dark places, and bringing life to all our dead places.
The woman was interested. “Sir, give me this water,” she exclaimed. But first, Jesus had to break through one last wall she had built around herself. This was her wall of self-protection, built to cover her own sin. We all build some version of this wall. We do it because we’ve been hurt too often by too many judgmental people, mostly church people. To protect ourselves, we may try to deny that we have any sin at all. We may try to argue that what we did wasn’t really wrong, or that it’s no worse than what other people do. We may have good reasons for what we did. We can defend ourselves in a hundred ways. We resist the breaking down of the wall, because we fear the abuse that will come if anyone gains access to the hidden secrets that lie buried within us. We are terrified, in fact, by that prospect. So, rather than removing the wall, we insist on adding a few more bricks.
Jesus knows how to remove every defense we erect. He usually does this by bringing us face to face with ourselves. When we finally see the truth about what we’ve done—what we’ve become—he invites us to honestly confess who we are. This is the essential first step for any of us to be healed—from the inside out. Later, in his first epistle, John will write about this in more detail. (I John 1:5-10) In this woman’s case, Jesus simply asked her to bring her husband. When she answered that she had no husband, Jesus revealed that he already knew her whole life story. “You have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband.“ She must have been terrified, standing there, completely exposed. Defenseless. She must have cringed for a moment, eyes closed, expecting divine wrath to fall. When she opened her eyes, Jesus was still standing before her; but he wasn’t scowling. In fact, I believe he was smiling. This woman was about to learn the whole reason Jesus had to be there that day. Not to condemn her; but to save her. (John 3:17; 4:4)
After she had recovered emotionally, she asked a question about a long-standing controversy between their people. Exactly where is the proper place to worship? In this Mountain, (Mt. Gerazim) as the Samaritans believed, or in Jerusalem, as the Jews insisted? If we could somehow move this conversation into the present time, we would find many doctrinal arguments, still debated among those who call themselves Christian. Which church is correct? Or most correct? Or, are any churches disqualified because of certain beliefs or practices? We like to debate about the proper way to baptize. What music is appropriate? Which translations of scripture are acceptable? Or not acceptable? The list is long, and the arguments soon become monotonous. In reality, these are just more walls we like to erect between church denominations. Jesus’ answer cut through all our arguments. God is Spirit. So, worship must be an expression from our spirit, not simply a performance of the flesh. (John 4:23-24) Jesus continues to push the conversation beyond the limits of our flesh, into the realm of the Spirit.
Perhaps because she didn’t feel qualified to pursue an argument, the woman seems ready to drop the discussion for now and simply wait for Messiah to come and explain it all. (v.25) And there it is! Jesus has just broken through every wall between himself and the woman. I believe he must have smiled, and his eyes must have twinkled as he revealed himself. “I who speak to you am he.” (v.26) As soon as she heard those words, she believed. She dropped everything and ran back into the town, sharing her newfound faith with all who would listen.