Jesus Responds to the Other
The passage in John’s gospel about Jesus and the women at the well (John 4:1-42), is captivating both in a Biblical as well as in a sociological sense. We need to carefully consider the cultural implications of this passage, both in terms of the Lord’s actions and in terms of what it means for us as contemporary Christians.
Most Bible readers are familiar with this story. Jesus and some of His disciples are traveling from Judea to Galilee. Their journey takes them through Samaria. Many of the Jews traveling between provinces would go out of their way to avoid traveling in Samaria: Jesus chooses to walk through this nominally hostile area. They stop to rest at the small town of Sychar. Jesus sits by the town well and the disciples go into town to buy some food. Its late afternoon and He encounters a woman about to draw water for her family at the well. This is interesting, since most of the town’s women would have drawn water in the morning – for some reason, this particular woman is not mixing with the normal early-morning , water-drawing group of housewives.
Jesus begins a dialogue with her and eventually ends up receiving a drink of water from her. If you read this quickly (like in a “through the Bible in six days” type of study), you may miss some really essential points of the story. In this text, Jesus is breaking at least five Jewish cultural norms. Cultural norms define social behavior and make our lives predictable, since they help us interpret and act appropriately in social situations. Sometimes, however, these norms reflect cultural evils that cause us to consider some of the people we encounter as others and stereotypically demean them. History is replete with sinful cultural rules. For instance, one has only to look at the rules that the white folks in our country were once taught, causing them to treat black people in a reprehensible way.
Keeping this in mind, we can better see what the Lord was up to in this story. The first thing to note is that it takes place in Samaria. Jesus was violating territorial norms by being in Samaria. The Samaritans were intensely disliked by the Jews, and the feeling was mutual. The Jews felt the Samaritans were racial “half-breeds,” and religious heretics. The Jewish culture that Jesus shared had developed a ridged and complex normative ethnic hierarchy. There were three levels of Jew, then Samaritans, and finally, at the bottom, gentiles. Despite this, here is Jesus talking to a Samarian. Interestingly, this is one of several examples of a positive encounter with a Samaritan that the Lord has in the New Testament. The “good Samaritan” story (Luke 10:25-37) is another example of this.
Not only is Jesus talking to a Samaritan, but he is talking to a lone woman. This was a significant normative violation. Jewish men were not supposed to talk to unescorted women who were outside of their family. Worse yet, as the text discloses, he is talking to a rather immoral woman. Note that the Jesus observes that she has had five husbands and the man she was living with was not her husband (her debauched life may be the reason that she was not in the company of the other women of the town). The woman is astounded by His knowledge of her, and asks if He is a prophet? Jesus continues with her and asks for a drink of water. She is startled by His request, since she knew it was highly inappropriate for a Jew to receiver any food or drink from a Samaritan. Samaritan women were considered by the Jews of that time to be continuously menstruating; hence they and their husbands were always unclean. Having anything to do with a woman in her period was an unclean act to the Jews of Jesus’s era. Therefore, if Jesus received food or drink from a Samaritan He would be profaned and would have to go through an elaborate purification ritual to be clean again.
Now, having broken five cultural norms, Jesus begins one of the longest personal dialogues in the New Testament. He tells the woman about living water. The conversation then turns to the Messiah, and his coming to earth. The woman is quite knowledgeable about the coming Messiah who she indicates would be a teacher rather than a warrior. Indeed, she seemed to have better knowledge of the Messiah than did the Disciples. Eventually, Jesus lets her know that He is the Messiah (he uses the words for God, “I am,” that are found in Ex. 3:14).
By now, the Disciples return. They are amazed to find him talking to the woman, but are reluctant to query him about this. At this point the woman – leaving her water jar in her haste – rushes back to the village. The disciples offer Jesus food, which causes the Lord to discuss the spiritual food that drives Him. It is interesting that the Disciples had purchased and were eating Samarian food. Evidently the influence of Jesus has already caused the Disciples to be more tolerant of other people.
The woman gathers the village around her and tells them about what Jesus has said to her. She asks them if “He could be the Messiah?” The villagers rush out to meet Jesus and urge Him and the Disciples to stay with them. They did, and stayed two days, preaching and teaching. As a result, many of the villagers became converts to Christ.
Isn’t that amazing! Jesus is in a place where his culture said he really shouldn’t be, talking and receiving from a person he should not be associating with, and yet ends up leading a number of people to salvation. What does this mean for us? How many people and places have we avoided because our culture tells us that certain people are “others” and we should never associate with them? Clearly Jesus wants us to examine our cultural fears in order that we might receive and minister to the “others” in our lives.