The story of the woman at the well in John’s Gospel is written from John’s perspective as a disciple who leaves Jesus at Jacob’s well at Sychar (also known as Shechem), Samaria to retrieve food with his other eleven friends. John may very well have downplayed the his and his companions’ response considering the banter about “heavenly bread.” I can only imagine their irritation at Jesus when they arrive back to the well with food and find him with a disreputable woman. If the outcome had not been so favorable, we might not have this story about Jesus revealing his identity to the Samaritans. The good news for us is that this story is about Jesus, and the sharing of himself with an outcast who shares Jesus’ identity with her community.
Before we get started let me share this disclaimer: someone is about to be offended. When Jesus shows up and begins his ministry, people’s sense of respectability goes up. There’s a heightened sense of awareness of how different he was in his beliefs about people and about God. Jesus interprets situations differently, and you can be assured people are going to be offended. In this story, it’s the disciples. They have traveled to get food, but when they return they find Jesus in a conversation with a woman of ill repute.
The Samaritan woman, better known as the woman at the well, holds a multitude of truth for those who are willing to plunge the depths of the story. The angle I want to investigate the story is from the perspective that she came to the well with one thing in mind: to meet her own needs. She came seeking only her own self-fulfillment. God met her in the place of her self-complacency to deal with her moral failure.
Sychar, Samaria, was better known as Shechem in the Old Testament. The first place Shechem shows up in Scripture is at Abraham’s call in Genesis 12. It is here at Shechem that God invited Abraham to enter into a new land, but first he must leave his family and father’s household behind. It is an ancient place where God met the Father of Nations. This place of encounter became a place of rebellion and idolatry. Samaria became known as a place where moral failure was understood as part of the cultural climate by the Jews. It is here that the King Omri built the second palace for the Northern Kingdom of Israel after its split from Judah. This was a place that was known for its multicultural religious experiences. It is said that there were as many as 6 different cultural religious influences on the Samarian style of worship. For any self-respecting Jew, blended religious practices were contrary to the Scriptures. Jesus crosses the barrier to bring clarity to the Samaritan people. Jesus invites the woman to rethink religion. Religion is about worshiping in Spirit and Truth, not a place. God looks at the heart and our motives.
Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal are key locations for God declaring the blessings and curses over the nation of Israel (Deut. 27). It was here at Mt. Gerizim that the Samaritans declared as their preferred place of sacrificial worship. It was on Mt. Gerizim that the blessings were declared. And, perhaps it is the hope that God would pour out his blessings on his separated people. What surprised me most as I sought to understand this place in history was that God’s prophets were equally placed in both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of Israel. Samaria was the place of the capital for the Northern Kingdom. Contrary to the stereotypical understanding of the Northern Kingdom, when Jesus shows up as a prophet the people receive him as a prophet and the Messiah, the savior of the world.
Here at Jacob’s well, at midday, Jesus is seated, and along comes a woman. It is here at Jacob’s well that Jacob and Rachel met at midday (Gen. 29), and the covenant of marriage would soon be established. Rachel and her sister Leah would both marry Jacob after a long and grueling process and years of servitude for Jacob to their brother Laban. In the passage the discussion leads us to wonder about marriage, which is best understood in the context of idolatry. In the Samarian culture, there was a mixture of religious practices from other cultures beyond Israel. In fact, there would have been at least six different influences on their way of life. In the context of Jesus’ call, it was the hope of all the Israelite peoples that the Messiah would be the answer to their troubles. It would be the Messiah who would be the bridegroom of his chosen people.
Jesus was passing through sacred history as well as uncharted spiritual territory. The role of the prophet is to know the truth, and point to the hope of a new emerging future that holds God’s purposes and plan. He arrives at a place of rest at midday to meet a woman coming to the local watering hole, Jacob’s well. She was unaware of the dynamics that were emerging as Jesus addresses her and invites her to serve him some water.
She had been involved with a number of men – six to be exact, one of whom she never married. But think about how she must have felt when Jesus approached her at the well. She was quick to point out that Jews don’t associate with Samarians. She understood that she was a disdained woman among her people because of her personal character. Samaritans were not distinguishable from Jews, except by their religious practices. Perhaps she was insinuating that he was “barking up the wrong tree” with innuendos. She was quick to banter with Jesus seeking satisfaction beyond the temporal needs of this world. The conversation turns sharply toward the historical life of Jacob and spiritual life of his descendants. Pointing to the lack of success in her family matrix, they discuss her five husbands and the last one she is unmarried to. In her day five husbands and a lover would have been scandalous for the Jews.
To be sure Jesus speaks to her in a relevant way discussing the basic needs of physical satisfaction and spiritual wholeness. The conversation turns toward the holy mountain of Gerizim (Deut. 11.26-30, 27.1-13). and the Temple at Jerusalem. Yet, this unscrupulous woman finds her story being told to the community, and the community discovers eternal life in Jesus. God takes those who are unqualified to bring truth to a community. Jesus found the weak link in the fabric of the community and exposed it. It is here in the places of our most difficult pain that God desires to work his transforming grace. It is here in the community of Sychar that Jesus compels the outcast toward holiness of heart and life. This unnamed woman may be the most socially and spiritually challenged in the whole community. She would certainly understand rejection from deep issues we cannot begin to speculate about, but we are compelled to take note of her.
According to John’s Gospel, the first Christian evangelist, a woman, wins a whole city to the Gospel story. Her story begins unaware, curiosity moves her into deeper reflection with Jesus leading her all the way from “Jewish Man” to “sir” to “prophet” to “Christ” to the great “I AM.” As she came deeper into her conversation with Jesus and she was able to discern Jesus’ true identity. The relationship that Jesus built with the woman at the well around a cup of water saved a whole community.
Where do you find yourself in the story? Do you see yourself seated next to Jesus as an observer? Are you one of the disciples who are out busy collecting food for Jesus that he later disregards – lacking understanding? Are you the woman who came to the well not looking for God, but finding he was there looking for her? Are you in the group of community people who have heard a great testimony about Jesus, and seek to discover him for yourself?
There are two key concepts that we need to embrace as Christians: original sin and actual sin. Original sin is the urge to sin that comes from our fallen nature. We all have an inherited nature to make bad choices for ourselves. Actual sin happens when we arrive at the age of accountability and we consciously, willfully choose to disobey God. We are not condemned by original sin issues or what we might better understand as our inherited fallen nature. We are judged but for the sins that we intentionally commit.
One might even say that the urge to sin in written in our DNA. Jesus is the only human begin who overcame the DNA struggle for righteousness. Paul tells us in Romans 3.23, “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.” Truth be told we need to get this grandiose idea out of our head that we are better than the next person. However, we further need to embrace that truth that God has given us the power to overcome our sinful nature. The battle for holiness of heart and life is ours to win.
The battle for holiness is a lifelong adventure, which according to John Wesley’s personal research concluded only just prior to death of his parishioners. God calls us by grace to take up both the power and inclination to transform our fallen nature, and we call that the process of sanctification. Because of the indwelling Spirit of God, we are now inclined to obey God more so than disobey God. Each subsequent act of obedience toward God, we gain momentum to make better choices. Each time we say “yes” to God and “no” to ourselves, it gets easier to be obedient to God.
What I love most about being a Wesleyan, a follower of John Wesley, is that he gives me hope that God in me can overcome the darkness of my sinful nature and the propensity of my flesh to be immoral. Those are some big words, so what is it that I really mean? I mean I can fight to do right. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, I do not have to accept the sinful attitudes of my heart and mind. I can grow to become healthier in my emotional responses. My will doesn’t have to control my anger, bitterness, or judgments toward others.
So often we sing about going to heaven, but truth be told the Scriptures teach us that eternal life begins now, with the infilling of the Kingdom of God through the Holy Spirit. This is a fundamental understanding in Jesus’ teaching that we miss applying to our everyday lives. We often times walk around powerless to defeat our bad behaviors because we do not know how to tap into the power of the Holy Spirit within us. One of my mentors Margaret Therkelsen instructed me in my prayer life by teaching me the letter of James and Ephesians. Call on God’s name! Apply the forgiveness that is ours in the blood of the cross, God’s Sacrificial Lamb! Resist the devil and he will flee from you! Put on the armor of God and take your stand against the scheme of the enemy for our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers and principalities of darkness. It is easy to demonize others instead of seeking God in prayerful surrender to his will for our lives.
The good news of Christianity is that sinful patterns can be overcome with practice of doing good! The power of the Holy Spirit living inside of us creates a weather front of strength for moral courage. Perhaps the greatest gift God provides in salvation is the power for moral courage. To possess Scriptural morality, we must be able to define sin. There are a number of different ways we can sin against God and neighbor. Sins of omission are those decisions we have made that have left things undone when we knew we should have done something. Sins of commission are those choices we have made to intentionally do the wrong thing such as disobey the 10 commandments.
And, then we also sin when our heart willfully turns away from God. In Hebrew one of the words for sin means to “miss the mark.” There are times each one of us will experience a failure of moral courage in our lives causing us to “miss the mark.” The important part is the next step: repentance, a turning from what went wrong to a turning toward doing right. It is in this place of moral uncertainty that God opens our eyes to understand our margin of err. Our moral compass is the Scriptures. It is not our personal opinions or preferences, but the moral standard that God has provided for us in his Word.
There are avoidable and unavoidable root causes for missing the mark in our morality. Some unavoidable root issues include ignorance, mistakes, temptations, and infirmities. These core issues in our flesh create places of moral disparity that are simply opportunities for us to rely more heavily on God’s grace to empower us to overcome. What we lack in ability, God makes up with his spiritual vitality if we intentionally stay in his presence.
How do we overcome the unavoidable root issues? Practicing the ordinances of God: communion, fasting, prayer, Scripture, and holy conferencing. Spiritual disciplines provide avenues of great strength for moral courage.
This Lent perhaps our greatest challenges of spiritual development may be faced through abstinence to sin, and multiplication of our spiritual disciplines. Holy fasting is often the greatest spiritual growth avenue to moral courage. I remember when I was in high school my parents set some parameters for me to follow: no drinking, no drugs, no smoking, and no inappropriate relationships prior to marriage. At the time my friends were getting into all sorts of behaviors that my parents had strictly labeled as naughty. In order to combat the culture around me, I fasted from sweet indulgences. Lent became a time of focusing on eating only nutritious foods and avoiding empty calories. By Easter my commitment to obeying my parents, and not following the culture grew significantly. That was an amazing experience for me!
What I have discovered is that sin indeed has its consequences in our lives, but even more so are the unavoidable root issues of ignorance, mistakes, temptations, and infirmities. Each one bringing its own set of problems to overcome. But I also know that God’s grace and good will meet each one of us on the road to better decision-making. Just when we examine our decision-making and discover some flaw, we turn from our erroneous thought process and God moves us from where we were to where we need to be. The will of God is just that gracious! It is restored the moment we recognize the err of our thoughts. Grace helps us to see that even in our temporal setbacks, God is moving us forward in his amazing love to yield more to the Spirit of God as we seek holiness. If our hearts are committed to becoming more like Jesus each and every moment of the day, then our behaviors will be in alignment with his perfect will for our lives.
The biggest issue she had to deal with was rejection. There are the unavoidable root issues in our lives of ignorance, mistakes, temptations, and infirmities that create pockets of opportunities for us to feel or experience rejection. But God never rejects us because of our root issues, and often times, as we see demonstrated in our story today, God will use the very issues in our lives that we struggle with to draw others in our community to Himself.
There are things in our lives that create space root issues of ignorance, mistakes, temptations, and infirmities to take hold and direct our paths. The problem of ignorance may be improved by education and practical experience but takes a life time of opportunities for us to grow and still we may lack some abilities. We all have gifts and strengths that are unique to ourselves. The problem of mistakes may be overcome with humility, intentionality, and perseverance, yet, we will daily make new mistakes for we lack the capacity to be perfect. The importance concept for us to grasp regarding ignorance and mistakes is teach-ability. Temptations may be mediated by the means of grace which is the Word of God, prayer, fasting, communion, and holy conferencing. Yet, our flesh will struggle with our fallen nature until we reach heaven’s door. Infirmities may be compensated for with Sabbath Rest, knowing our limitations, creating a Rule of Life, medical diagnosis and medications, but, we may require much of our attention in various seasons of our lives. These unavoidable issues are the soil and fabric of our human nature, and it is by God’s Holy Spirit that we are given the power to live well in the midst of our daily troubles.
The woman at the well was called to account for herself. Jesus invited her to own her lifestyle and her problems. He never condemned her from my observation, but he called out the issue that needed help that only God could provide. And, Jesus did this with all the people he encountered – he seems to have been very direct as most prophets are. The change of heart and life are evident in the story, are they evident in you? Are you willing for God to send you to the people no one else wants? Do you genuinely want to draw new disciples into a relationship with God? What makes God’s love real to the people in your community that have yet to find a connection with the local church?