First Mennonite Church
March 20, 2022
A Lesson on Conversation: Jesus and the Samaritan Woman
Text: John 4: 1-42
In the Bible there are several “well” stories, or stories about encounters by a well. Hagar had two encounters with God by a well. The first was when she fled her mistress and the second when she was sent away with Ishmael (Gen. 16, 21). Abraham’s senior servant meets Rebeca by the well and she becomes Isaac’s bride (Gen. 24). Jacob meets a group of young women by a well, and one of them was Rachel who becomes Jacob’s favorite wife (Gen. 29). After fleeing Pharaoh, Moses meets his future wife by a well in Midian (Ex. 2). As we can see so far, it is troubled people who meet God by a well, and well encounters typically end in marriage.
The name of this woman is not given, but there is a lot of clues that can help us know a bit who she is. Her going to the well at noontime is open to interpretation. Is she avoiding the crowd of women who normally fetch water in the morning or early evening? Could her reputation be what forces her to avoid her town’s women? Did she miss to plan well and found herself needing water at noontime? From her conversation with Jesus we learn that she has had five husbands. And although it might be easy for us to conclude that she is a sleazy and unfaithful woman, we need to be reminded that women had very much a passive role in divorce cases then. It only took a man to drag his wife to the public square and pronounce, “I divorce you” three times and that was enough to divorce his wife. Divorce was permitted for the most trivial of reasons. But besides divorce, could it be that some of her husbands had also died?
We also discover that this woman is not theologically ignorant. She is aware of God’s promise of a Messiah. She is familiar with the controversy between Jews and Samaritans regarding the right place of worship. She is fully aware of the antagonism that exists between Jews and Samaritans. This is a brave woman who dares to fully engage Jesus in conversation despite their multiple layers of differences, allowing space to be honest and vulnerable. She does not walk away when confronted with the truth, but remains open to be shaped by it. Above all, in spite of or because of her difficult circumstances, this woman has a deep thirst for God.
If the woman’s purpose of going to the well is to avoid people, she must have been disappointed to arrive at the well and find a man sitting there. It is obvious to her he is a Jew and a Jew in need of water. Jesus begins the conversation with a simple request: “Will you give me a drink?” From a human level, Jesus is at the disadvantage. Besides being a sojourner, he is thirsty and does not have the means to get the water, even when it is before him. As for the woman, she is a local and she has the bucket to fetch the water. She is shocked at Jesus’ request. “How dare you ask me for a drink?” From Jesus’ perspective, he is the giver of living water and the woman is at the disadvantage. She is thirsty for both for the vital liquid and the living water, which only Jesus could give.
From that one request, the dialogue grows. And both Jesus and the woman seem to increase in knowing each other. The woman’s knowledge of Jesus progresses from seeing him only as a Jew, to being greater than Jacob, and a prophet. But when the woman tells Jesus she knows about the coming of the Messiah, Jesus reveals to her it is he who was speaking with her: “I am he,” Jesus says. It is rather meaningful that Jesus reveals his true identity to a woman. Upon Jesus’ revelation that he is indeed the Messiah, the woman goes to her hometown and tells her people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” She becomes a messenger and a witness to Jesus. In the end, not only did the woman concludes Jesus is the Messiah, but together with her people, she also confesses, “We know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”
As for Jesus, let me just say that he transitions from being a tired and thirsty sojourner to being a welcomed guest. The Samaritans upon discovering that Jesus is not a nosy Jew, who dares to peek into their town or someone who only seeks them to survive from dying of dehydration, but who is actually the Messiah and Savior, ask him to stay with them. Jesus accedes to their request. He stays with them two days, “and many more [Samaritans] became believers” (v. 41).
I would like for us to see this passage from the angle of the transformative power of honest and willing dialogue. There could not be any better example of more differences overcome than this between Jesus and the woman by the well.
The art of dialogue is for the most part a dying art, today. It is no wonder why many people cannot speak to one another with civility, politeness and honesty, anymore. Thus, in order to avoid clashing with one another, people simply choose not to talk with others who are different to them or would have different views on things. Some who dare to talk with others, either do so only with the intent to defend their point of view or to force it on the other. People are deeply entrenched in their position, whether religious or ideological that open dialogue with others is almost impossible. We all have heard the advice given to families around Thanksgiving Day, “If you want to enjoy a good family dinner, then avoid conversations about religion or politics.” And that is exactly what happens everywhere people gather, including churches. But the sad truth is that if we can only engage with one another superfluously and on trivial issues, we fail to be genuine not only to the other but to ourselves as well. Imagine if after the woman had said she does not have a husband and Jesus had politely said, “Oh, sorry; I did not know” and not confronted her with the truth. Or imagine if the woman had pretended she understood what Jesus meant when he said, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” But she did not pretend she understood. In fact she confronted Jesus as well. She said, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?Are you greater than our father Jacob . . . ?”
As we can see, the power of transformative dialogue lies in the desire to understand the other. But often times when people of different views talk, they talk to the other, not with the other. They make questions, not with the intent to understand the other’s point of view but to entrap or disarm the other’s point of view. Often times the goal of such talk/conversation is to win an argument, to prove the other wrong.
True and honest dialogue never denies us the right to our experiences or background. True and honest dialogues can only lead to a better understanding of the other, if we are authentic with ourselves.
One of the challenges in any kind of dialogue is that one enters it with a certain feeling of discomfort and anxiety. And those feelings are natural. In the process of dialogue, one would feel the need of opening the door to the other. When Jesus and the woman met, they knew where each stood, culturally and theologically. But, Jesus opened the door to the woman by revealing his need of water. He did not approach the woman from a position as that of the great teacher or anything far greater that he actually was, but from the position of need, of vulnerability. In other words, Jesus engaged the woman from a position of humility, although fully aware of who he was.
My dear brothers and sister in Christ, I could have preached today of the living water Jesus gives. I could have preached about the grace of Jesus to forgive a woman like the one he met at the well. I could have preached of the evangelistic effectiveness of the woman to her townspeople. I could have preached about true worship or some other wonderful topics that arise from this passage. But I choose the topic of dialogue, of conversation. That is because in the gospel of John, Jesus reaches out to Nicodemus, to the woman, to Nathaniel, to the blind, and to each and every person we find in this gospel through personal engagement—by conversing with them. In fact, it is no wonder why Jesus is introduced as the “Word.” Therefore, conversation is essential to faith, to theology.
We need only to realize the great power there is in conversation and dialogue in our lives. Through it we connect with others deeply. Spouses who converse and dialogue honestly are those whose relationship thrive and have real intimacy. We are living in a time when conversation and dialogue need to be cultivated, valued, practiced and pursued. Without real conversation or dialogue, we lack understanding, connection and empathy. Without real conversation, we risk not only detachment and distancing ourselves with others, but also of becoming suspicious and fearful of the other.
Through open dialogue and conversation, the woman moves from suspicion and fear to faith and freedom, from a despised individual to becoming a disciple and witness to Jesus. Let us begin to talk with Jesus and with one another. Amen!