Have We Missed the Mark on the Woman at the Well? (Part 1)
It was several years ago that I sat through a sermon on the Samaritan woman that was given by the pastor at my daughter’s church in Alabama. I can’t tell you how much that sermon touched me. It was one of hope and restoration, that no matter how far off track we get, G-d continues to offer His salvation and grace. At that time, I was still searching desperately for a church home in Mississippi where we lived. I felt out of step with the Father and had no fellowship with like-minded believers (even then I was pulled to the Hebrew roots of my faith, and I was out of step with a lot of my Christian brethren). The sermon touched my heart and showed me the unfathomable depths of HaShem’s love.
You all know the story. Yeshua stops in Samaria in a town called Sh’khem and talks with a woman at the common well of the village. This woman has been portrayed as one of ill-repute, her life in tatters, and then Yeshua brings the message of Messiah. It’s really the most heart-warming of stories and not only does she accept His message, so do many of her village. Through one loose woman, salvation comes to an entire group of people. Wow! Isn’t it just awesome how G-d can use the very worst that happens to us in this life to perform the very best of His miracles?
However, I’m beginning to feel that the story doesn’t quite line up with the interpretation of those who have been looking at it through a Greco/Roman, western civilization mindset. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t think anyone deliberately misled anyone. What they did do was transport a 1st century Israeli Samaritan woman into the mores and culture of a modern foreign people group, and forced her to fit into their mold of their interpretation of the gospel passage.
In short, they took a round, first-century, Samaritan-Israeli peg and tried to force it into a square, post-Renaissance, Age-of-Reason hole.
And frankly, she just doesn’t quite fit…
The Israelite Samaritans were members of the northern tribes. There had been intermarriage between these Israelites and their Assyrian captors after they were captured in 721 BCE, but there were Samaritan remnants that tried to live by Torah. (The conversation this woman engaged in indicates that these were a Torah-keeping group.) There were great religious contentions between the Israelite Samaritans and the Jewish people. Each claimed to be the true repository for G-d’s truth and worship. The Samaritans rejected Jerusalem and the Temple and said the true worship of G-d could only occur at Mr. Gerizim. They also rejected all the books of the Bible with the exception of the 5 books of Torah, stating the scriptures had been corrupted. They considered the Jewish people apostates, and the reasoning and feelings were exactly the same on the Jewish side in regard to the Samaritans. The schism was more about how the Torah should be obeyed, not whether it should or should not.
It’s about like the rift between Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims. This simmering hostility was enough to make Jewish travelers skirt around Samaria, crossing the Jordon River twice while enroute to Jerusalem in order to avoid this area.
This is why Yeshua’s parable about the Good Neighbor (who happened to be a Samaritan), and who helped the injured man when no one else would, was such a hard-hitting lesson. It would be like a Muslim villager stopping to help an Israeli Jew in today’s timeframe. But let’s get back to our Samaritan woman at the well…
Yeshua set out for Galilee from Judea. He had made a conscious decision to go through Samaria instead of around it (divine appointments, anyone?). He comes to Sh’khem near the field that Jacob had given Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and he sat down to rest. (The importance of the place of this meeting will be discussed further in Part 2.)
The gospel account tells us it’s about noon, and the Samaritan woman has come to draw water from the well. Modern day interpretations of this encounter suggest that this was a youngish woman who was immoral, had multiple husbands, was living with a man, and only came to the well when there were no others around because of her shame. She and Yeshua get into a spiritual conversation and before it’s all over with, she runs to the other villagers and bids them come see a man who told her everything she had ever done.
I’ve always accepted this interpretation, but with more thought and studying, I’m not quite so sure anymore.
First of all, the time of the meeting is really not relevant here, in my opinion. I can think of hundreds of times that my schedule has been thrown off and things that I normally do around 7 AM didn’t get done until noon. Also, back to divine appointments. If Yeshua has stopped here deliberately, then isn’t is plausible that circumstances have been set into motion supernaturally to ensure this meeting takes place?
I also want to challenge the modern-day perception that this woman was young. This woman has had multiple husbands. She is not a spring chicken. I imagine her features are worn with the trials and heartaches of her life. She may even be depressed about her life, another reason to visit the well at a time outside the norm. Depressed people don’t really want to interact with anyone. I see this woman as being in her mid-30s to 40s. As we’ve said, she has had multiple husbands, and as Yeshua points out, she is not married to the man she is living with. This doesn’t necessarily mean she is living in sin. There’s really not enough information given in this story to even begin to understand the relational dynamics of her life. She may have been married to 4 men who died early, tragic deaths and is childless. She may have been living with a male relative who had taken her in.
The thing that I feel is telling is that, when she runs to the other townspeople, they have enough regard for her words to come back with her to see the man about whom she spoke. Had she been a woman steeped in sin, I can only imagine the response of the people. “Pfffttt, you didn’t need a prophet to tell you all you’d done. We could have done that for you!” I imagine they would have waved her off and walked away. Indeed, the final statement from the people of the village when Yeshua was about to leave was, “We no longer trust because of what you said, because we have heard for ourselves. We know indeed that this man really is the Savior of the world.” (John 4:42 CJB) They would not have trusted the word of a harlot or woman of sin to begin with.
Which comes to the next point. This woman has an intelligent conversation with Yeshua over aspects of Torah, which was unusual, since in that day women were not expected to learn Torah. Greek influence in the middle east had relegated women to second-class status, which was not how Yeshua (or the Father) saw them at all. Yet she was knowledgeable enough to have a discussion with Yeshua about not only the differences in the two people groups and their interpretation of scripture, but also of messianic promises.
What I love the most about this story now is the way Yeshua so deftly handled the points of contention between the Samarians and the Jews and enabled these villagers to hear the messianic message and believe. He did not water down the message of the Torah, did not side-step those issues that divided them, but instead brought about a revelation of kingdom living and how that would work.
“But the time is coming – indeed, it’s here now – when the true worshippers will worship the Father spiritually and truly, for these are the kind of people the Father wants worshiping him. God is spirit; and worshippers must worship him spiritually and truly.” (John 4:23-24 CJB)
He leaves it with no uncertainty that salvation is of the Jews, the Judean sect of the tribes. Messiah will come as prophesized through the bloodline of David. But he negates the squabble of this place or that place with the salvation message. He stays two days in Sh’khem with the people, and many come to faith in him. Can you imagine the discussions and debates going on for those two days?
The second part of this blog will pull in the significance of the place of meeting, and the area where this encounter takes place. There are so many points of promise being fulfilled in this one story that it’s impossible to put into one post. We have focused so much on the woman in this story in our modern times that we have failed to see the prophetic and spiritual ramifications of where this occurred.
The woman of Samaria was not a loose, immoral woman. She was a strong woman of faith who appears to have been worn down from the trials and tribulations of her life. She is probably like a lot of us – tired and living unremarkable lives, thinking that we contribute so little to G-d’s kingdom, but doing the best we can. She appears to me as a humble woman of faith and the pathway by which Yeshua brought his message to all the tribes of Israel. This encounter was much more than a chance meeting—it was a divine appointment that heralded the beginning of the restoration for the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
Like this woman at the well, we are being used in ways by our Father that we cannot imagine and oftentimes, cannot see. Paul tells us that for now, we see through a glass darkly. Each of us, from the least to the greatest, have our place in HaShem’s divine plan, even when we are unable to see the outcome from this side of that glass.