The only reason the Samaritan woman is at the well in the heat of the day at 12 noon is because of shame. She has been ostracized from the whole community, including the other women and their practice of gathering water together first thing in the morning while it is still cool. They chat, share news, comment on the weather, what’s for dinner, preparations for an upcoming festival, or perhaps to see if someone can influence the town matchmaker, all before carrying home the water necessary for the day’s chores.
The well is a place of physical survival certainly, but also a place of social sustenance and communal significance bound up with their ancestry. All before the sun has warmed the morning air—the chatter of friends, lightens the weight of the water jug as they make their way home.
But not so, for the woman who comes alone to the well at high noon. No one wants her brand of sin to rub off on them, and not a soul wants to be associated with someone shamed from the religious leaders on down to the beggars, who can at least get a coin or two tossed their direction. She sounds like the ancient version of Liz Taylor, but, as the property first of their father, and then their husband, first-century women had no such choices.
Women could not divorce, although they could be divorced. It is possible she could have remarried after that, even though she would be considered damaged goods, especially if she had no children. It is more likely that her first husband died, and the law requires his brother to marry her and have a child in his brother’s name.
This could have happened repeatedly so that everyone blamed her for her husbands’ untimely deaths. Whatever the cause, the man of the last family put her out and left her destitute. To survive without turning to prostitution, she became the companion of a shunned man, also disconnected from family. This couple, living against all rules and expected norms, never experienced community at the well, at the temple, at town events. They were isolated, ostracized.
The shame the Samaritan woman experiences is different from guilt. If she were guilty for her husbands’ deaths, she could repent, apologize, and pay her debt to society—guilt is about behavior, and once amended her guilt could go away. But shame is much more corrosive.
Shame tells her not that she did something bad, shame says, she IS bad—she is a bad person. Shame has become part of her identity; she cannot get away from it. It’s what she believes she deserves—and that’s the problem with shame. It’s the story by which she lives and the reality that infuses everything.
So, she shows up sweaty and alone, isolated and ostracized, with shame as the only story of herself she knows. An aching soul carrying an empty jar to the community well, where there is never the possibility for “community” nor “wellnesss” for her or her life.
But when she arrives at the well on this day, she is unexpectedly, not alone. Today is different from all the other days at the well. A Jewish Rabbi sits there, breaking all the rules that everybody knows, by making a simple request, “Give me a drink.”
Talk about shameful behavior!
• A man should not be talking to woman in public.
• The Jews and Samaritans are enemies –so why is he even in Samaria, talking with her in the first place? Jews traveling from Jerusalem to Galilee take the route along the Jordan River to avoid Samaria.
• Not only that, but Samaritans are also considered impure (they were viewed as ethnically diluted due to inter-marriage with other races, and religiously polluted having developed different practices after the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians). Jews would never share the same vessel with a Samaritan, yet here is Jesus, asking to drink from the cup of an “impure” enemy, and a woman at that.
“Give me a drink.” With 4 words Jesus has already started to break apart the shame-story that defines this woman’s life.
He has busted open all the rules and shattered them to bits. Jesus completely disregards ALL of the boundaries of race, religion, gender, culture, and politics—and in so doing, he does the ONE thing people of HER OWN race, gender, religion and culture refuse to do—and that’s to make the well a place of community and relationship for her!
Jesus SEES her, Jesus TALKS with her, Jesus NEEDS her service, when no one else will receive anything she has to offer.
To be seen as something other than her past, to be viewed as someone with gifts to offer rather than someone who’s life has no value, to feel like one part of her life does not have to define the whole of who she is for just this one brief moment, is such a relief, such a salve to the soul.
Her shame story loosens, the burden lightens just a little, the water jar feels a little easier to shoulder—
They keep talking—Jesus offers her living water –not the kind of water you pull up from the well—but a gushing source of life that comes from the Messiah himself—
• a fountain that washes away the residue of the past and the story of herself that goes with it.
• Living water that sustains this conversation, this new relationship, and continually keeps this new, lighter energy going and going.
• A relationship that lasts forever, a gushing fountain that extends into eternal life—
• even beyond death—could there be such a thing?
• She tries to grasp how to receive this eternal living water.
But Jesus does not stop there and leave her with partial healing, he wants her to be freed from the whole of her shame, so he asks about her husband, and she responds honestly. Then Jesus tells her, her own complete truth. “You have had 5 husbands and the one you have now is not your husband.”
There it is. Her shame out there in the glare of the noon-day sun on the lips of a supposed enemy living beyond all boundaries. A prophet for sure! Could he be the Messiah? How can he know my whole life when I have told him nothing, she wonders.
Yet hearing her truth spoken by this man freed of all the rules without a trace of judgement or accusation—how did he say it? He told her the truth of her life with love, with compassion, with understanding, with forgiveness—as if he knows it was not what she wanted or had even chosen. It just happened, and if she could have made it come out differently, she would have, but she did not have the power. She was just trying to survive.
He seems to know all this by the way he told her story. She senses he has somehow seen all of it, he knows the whole truth. And him knowing her truth with love set her free.
A lightness comes over her whole body; suddenly it feels as if her past does not matter. The woman at the well feels released and freer than she ever has before --like the stories of her past melted in the sun and washed away in the living waters Jesus talked about. She still remembers what happened, but the memories carried no regret—the pain of the past no longer define who she is, it’s not the story she needs to live by anymore.
Remarkably, her future feels open like water spilling forward in a stream after the spring rains. She can speak, she can share—she can tell others about this Messiah and what he told her—yes! She can start living a different way right now!
She can feel the energy, and the voice she has not used in so long bubbling up inside her—is this what he means when he talked about living water bubbling up to eternal life? Where is all this energy coming from, she wonders.
She has never spoken to townspeople before—maybe they won’t believe her, maybe they won’t listen, but who cares? To feel so good, so free, so whole for the first time since she was a child—who knows? She has to try!
The woman leaves her water jar behind and runs to town with a new story to tell:
Come and see! Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah can he? Come and see. He told me my whole life story and freed me from shame.
Oh my goodness, they are actually listening! They can tell that Jesus changed me!
I have a new life-story now—it’s living in relationship with Jesus, the Savior of the world. That’s my identity! I am washed clean in his living waters and sustained by his love.
The future is wide open. (Who knows, maybe I’ll even marry again! Wouldn’t that make the townspeople laugh?)
Won’t you come and see?!