If you have attended more than a few church services there is a good chance you’ve heard the story of The Woman at the Well.
Having heard or read it dozens of times, you can probably understand my milk-toast response when my pastor announced this morning “Open your bibles to John 4:1-26”.
I had just settled comfortably into passive-listening mode when a curiosity intrusively forced its way into my mind — “Now Jacob’s well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied from His journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour. A woman of Samaria came to draw water…”
The ‘sixth hour’ in bible talk means six hours after sunrise, placing this scenario around noon. It isn’t hard to surmise why Jesus might be there at midday. Passing through Samaria on His way from Judea to Galilee, He came across Jacob’s well and stopped for rest and refreshing. That makes total sense, even to my modern mind.
The curiosity is why this woman was at the well at this time. High noon in the Middle East is hardly the time of day to make a trek carrying heavy clay jars, only to lug them back home laden with water. I couldn’t help but ponder possible motives this woman had for choosing this unlikely time.
The unraveling must begin with consideration of the context— judiciously sprinkled with a bit of conjecture. For openers, what was the role of the well in this ancient culture? We could assume its function strictly limited to that of a water source. It might do to remember, however, that in this culture women were responsible for fetching water.
Pondering this, I imagined women rising in the cool of the morning to fetch water—each setting out from her own home where the remains of her day would be spent preparing food, managing the household and tending children.
It doesn’t take much of a stretch to imagine this convergence at the town-well serving a social, as well as pragmatic function. I can almost hear the joyful chatter and laughter; women sharing tidbits of news, making plans, and savoring the brief camaraderie before beginning daily chores.
Yet this woman chose to visit the well at another time. Could it be that social engagement was the very thing she was avoiding? I believe this woman’s shame went before her. Perhaps enduring the midday sun was preferable to the risk of a condemning gaze, judgmental whisper, or the shunning avoidance of others.
The details of the story imply that Jesus was alone at the well when this woman arrived. I would speculate she had hoped to have the well completely to herself. Perhaps even doing her best to ensure she was alone — peering through a window until all had returned to their homes for the day, the streets were empty, and she was safe.
In truly cosmic irony, who should be waiting for her at the well, but the only One able to do the very thing she feared —Jesus could reveal her deepest darkest sins. Talk about worst case scenario!
The story could have gotten ugly at that point. The entire outcome hinged on one thing— Jesus’ motives. As the righteous judge of the universe, He had every right to condemn this woman for the sins she had committed. But as the story unfolds we see that Jesus’ purpose in revealing her sin was not to judge but to forgive.
“For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the World through Him.” John 3:17
Jesus’ line of questioning made her intensely uncomfortable. Far worse than exposing her sin, His questions threatened to expose her deep emptiness and longing. Jesus was peering straight into her heart and into the void that she had tried to fill with physical love.
No doubt she wanted to run and hide, or simply evaporate in the blazing sun, feeling as naked as Eve did before her. Desperate to escape, she did the only thing she could do. She changed the subject to something far less threatening – RELIGION.
She was clearly comfortable talking about God, about places of worship, religious tradition, rules and regulations. Why? Those things do not constitute an encounter with Jesus. Religion soothes. It placates. It provides an avenue for the expression of the better angels of our nature—a way to reinforce our belief in our own worth and righteousness.
Religion does not require the humbling of the heart, or bending of the knee that acknowledges our desperate need for Jesus, the only atonement for our sin.
Jesus’ love was something she hadn’t planned on that day. She had devised a strategy to avoid the condemnation of others, an effective tactic for evading judgment. She was not, however, prepared for an encounter with the One who would penetrate her sinful heart with His love. How could she have anticipated meeting the One capable of satisfying the deepest longing of her soul, the only One with the power to set her free?
Jesus answered her, “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.” John 4:10
The beautiful contradiction is that Jesus did not come to earth to introduce another religion, but to break down religious walls. He came to address the true heart of the matter: the emptiness of the human soul.
Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life. Revelation 22:17