5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but yousay that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.
31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
The woman at the well begins as a social outcast, ostracized for her family history. We know this for at least two reasons in the story.
First, Jesus says, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” (John 4:17-18)
In the sermons that I heard on this passage growing up in church, the woman at the well was depicted as a promiscuous woman. She was someone notorious for seducing and betraying men quickly.
However, that is a dangerous stereotype for us to impose on this Bible story. It doesn’t seem to fit the context.
In the 1st century, women could not initiate divorce. She didn’t leave behind five husbands. They left her behind.
Divorce was remarkably easy in their society. A man could divorce his wife for no other reason than that he didn’t like her cooking. Obviously, there were more serious offenses that led to divorce, such as adultery, but there is nothing in John 4 to indicate that this woman was a serial adulteress.
All we know is that she had five husbands and was not married at the time. Most likely, she was repeatedly widowed and divorced by her husbands. Can you imagine how traumatic it would be to be divorced by two or more different men? Can you imagine the shame and disgrace she must have felt inside, let alone from the people around her?
My guess is that this woman, clever as she obviously was, did not have a very high self-esteem. She had probably been hurt so badly that she gave up on marriage and love. She didn’t want to deal with the heartbreak and embarrassment of getting married again and fearing that it wouldn’t last.
Second, all of this helps explain why she came to draw water from the well around noon. She came to well at off peak time.
People don't go out to work in the heat of the day. You go in the morning or evening when it is cool. That was true in 1st century Palestine just like it is in 21st century Savannah. People don’t like getting hot and sweaty if they don’t have to.
But during those morning and evening hours, the well was a crowded place. Most of the women and children in Sychar would have been present at those times. There would have been lots of people around who knew this woman and knew her background. In a small town it is not easy to keep a low profile.
People shunned her and looked down on her. She didn’t want to deal with the harsh stares or gossip-filled whispers of her neighbors, so this woman did what a lot of us would do. She avoided people who didn’t like her. This must have meant a very lonely life on top of all her history of pain and heartache.
Her life was mired by shame. Shame is a powerful and dangerous social weapon. Dr. Brené Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection” (Brown, “Shame v. Guilt”). Shame is harmful because “the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous” (Brown).
Shunning and shaming others rarely motivates them toward positive change. Instead we become afraid and defensive, and we become willing to harm others to protect ourselves.
So Jesus meets a human being who has been told over and over again that she is unworthy of love. He meets someone who has been fed a constant message of disappointment and shame. How does the Savior respond?
Jesus speaks words of grace to her. He speaks kindly and gently. He engages her questions with thought and care. He invites her to join the “true worshippers of God” who will worship in spirit and truth. This woman, despite her past, still has an opportunity to know and love God because God loves her first.
She is worth so much more than she thought. She is not an object to be disposed or mistreated. She is not worthless. She is a beloved child of God. In this conversation, the woman’s life is transformed!
Jesus’ gentleness, tenderness, and mercy provide this opportunity for life change. For us, her transformation is marked by her actions. “Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city” (John 4:28) to tell her people about Jesus.
She goes from the outskirts of her community right into the center. She is no longer afraid of the opinions and judgments of her peers. She has a firm foundation in her identity as God’s child. God’s unconditional love has saved her.
She goes from being fearful and ashamed to bold and daring. She goes from being empty of God’s love to becoming a vessel of God’s grace for the people around her. Suddenly she is carrying the message of God’s love for us in Christ to her city. She has become an evangelist in her own right, all because of Jesus’ profound love for her.
We too are called to be beacons of mercy and grace. We are called to become bearers of the Good News of God in Christ.
But we cannot live into this calling from God without accepting God’s promise to us. We cannot share God’s love with others if we don’t receive it fully ourselves.
We have to reject all forms of shame and blame. We have to reject the dangerous thought that we have to earn God’s approval. The Gospel is the remedy to all our shame. Because everything is pure gift, pure grace.
Instead of condemnation and shame, God offers gentleness and the promise of unconditional love. “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
When we accept this amazing love deep in our hearts, we too can be transformed. We can live as the beloved, wonderful creatures that we truly are. Amen.
Brown, Brené. “Shame v. Guilt.” www.BreneBrown.com. Published 14 January 2013. Accessed 19 March 2017. http://brenebrown.com/2013/01/14/2013114shame-v-guilt-html/.
-----. Men, Women, and Worthiness: The Experience of Shame and the Power of Being Enough. Houston: Sounds True, 2013. Audiobook: https://www.amazon.com/Men-Women- Worthiness-Experience-Enough/dp/B00D4APD3M/ref=mt_audio_download?_encoding=UTF8&me=.