The story of God’s people in the Old Testament shows both the incredible faithfulness of God as He brought them from one holy couple into one universal (world-wide) Church. It’s an epic story that features many twists and turns bringing to life the statement that “God writes straight with crooked lines,” and that He often uses unexpected people for tremendous things.
One such story of an unexpected person whom God used for a tremendous purpose was the samaritan woman he encountered in John 4:5-30, whose story is the subject of our study today.
When we hear about Samaritans in the Bible (here or the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel), we might be tempted to think they are just another nation who came and went and had some interaction with God’s people. That’s not exactly accurate. One of the results of the multiple conquests & exiles Israel suffers in the Old Testament was a split of the twelve tribes of Israel (named for the son’s of Jacob at the end of the book of Genesis.) Two of these tribes make up what’s known as the “Southern Kingdom” and ten make up the Northern Kingdom. In the southern Kingdom, Jerusalem and the Temple remain at the center of religious worship, and it is there that much of what we now know as the Old Testament was proclaimed and lived. The Northern Kingdom built a temple on Mount Gerizim, believed to be the place where Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22). The Samaritans who lived in the Northern Kingdom seemed to live as religious hybrids: they accepted the first five books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch), but they had also intermarried with foreign tribes and adopted some of their idols as their own. They would later stand against Israel’s attempts to rebuild the walls and temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 4).
The net result was that there was was hatred and contempt between the Samaritans and the Jewish people. Imagine your favorite sports teams biggest rival, and the hatred fans between those two teams have for each other… and you’re only beginning to scratch the surface of what’s going on between the two of them.
In that context, you start to see that Jesus broke two major societal conventions in speaking to this woman in the first place. First of all, a Rabbi would not usually be found speaking alone to a woman. Secondly, a Jew wouldn’t speak to a Samaritan. Jesus ignores all of this and in turn, his encounter with the Samaritan woman teaches us a story about God’s grace – something we need just like we need water. Jesus encounters this woman and asks her for a drink. Obviously it would make sense that Jesus is thirsty – He has been traveling and the desert can be very hot. But his request for a drink means much more than that. St. Augustine writes that “the wonder of prayer is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water: there, Christ comes to meet every human being. It is he who first seeks us and asks us for a drink. Jesus thirsts; his asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us. Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him.”
The woman Jesus encounters is a woman who clearly thirsts for something. When Jesus offers her “living water” (John 4:10) which means she will never thirst again (4:13-14), she begs him to share that water with Him. It’s at this point we learn that she has had 5 husbands and is with a sixth man to whom she is not married (4:18). It’s not a huge stretch to say that this string of relationships implies she’s looking for more than just a drink of H2O. As He does with all of us, Jesus reads her heart (John 4:19-20), inspiring her to become one of the first missionaries in Christian history (John 4:29) – telling others of the man who knew her heart and her past, but loved her anyway, who was greater than all the patriarchs and prophets (John 4:13-15).
The Samaritan woman’s story can also be seen as an allegory for Samaritan history. Citizens of the Northern Kingdom mingled with five foreign tribes during a period of Assyrian conquest (more than seven hundred years before Jesus was born). Each of these tribes introduced it’s own ‘god’ to Israelite religious practice, and the idols they worshipped were often referred to as ba’als, which means husband. In much the same way as the Samaritan woman had been with five husbands, so too had the Samaritans been with five other “husbands,” drawing them away from God.
This one simple encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman stands for us today as a reminder of God’s faithfulness in face of our own unfaithfulness: no matter what we as individuals or as a whole people experience, He is always there seeing past our fears and our failures, calling us back to Him… the source of all living water.
(This is the fifth part of a Bible study I’m hosting with students at St. Peter the Apostle CHS in Spruce Grove during the 2017-18 school year.)