Encounters With Jesus: The Woman at the Well

Scripture: John 4:1-26

Maybe you think you know my story.

Maybe you’ve heard it before.

I know you’ve heard that I was loose. A scarlet woman. A sinner. How else would a woman end up with five husbands, and then living with a man who wasn’t even her husband? We do make assumptions about these things sometimes, don’t we? But that’s not how this story goes.

This is a story of redemption, but not that kind. Jesus never told me to go and sin no more. That is someone else’s story.[1]

My story is a sad one. It didn’t start out that way. I was sought after when I was young. My parents arranged my marriage to the oldest son of a prominent family in our village outside of Sychar. He was a good man. I was bright-eyed and hopeful about the future. We talked about what life would be like: full of joy, and the laughter of children. But time passed, and there were no children.

He died young, my husband. We never even knew why.

We have a custom, in our society, that when an man dies without children, his brother should marry his wife and have children for him.[2] I didn’t want his brother, but what choice did I have? His brother, meanwhile, didn’t want children that wouldn’t even bear his name. He didn’t need to worry. Eventually, that brother died too.

It was then that people began to whisper.

There was one more brother, one more chance to carry on his family’s line. But at this point you know how the story goes: no children came, and that brother died as well.

People began to say that I was cursed. To be honest, I began to believe them. My husbands’ family shunned me, and I didn’t blame them. My own father wouldn’t take me back.

A widow is worth nothing in our society – especially a childless one. I lived on what charm I had left. I found one man to take me in, and then another. What could I do? My only other option was to beg. My fourth husband left me, and the fifth. The sixth took me in, but wouldn’t marry me at all. Would you have?

People said it was my fault, having so many husbands, but how much choice do you think a woman in my society had? None of this was how my life was supposed to go. But oh yes, we like to think we know someone else’s story. 

But that brings me to that one fateful day at the well.

When I went to get water that day, I intentionally left after most of the village women would have already come and gone. I was tired of the whispers and stares. The ones who didn’t act like they were afraid I’d cast a spell on them looked at me with pity in their eyes instead. I didn’t want any of it.

There he was, sitting there: a man I’d never seen before. He must have been a traveler. I prayed he was just thirsty; the only other reason men came to wells was to meet women, as our father Jacob did, and his father Isaac before him.[3] I did my best to ignore him. I had every intention of avoiding women that day, and I certainly didn’t need to deal with men.

But he didn’t ignore me. Instead, he asked me for a drink. His accent was Galilean. Jewish. I backed away. My people don’t associate with Jews. Oh, we have a lot of shared history, Jews and Samaritans – in fact, according to the Scriptures we share, we used to be one people. But not anymore. They have their Temple, and we have ours, and we are each heretics and idolaters to the other.

“Why are you asking me for water?” I said. The whole thing seemed a little off.

He smiled at me like he had a secret. He leaned in, and he said, “If you knew who I was, you’d be asking me for living water.”

Living water. It sounds fancy in translation, but all it really means is water that flows, like from a spring. Still, there was no spring here, just the well, and besides, from the way he said it – living water – it was clear he meant more than that.  Yep, here was just another man, talking big. Another man, trying to sell me something. I’d heard it all before. I pointed out that he didn’t even have a jug. Was he magic? Was this some sort of magic water?

“Look,” he said, “you get water from this well, you drink it, a few hours later, you’re thirsty again, right?” I nodded.

“Well,” he said, “whoever drinks the water I have will never be thirsty again.”

“Well, then, fine,” I said, as all of my bitterness rose to the surface. “Give me your magic water. I don’t ever want to have to come back to this well, anyway.”

Was I thirsty? Of course I was thirsty. I was thirsty for a life that wasn’t this one. Thirsty for a life with friendship, and intimacy, and community. I was thirsty for a life where I was cared for, and respected. Thirsty for a life where all my bad luck didn’t define me and I didn’t have always come to this well alone, where people knew my story instead of just assuming they did. All of it, I was thirsty for all of it. So yeah, if he had magic water that could do all that, I’d take it.  

He just looked at me for a while. Looked at me like he knew me. He softened somehow, or maybe it was me. He didn’t seem like he was selling something anymore.

“Why don’t you go home and get your husband,” he said quietly.

I felt myself tensing up again. “I’m not married.”

He said, “I know.”

He let that sink in.

“You’ve had five husbands, haven’t you,” he said, “and the man you’re with now isn’t your husband.”

“Look at that,” I said, “a prophet.” But my voice shook a little bit as I said it.

Could he know? Could he know my story?

And if so, could he know all of it? Not just the bad luck, not just the rumors and the whispers, not just the choices I was forced to make, but all of it – all the disappointment and the grief I’d been forced to bear; all the pain of exclusion; the fear that what they said was true; all the sheer force of will that kept me going every day? Could he know that bright-eyed girl I used to be, dreaming of the future?

His eyes said he did. He did. He knew all of it. He knew that I was thirsty for more than water. But then, aren’t we all?

I said this next part shakily, as if testing out a hypothesis. I said, “Sir, our people don’t worship God in the same way as yours. But we both believe the Messiah is coming.” I set those words down and waited.

It was quiet for a moment, and then he said, simply, “I AM.”

And that was the end of our conversation. A group of men – I suppose his disciples – arrived on the scene. They stopped in shock when they saw him talking to me, a Samaritan woman, but he beckoned them forward. But me, I put my jug down and ran. I ran toward the city and the people I usually tried so hard to avoid. I ran toward them to tell the story of the One who knew mine.

And because of me, the Samaritans of Sychar came to have faith in a Jewish Messiah.

And from that day on I told my story differently. Not just a story of brokenness, but a story of hope. Not a story of someone cursed, but of someone chosen. Not just a story of death after death, but a story of new life, for me and everyone who heard my words.

And not the story of a redeemed sinner, but the story of a person fully known.

From that day on I told my story differently, because it was part of a bigger one, and telling it meant telling God’s story too.

[1] Cf. John 8, the woman caught in adultery. The first time I preached on this passage, John 4, I really did think Jesus told the woman to go and sin no more. (I set myself straight before I preached it, though.)

[2] Deuteronomy 25:5-6 (the Samaritans also held the Pentateuch as Scripture, by the way, with some minor textual differences); cf. also Matthew 22:23-33. This practice is called levirate marriage.

[3] The well as a place to find a wife: Genesis 24 and 29

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