Taking the Long Way
Today we’re taking a fresh look at the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 through a lens of vulnerability. The vulnerable can be defined as any group of people less likely to receive justice due to diminished access, money, or ability.
For example, a homeless person is financially vulnerable. Her ability to procure a job may rely on the very things she would need a job to attain: access to clean clothes, a physical address, a phone number. This financial vulnerability can create a vicious cycle of loitering, trespassing, and petty-theft arrests due to hunger. When arrested, this woman couldn’t afford adequate representation, and may serve a longer sentence. And if she has a felony, she will find it even more difficult to obtain a job.
In Jewish culture, it was important for Jews to be set apart from Gentiles, who worshipped false gods. The Assyrian and Babylonian exiles were God’s discipline for Israel’s idolatry; God sent the Israelites into exile under those countries because of their disobedience. However, attached to Jewish wariness of Gentiles was an ethnic superiority that God did not intend—for example, one look at Jesus’ genealogy reveals the adoption of Gentiles Rahab and Ruth in the family of God, based on their faith. The Samaritans were a reminder of the Jews’ unfaithfulness and the exile that they would rather forget.
John 4:4–5 says that Jesus “had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.”
During Jesus’ time, no devout Jew passed through Samaria. Though Samaria provided the shortest route from Judea to Galilee, for generations, Jews trekked out of their way to avoid the region because it was populated by a mix of Gentiles and Jews after the Assyrian occupation of the land (2 Kings 17:24–41). Samaritans were considered repulsive to Jews.
But Jesus walked right through this no-trek zone, thirsty and tired. Jesus went to one of the hubs (everyone needs water) of an off-limits region, hoping one of the Samaritans would notice him sitting at the well. The Samaritan woman nobly stepped up.
The Samaritan Woman: Seeker, not Scandalous
This woman at the well was the definition of vulnerable. She was a woman, alone, engaging with a man (Jesus) in a culture where that kind of interaction was forbidden. What’s more, Jesus spoke to her societal vulnerability when He said, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband” (John 4:17–18).
In the ancient Near East, women were provided for first through their fathers and then through their husbands. The Samaritan woman most likely had the dire experience of being widowed multiple times—not only bereft of a husband, but also without the “social security” that marriage offered. The fact that multiple men would marry her meant (1) she was a woman of character, and (2) she was probably of childbearing age, not that she was a woman of loose morals. It’s hard to imagine the depth of loss this woman experienced. In fact, it was so inconceivable that the fact that Jesus knew her story was enough for her to proclaim Him as a prophet. Though the Samaritan woman suffered great loss and tragedy, she still exhibited beautiful faith.
Consider this: Jesus never exhorted the Samaritan woman to leave her life of sin (as He did in John 8:11, for example), and instead the two engaged in a lengthy discussion of the nature and location of worship. Jesus conversed with the Samaritan woman in the same way He talked with His dear friends Mary and Martha (John 11:21–33). When the woman ran back to Samaria with the gospel message, the people believed her; in other words, she was a credible witness, not a shifty character. Moreover, the discussion took place at Jacob’s well—which Jacob built immediately after reconciling with his brother Esau in Genesis 33.
The way we interpret the interaction between Jesus and the Samaritan woman reveals our own ability to read someone’s circumstances inaccurately. To have compassion for the vulnerable, we often must suspend our initial judgment, ask questions, and investigate the backstory.
Walk Through It
Jesus went to that well to bring reconciliation to Samaria, starting with one sincere worshipper going out to fetch water. He saw her vulnerability and spoke to her grief. He did not walk the other way to avoid the region or avoid her past. Jesus assured the Samaritan woman that ultimately, worshippers of God can be found “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23–24), not Samaria or Jerusalem; in the “living water” of Jesus (7:38), not a mere well from Jacob. And this woman, whom the disciples ignored and our current commentary may count out, was so trusted by Jesus that He told her unequivocally that He was the Messiah (John 4:25–26).
There’s a history and a backstory to every life, but the backgrounds of the marginalized are not always given the depth and time they deserve. Jesus gave the Samaritan woman the time and honor she deserved, and His encounter with her transformed the region. We can be ministers of hope and healing by acknowledging the past circumstances that led to present-day exclusion.