In case you missed it, Wednesday, March 8th was International Women’s Day. Celebrated in various fashions since 1909, in 1977, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace be observed in every Member State. March 8th became the generally recognized date in honor of the women who helped lead the February Revolution for Bread and Peace in Russia in 1917. The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day was #EmbraceEquity. As an international day for women’s rights, it is important to understand that we all start at different places. Some begin life with economic privilege or geographic privilege or the privilege of good health. True equity acknowledges that different means are required to create a level playing field for all, regardless of the privilege of where and to whom they were born. International Women’s Day calls on all of humanity to seek true equity for women by challenging gender stereotypes, calling out discrimination, drawing attention to bias, and seeking out inclusion. It is a gift, then, that our Gospel lesson appointed for the Sunday after International Women’s Day features an often-misunderstood woman with absolutely zero privilege meeting Jesus at a well.
The chronology in John’s Gospel is quite different than what we find in the other three Gospels. In John, Jesus and his disciples start their ministry in Jerusalem, but after an uncomfortable encounter with some Pharisees, they decide to head north to Galilee to regroup. There were a few paths one could take to get from Jerusalem to Galilee. Most Jewish folk would take the longer route, going east of the Jordan river through the Decapolis to avoid traveling through the homeland of the dreaded Samaritans. Jesus and the twelve, however, took the shorter path through Samaria. After a few days of travelling, about thirty miles north of Jerusalem, they stopped for lunch in a town called Sychar or Shechem.
Jesus, worn out from the long days travelling, stopped at the well just outside of town while his disciples went on to buy some falafel for lunch. While he waited, an unnamed woman came out to draw water for the day. Over the years, people have made all kinds of assumptions about this woman from Samaria. I too have been guilty of perpetuating the biased narratives of the woman at the well. She came to the well at noon, well into the heat of day and way after the normal hour when women would have gathered to draw water and catch up on the news. The assumption is quickly made that she is in some kind of notorious sinner, outcast from her community, and forced to do her work at odd hours to avoid awkward interactions, knowing glances, and whispered rumors. These presumptions are exacerbated by her interaction with Jesus wherein he says the quiet part out loud. She’s had five husbands, and the man she is living with now is not her husband.
American cultural Christianity, no matter the denomination, is built on a puritanical foundation. We are about as sexually repressed a nation as there is in the west, and so the story of this woman at the well has long caused American pastors and church goers alike to clutch their pearls and gasp at how sinful this woman must be. Surely, she’s a prostitute, some allege. Others wonder if she’s a serial adulterer. Definitely, she’s a woman of ill repute whom Jesus should have steered clear of. Reading this story through our own context is really unhelpful, however. Neither Jesus nor the Gospel writer make any moral claims about her marital status. Moreover, as a woman, she had no legal ability to initiate divorce. She could have simply been widowed and remarried several times over. One commentary I read this week suggested that perhaps she was stuck in a revolving door of levirate marriage where her husband had died and she was forced to marry his brothers until, finally, one refused to marry her but agreed to keep her safe in his home.
If Jesus doesn’t mention her bad luck in love to shame her, then why does he name it at all? Several possibilities are available to us. First, Jesus met her at a well. Wells are, in the Jewish scripture tradition, a place where powerful couples find each other: Moses and Zipporah, Jacob and Rachel, Rebekah and Issacs’s servant. Jesus meeting a woman at a well would have brought the original audience to mind that somehow two essential figures were coming together. Those five husbands are important as well. Some scholars suggest they represent the five empires that had ruled Samaria since the Babylonian exile. Others think that maybe the five husbands represent the mixed heritage of the early Samaritans. I can’t help but wonder if it is a reference to the five books of the Torah, the only Hebrew scriptures to which the Samaritans still subscribed.
No matter what, if anything, the five husbands mean, this encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well point us to the joining of Jesus’ ministry with people outside of Israel. More than that, it isn’t that Jesus met a Roman Centurion or an Egyptian Eunuch, but this encounter at the well was with a woman. From Samaria. She was the outsider’s outsider and not because of her martial status. As a single woman, Jesus had no business talking to her. He risked both of their honors by engaging her alone. Even worse, she was a Samaritan, a race of people that had been at odds with the Jews for centuries.
And yet, this woman, this Samaritan, this person whom the culture would have considered unworthy is the only person in John’s Gospel to whom Jesus shares his true identity. “I know the Messiah is coming,” the woman says to Jesus in their ongoing theological back and forth. “I am the one,” Jesus replies, saying to her the name that God spoke to Moses at the burning bush. In that moment, the woman knew to whom she was speaking. The Messiah was standing there, right in front of her, and she dropped her water jar and ran to tell anyone who would listen. In an instant, this woman went from outcast to apostle, sharing the Good News to her entire city. Having met at the well, the woman and Jesus brought together the Messiah and world outside of Israel, and things would never be the same.
Because the Gospels were written so long ago, in a culture so very different from ours, it is easy to treat them with a broad brush, and to read their stories through the lens of a lot of bad assumptions. However, stories like this one invite us to dig in and to understand. The Woman at the Well deserves a better, more equitable treatment in the story of Jesus. When we put aside our biases and stereotypes, we hear the story of a woman of deep wisdom, who had likely experienced a lot of pain, seeking the living water of eternal life. We hear of a woman who stood toe to toe with Jesus and in so doing, opened the door to salvation for the least liked of all of Israel’s foes. Because of her witness, many came to believe that Jesus wasn’t just the Messiah of Israel, but indeed, the Savior of the Word, and we are here, at least in part, because this Woman at the well, the Apostle to Samaria. Thanks be to God for her story, her tenacity, and her witness to the love of God in Christ Jesus. Amen.