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The Samaritan Woman
My usual flight from London landed in Bombay a little before 4:00 am, after which it was a short trip in a Morris Oxford taxi to the Hotel Leela. The body clock is slightly muddled and, as sleep at that hour of the morning makes very little sense, I would spend time gazing from my eighth floor window at the world outside. In this comparatively cool part of the day you can see streams of women walking in twos or threes along the narrow raised paths to and from the well. On the way there, carrying their pots and jugs but balancing them neatly on their heads on the way back. Sometimes accompanied by children, this seems a convivial activity; a social moment; work yes, but pleasurable enough before the tough Indian heat takes hold. It is in this context that we need to place John’s story of the Samaritan woman at the well.
As well as recognising this context of a timeless activity, we need as well to understand the context in which John’s original audience would have heard this story. The scene that is set, a man and a woman meeting by a well is a classic betrothal scene that can be found in the Old Testament and in other Jewish literature. We may remember, perhaps, the story of Rebecca which we read earlier this year in which Isaac’s servant, sent to find a wife for his master, meets Rebecca at the well. She draws water for him and his camels, whereupon, Eliezer, the servant, realises that this is the girl he has been looking for and takes her back to Isaac to be his wife. Jacob meets Rachel in similar circumstances and Moses is given water from a well by his future wife, Zipporah. The structure of this betrothal story would have been as familiar to John’s audience as the form of a fairy tale is to us. The standard pattern being that a potential bridegroom (or his servant) goes to a foreign land, where he meets a woman at a well. There is a conversation about water, that is either given or received; the woman hurries home to report the stranger's arrival, and then the bridegroom is invited to the future father in law for a meal and Bob's your uncle; wedding bells. (Just a note to any single girls here. Be careful when you draw water for a man’s camels.)
Even as this particular story begins though, we know that something is wrong. Firstly, we are in Samaria and of all places, this might be the last place where a Jewish boy would look for a nice girl, since the peoples did not get on. The Samarians were thought of as a mixed race neither Jew nor Gentile and were to be avoided. Indeed Jews, travelling from Judea to Galilee, would detour across the Jordan and travel north up the east side of the river to keep well away from Samaria altogether. Secondly, it was the sixth hour; noon, not a time for people to be trudging around with heavy jars of water and further she comes alone. Why is she not coming in the cool of the morning, with all the other women swinging along in convivial company, like those I could see from my hotel window? Already, even before a word is spoken, we wonder about these things, thinking that maybe she has been shunned by the other women and is coming deliberately unseen and alone to the well. And yet here we are, a lone woman and a man at a well and the conversation begins just as we expect with his asking for a drink. We quickly discover though that this is not an ordinary conversation and as we saw last week with Nicodemus, initially, at least, the woman’s response is very earth bound.
“Sir”, she says, “you have no bucket and the well is deep” and a little later “give me this water so that I do not have to keep coming here to draw (water).” But Jesus is speaking on a different plane.
“The water that I will give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”
And now comes the magnificent promise and hope of this story; you see she gets it. She has an inkling of who Jesus is and more, the story starts and ends according to the formula. She goes back to tell the village of the stranger. He gets invited back to stay the night and have a meal. It's just that in this case, the bride is a fallen woman, a foreigner of the worst sort, confirming again that Jesus is the saviour of the whole world, not a chosen Jewish few. And this story has something else to say; not only does the Samaritan fallen woman get it, but she goes back to the village and is an effective witness.
“Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman‘s testimony.“
So think of that. No matter who you are, or who you were or where you have been, Jesus is still able to meet you, and when he does he can so change you that you can become, despite everything that might have gone on before, new and fresh and able to help others find him too.