It’s not secret in the New Testament that Jews and Samaritans dislike one another. “Dislike”, in fact, is putting it mildly.
The Samaritans, who consider themselves Jewish, were descendents of a group of Jews who had not been resettled during the Assyrian exile. They have Jewish ancestry. However, because they remained in occupied territory, likely blending aspects of the occupying culture into their daily lives, Jews from the resettled group—those who ended up Jerusalem—consider them to be illegitimate.
Additionally, during this time, changes were being made in the priestly leadership of the Jews. Some of the old order of priests ended up serving the Samaritans, giving them a legitimate claim to having ties to Jewish priesthood, a claim the Jews denied.
One of the major disagreements between the two groups concerned the appropriate place for worship. Samaritans believed it was acceptable to worship in their ancestral lands, while Jews claimed true worship could only take place in Jerusalem.
These differing views on worship help to illuminate the reason that Jews and Samaritans did not share cooking and drinking vessels, or eating utensils: ritual purity.
Jews held to strict ritual purity. Any kind of contact—direct or secondary—with unclean people was seen to contaminate the Jew. Jews considered Samaritans entirely unclean, even going to so far as to refer to them as menstrual rags. Jewish desire to avoid contact with Samaritans was so strong that Jews would go significantly out of their way while travelling in order to avoid passing through Samaritan territory.
In the event that Jews and Samaritans did come into contact with one another, it was not unusual for the two groups to fight. On one occasion, recorded in historical record, when a group of Galileans were passing through Samaria, the Samaritans battled the Jews and killed significant numbers of them.
So, it is significant that Jesus, who hails from Galilee, is crossing through Samaritan territory. Jesus is risking serious injury, even to the point of death, at the hands of the Samaritans. He’s also risking the possible contempt of his disciples who would consider Samaritans unclean, and view interacting with them a violation of purity codes.
And this is where we find Jesus this morning: sitting by Jacob’s well, in Samaria, at noon.
Now, the biblical authors are intentional writers. No detail, no matter how small, is ever thrown in by chance. Thus, it is also significant that they author of John’s gospel chooses to note the time.
Desserts in the Mediterranean are hot places to hang out, in the middle of the day. As such, women would rise early in the morning, likely before dawn, and head out of the city to the well in order to draw water for their family’s daily use. The well might be considered the “water cooler” of the ancient world. As these women gathered, the well was likely as much a place for social interaction as the site of a day’s first chore.
Here we find Jesus, joined by one woman, drawing water at noon. This is a woman who is likely ostracized by the other women in her community. And the reason for this is made clear a little later in the passage: she’s a bad girl.
We have all kinds of names for women like her today, and chances are good there were all kinds of names for a woman like her 2000 years ago—married five times, and currently living with a man who is not her husband.
A Samaritan woman who’s living in sin. There is no doubt about it: this woman is utterly unclean, likely seen as beyond redemption, and considered worthy of judgment and scorn.
And Jesus asks her for a drink. This is an action on the part of Jesus that violates every cultural boundary he’s been raised from infancy to observe. And he does it because he doesn’t see a Samaritan woman of ill repute. He sees a woman who is valuable and worthy and whose identity is something wholly other than “unclean.”
And Jesus has something to offer her.
Jesus tells this woman that he can offer her living water.
Living water has a very specific meaning in ancient Jewish culture. It’s quite likely that this woman, a Samaritan, a group which shares a common heritage with the Jews and considers themselves to be Jewish, this woman is probably familiar with the meaning of living water.
Living water is defined by its source and is distinguished from drawn water. While drawn water comes from a well, drawn out of underground aquifers, living water comes from a moving, that is live, source. The source of this moving, living water is most often a river or spring. Beyond simply distinguishing their varying sources, however, drawn and living water also have very distinct purposes:
Drawn water is used for daily living.
Living water is absolutely essential for Jewish purity. Jews who were considered ritually unclean were required to immerse themselves in water. They only way such immersion could make one pure again was if such bathing was one with living water.
Jesus is offering this woman so much more than a beverage to quench her thirst on a hot day at noon. Jesus is promising to make this woman pure. What’s more, Jesus is declaring that he purity he’s offering is once and for all—the water he gives her will become a spring of water, a source of living water within her, gushing up to eternal life. Nothing and no one can take it away from her. Once she has it, she is eternally clean.
Jesus is offering this woman purity, redemption, an opportunity to re-enter the social sphere without stigma. Jesus is offering to utterly transform her life. And he can do it.
This woman, this unclean woman, the object of scorn and ridicule and judgment within her community, is so excited about what Jesus has to offer her that she leaves her water jug and runs back to the city, defying all cultural conventions about the place this kind of woman holds and she declares, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! Can this be the Messiah?”
What I find most fascinating about this woman’s call to her fellow townsfolk is that although she already knows that Jesus is the Messiah, he’s shared this fact with her after all and this news has made an impact, she doesn’t tell her fellow townsfolk that Jesus is the Messiah. Rather, she invites them to explore for themselves the possibility that Jesus might be. She asks a question, permitting those in her town to answer for themselves.
And her testimony is powerful. Her transparency about her experience of Jesus is so powerful it created in others a thirst for Jesus and the living water he offered as well. Because of her testimony, many Samaritans from that city believed in him.
And they wanted to know more! They returned to the well with this woman and they invited Jesus to stay with them. These Samaritans extended hospitality to someone traditionally considered to be an enemy. The hospitality they showed outstripped any hospitality he might have received from the Jews. In fact, in John’s gospel, far from showing Jesus any hospitality, the Jews show nothing but hostility and hatred to Jesus.
The Samaritans in town heard this woman’s testimony and they just had to know more. Because of her invitation, their thirst was satisfied. Because she spoke with transparency and boldness, the people in her town came to know Jesus as the Savior of the world.
Do was have that kind of a testimony in us? Are we overflowing with this spring of living water? Does our testimony of Jesus’s work in our lives invite others to meet Jesus and come to know him as a Savior? Does it create in others a thirst for the living water the has to offer?
And as Christians who have this spring of living water within us, are we willing to look past the social stigmas of the “unclean” people in our lives, loving them for who they are rather than judging them for what they’ve done?
Too often, I think we measure our success against the failures of others. We consider Jesus someone we alone can claim. We claim springs of living water for ourselves and draw drops of water for others.
This is certain true of me at times.
My hope for us this morning is that our springs would flow out to those in our lives, enticing them to deeper knowledge of Jesus, or inviting them to meet him for the first time. My hope is that we can be like the Samaritan woman—open, transparent, excited individuals who invite others to meet this man who knows everything about us and loves us anyway. And I hope being known and loved by Jesus allows us to better know and love others.