March 21, 2008

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical women: The woman at the well

John F. Fink(Thirty-second in a series of columns)

The fourth chapter of John’s Gospel tells us about Jesus’ meeting with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in Samaria.

John calls the town Sychar, but St. Jerome identified it as Schechem, the capital of the Kingdom of Israel and, later, Samaria. It is modern Nablus, and Jacob’s well is still there. I visited it before pilgrims stopped going there because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Jesus was traveling from Judea back to Galilee. Normally, Jews would take a route across the Jordan River to avoid walking through Samaria, but Jesus decided to take the more direct route. His disciples went into town to buy food while Jesus sat by the well.

At noon, a Samaritan woman came to get water and Jesus asked her for a drink of water. This was surprising, to say the least, since Jews never used anything in common with Samaritans, especially Samaritan women, whom they regarded as ritually impure.

The animosity between Jews and Samaritans went all the way back to the years after Assyria conquered the Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. Thousands of Jews were deported to Assyria and people from 10 other nations were allowed to fill the void in Israel. The Jews who remained in Israel, now called Samaria, intermarried with the newcomers, resulting in a mixed race with a mixed religion. After the Jews—who later were exiled to Babylon after the fall of the Kingdom of Judah—returned to their homeland, they refused to accept the Samaritans.

The woman at the well wasn’t the most savory of women because she had had five husbands and was then living with another man. Nevertheless, she engaged Jesus in a conversation about the differences in belief between the Jews and Samaritans. She said that her ancestors worshiped on Mount Gerizim in Samaria (in a temple they built in the fourth century B.C.) while the Jews worshiped in Jerusalem.

Jesus replied that, although salvation is from the Jews, it is not only for the Jews, but for all who adore God.

The most startling part of the conversation happened when the woman said that she knew that the Messiah was coming.

Jesus replied, “I am he,” which could also be translated “I am,” God’s name in the Old Testament. This was the first time he had acknowledged to anyone that he was the Messiah.

When Jesus’ disciples returned with food, they were shocked to find him talking with a Samaritan woman. While Jesus talked with them, the woman quickly ran into the city and told her neighbors, “Come see a man who told me everything I have done [a bit of an exaggeration]. Could he possibly be the Messiah?”

A footnote in John’s Gospel says the woman is thus presented as a missionary.

Some of the people returned to the well with the woman and asked Jesus to remain with them, which he did for two days. Thus did Jesus make his first non-Jewish converts as a result of his meeting with the woman at the well.†

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