So I was listening to a radio programme during one of my epic, flood-aggravated commutes this week and that got me thinking about the story of the woman at the well in John 4.
It’s effectively a story of division. Jesus is a Jew in a Samaritan area, and a Jewish rabbi speaking to a woman, on his own, in public. He’s in hostile territory and he’s breaking a social taboo – the whole reading starts to take on a new edge when we see how Jesus is operating in the context of religious division and gender politics. And beyond that, maybe there’s another fault line affecting the conversation.
See, the well wasn’t just the centre of the community, it was the centre of the local female community. Women would go to collect water early in the morning, as happens in communities throughout the world, and so the well would be a place of gathering, gossip, friendship and unity, especially in a woerld where male and female societal roles were more clearly defined and enforced than we’re used to.
And yet here’s a woman at the well on her own. She’s an outsider, ostracized for reasons that are revealed later in the reading. She’s gathering water during the hottest time of the day because visiting at any other point would invite ridicule and rejection. Even now she’s stumbling from one scandal to another, because she really shouldn’t have been engaging in conversation with Jesus either.
Of course, this is Jesus, so the conversation isn’t really scandalous – or at least not in the tawdry gossip sense of the word. They find themselves having a discussion about the differences in Jewish and Samaritan theologies and Jesus introduces the theme of living water. The woman is impressed by this – she wants to learn more. “Sure,” Jesus says, “Just go get your husband.”
Because it turns out that she hasn’t got a husband and somehow Jesus knows this – she’s had five husbands in the past and now she’s with someone she’s not married to.
The gossip in me wants to know more – is she just living with someone or is she the Other Woman in an affair? And what happened with the other five blokes? Jesus remains tactfully silent on all this – all we need to know is that this is another set of divisions that’re being navigated. And yet ask yourself what happened a few hours early, when the local women gathered around that same well. Did they gossip about this woman? Was she an object lesson in how not to live? Did they make jokes about how many husbands she’d got through, talk about her current man and what drove him into her arms? And did the lonely woman at the well know exactly what people were saying about her, every time she looked at her partner while he slept at night and she was silent with her thoughts?
That partner never turns up in the story, of course – as with the woman caught in adultery, the man involved in this remains conspicuous by his absence; it’s the woman who’s important in this narrative. We know she’s done wrong, but we don’t leave it there. She’s overcome by this encounter and runs into town to tell everyone that they have a prophet in their midst.
The town finds out about Jesus because he broke through barriers and spoke to an ostracized woman, putting his own reputation on the line for the sake of someone who, by the social conventions of the time, should have been avoided like the plague. We don’t know what happens a week after all this took place, but for now the divisions are being healed – the woman is being listened to again.
It’s not the last time a woman of dubious reputation is the vehicle for news of Jesus, but this is a moment in which communities start to be healed. Will the woman be welcome at the well tomorrow morning? Who knows, but for now, look at her running from neighbour to neighbour, amazed and liberated by meeting the Messiah. The divisions are starting to break down because Jesus amde the effort to talk to someone polite society thought he should have made a pariah. Thankfully Jesus doesn’t play by those rules..
And so I guess the question I’m left with is, am I creating barriers or knocking them down? And what’s more important, judgment or grace? Who do I need to meet at the well?