One day, about noon, a nameless woman–known only by her ethnicity and her marital status–came to draw water from a well, becoming the antagonist in one of the most beloved stories in the gospels. We don’t know much about her except that she had an encounter with Jesus that changed–and continues to change–countless lives.
In John 4:4 we see that Jesus “had to go through Samaria” on his way back home to Galilee, from Judea. John Piper writes “It was possible to go to Galilee in a roundabout way, which some Jews did because they thought the Samaritans were unclean.” But it seems like Jesus didn’t want to go out of his way. He wanted to meet this woman.
At noon–the sixth hour–there’s no one at the well except for Jesus and this woman. This Jewish man asks for water, much to the surprise of this Samaritan woman. Jesus responds to her surprise at this cross-cultural communication by offering her “living water.” She banters with him, and Jesus still offers her the water. She seems to grow serious and replies “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus counters with “Go, call your husband and come back,” prompting her to admit that she doesn’t have a husband. Jesus then reveals that he knows all about her five past husbands and the man with whom she currently lived.
We don’t know much about the circumstances that caused this woman to have five husbands. It’s easy to slut-shame this woman and point out her failures: “Five husbands, huh? She must really be a man-eater.” This commentary hints that while her many divorces reflect on her character, she may also have been a victim of loose divorce laws, in which a man could divorce his wife for burning his dinner. What we do know is that this woman has experienced a great deal of pain, disappointment, and shame. She is thirsting for something and can never quite get it. She is like the water jar she brings to the well, never able to remain full.
Though I am now what my friends and I jokingly refer to as a “professional church lady” I didn’t come to faith until nine years ago, when I was almost 26. And though I grew up in a Christian home–both of my parents are pastors–I struggled to believe in Jesus. I never felt like I could be the kind of Christian that the church expects. I’ve always had a strong non-conformist streak, I feel and live my life deeply, and I’m not docile or passive. Christianity always seemed too thin to be grasped or believed in, its living water just never seemed to be enough.
I spent a lot of years digging my own wells and cisterns, looking for water that was more alive than what I saw in church. I made a lot of bad decisions. My life felt increasingly like a wasteland. All of the sources from which I would draw–professional success and satisfaction, relational success and satisfaction–ran out at some point. They were never enough.
I had a breakup that left me broken and I found myself sitting in the auditorium at Hunter College, praying before the 5:45pm service at the church I was attending, because I had gotten there early. Like that Samaritan woman, Jesus came and talked to me. My life has never been the same.
At some point in the story, Jesus’ disciples return with the food they had bought in the town. The woman leaves her water jar and goes to the village saying “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” Much emphasis is on her evangelism, which is incredibly successful. Later on in the chapter we read that, because of her testimony, many put their faith in Jesus.
It’s significant that she is able to tell people about Jesus after she first leaves her jar. She leaves the empty vessel with Jesus. In some way, she is trusting that symbol of her thirst to Jesus because she knows that he is what she’s been looking for. He is the source of living water and that enables her to share the gospel.
I’ll admit that in my nine years of following Jesus, it’s been hard to leave my own figurative water jar with him. Even though I believe that Jesus is the Messiah, that he is enough to slake my deepest thirst, I sometimes want to hold on to my emptiness. Just in case, you know? What if it isn’t enough?
Fast forward in the story of Jesus’ life to another day, also around noon, the sixth hour. He is in the last moments of his life, nailed to a cross and he once again asks for a drink. He is offered vinegar instead of water, drinks it and then says “it is finished” and dies. In these last minutes of his death, Jesus makes a trade, taking all of the bitterness, all that can’t satisfy, replacing them with living water. Here at the cross, a place of death, we are invited to offer ourselves and watch how God makes it a place of life.
Come and see this man who told me everything I ever did and taste and see for yourself if he is the Christ.
This piece originally appeared in Grace Meridian Hill’s Bearing God’s Image blog series.