The Woman at the Well

Read: John 4:1-42

Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (John 4:6-9a, NRSV).

So, you know that moment when you’re watching a scary movie? You’ve just relaxed because your favorite character is no longer in peril. “That was close!” you think.  But then another little voice in the back of your mind says, “Brace yourself…the monster is probably going to…AHHHH!!!”

Or maybe your cinematic preferences run more toward romance. You don’t have to be clairvoyant to know what’s going to happen when the violins start to play, and the handsome young lead gets down on one knee and pulls out a ring box.  “Oh, I know how this goes!” you say to yourself. And if it’s the Hallmark channel, you’re almost never wrong.

Oh, I know how this goes! That’s exactly what an ancient audience would have thought on hearing the beginning of the story of the woman at the well. The future bridegroom journeys to a foreign land and encounters a young woman at a well. Water is drawn, words are exchanged, and the woman runs back to tell her family about the stranger’s arrival. One thing leads to another (usually over food), and by the end of the story, the couple is engaged.

The original audience for the story of the woman at the well would have expected something very like this. The fact that it takes place at Jacob’s well would have reinforced these expectations, since Jacob and Rachel’s engagement had happened much this way in Genesis 29 (see also Genesis 24 for Isaac and Rebekah’s version). In technical terms, it’s called a type-scene. Part of the fun is knowing how it’s going to turn out.

But it doesn’t turn out that way in John 4, does it. What looks like a marriage proposal quickly morphs into a graduate seminar. Jesus and the woman start talking theology. In fact, this is the longest theological discussion recorded in this gospel. By the end of it, she’s convinced he’s the Messiah, and hurries back to town to evangelize her neighbors. They invite him to stay with them, and two days later, they pronounce him “the Savior of the world.”

If the ancient audience of this story was caught off guard by some of its improvisations, I suspect that their surprise was nothing compared to that of the Samaritan woman’s. From the very moment Jesus asked her for a drink, he treated her with respect. Sure, he knew all about her, but that didn’t seem to make a bit of difference to him. His “engagement” with her was based on love—a love that defied all stereotypes and expectations.

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a sermon on the Samaritan woman that didn’t emphasize her “notorious” character. That’s the story we expect to hear. But maybe we should consider the possibility that this story says something more—something new. After all, some of God’s best stories have surprise endings.

Ponder: What is the most surprising aspect of this story for you? How has your own engagement with Jesus surprised you?

Pray: Help us to see beyond our expectations, gracious God. Open our eyes, our minds, and our hearts to all the ways you want to surprise us.