This happened to me recently at a bible study. The passage was John 4:7-26, commonly known as ‘the woman at the well.’ I had heard it before and could pretty much imagine the way it would go…
2. Jesus asks for water
3. Jesus says he has ‘special’ water
4. Woman confused
5. Jesus calls out her sins
6. Theological discussion (that no one really defines well by the end of the night) about ‘spirit and truth’
7. Everybody believes Jesus is the Messiah and is saved (more verses 27-42)
Don’t take my word for it. Google ‘John 4’ and read the story before you move on to the next section. It will only take a minute or two and will totally be worth it.
Assumptions and Insights
With the blessings that come with studying the bible in community, it became clear to me that I had been holding on to assumptions that were stopping me from hearing the real message of the story.
My Assumption #1:
The woman at the well was looking for trouble.
I make this assumption becasue she is alone at the well. It was noon and hot, why was this woman fetching water at that time? She should be doing it with everyone else in the morning or evening when it isn’t hot. And why is there no one else with her from her own household, not even children?
We can suggest that she was a shady lady looking for some shady business, but why should I assume the worst about a woman I don’t even know? I think there is another more reasonable explanation as to why she was at the well at noon by herself. She was an outcast, she was ashamed, she didn’t want to interact with the other women. She had no family of her own, no children to come with her to help draw water. She was sad and lonely. Sure, the bible isn't clear about why but I think this is very reasonable given the issues that Jesus later brings up.
The woman at the well was at fault for her checkered past, and Jesus wanted to point out her sin.
In a male dominated cultural context it is very likely that this woman had little choice in the fact she had five husbands. It is quite possible that her husbands died or that she was rejected by one after another because of any number of fickle reasons. She may have been obligated to seek out another husband because of her poverty, position, or family past.
Her past speaks of pain, rejection, loneliness and implies nothing of her moral character. Why is it then that I am so quick to accuse her?
Even with Jesus’ words “The one you now have is not your husband”v18 we must be careful. If we interpret ‘now have’ as ‘have sex with’ then most of us here will agree Jesus is pointing out a sin. Although it may seem strange for us to imagine a man and woman living together for societal and not sexual reasons, I think that it is a very real possibility here.
And really, why do I picture a young seductive woman skipping to the well looking for her next victim? She had five husbands, maybe she was old! Maybe she had a number of common diseases that affected her ability to work, walk, or talk. (I am pointing out my bias here, please don’t read into it. There is great value and wisdom in every year we grow older and physical ailments do nothing to detract from the true value or beauty of an individual)
Revisiting the Story with New Perspective
Let me take these ideas and put them back into our story. Now I don’t know who you imagined the woman to be before, but imagine her as a middle aged or elderly woman. Lonely, rejected, and downcast.
1. Elderly woman meets Jesus.
2. Jesus asks for water
3. Old woman shocked that a Jew would talk to her, that a man would talk to her that, that anyone would talk to her!
4. Jesus says he has special water
5. Woman laughs, maybe the first time she has laughed in 40 years
6. Jesus insists and asks one question he knows will bring up her past
7. Jesus touches on issues like failure, shame, and loneliness reviewing the past 40 years (v39)
8. Apparently this conversation brings the woman to reflect on bigger issues: Worship
a. (yup that’s Jesus…Bringing us from failure, shame, and loneliness to worship)
9. Then some theological discussion (that no one in the group really defines well by the end of the night) about ‘spirit and truth’ etc.
10. Finally Jesus gives the woman knowledge that makes her special, and all of the sudden she is the most popular wrinkly old woman in town. (v39-42)
Yes I embellish, but if I am going to embellish shouldn’t I do it in a compassionate way towards the woman rather than a judgmental way? It is true that Jesus called out some people for their sins but he did not blame victims, he did not kick people when they were down, he loved them.
This is not just about changing our opinion of the woman at the well, it is about changing our opinion of Jesus. It is only when we choose to see the best in this woman that we can see Jesus as the one who heals our wounds, makes us special, and leads us to worship.
Who is your Jesus? Is he waiting to convict you of your sin, or is he wanting to lift you out of darkness into his marvelous light?