by Travis Kahl
I really like the story in John 4 of the Samaritan woman who Jesus meets at the well. Something about it grips me. As an ex-Evangelical I was given plenty of examples of faith growing up, but as an older Christian most of them feel hollow. Does faith look like martyrdom and absolute certainty in Christ’s power? I think the woman at the well shows us real faith.
Let’s look at who she is as a person. First of all, she’s a Samaritan. They’re an ethnic and religious group closely related to the Jews, but they believe that the proper place to worship God is on Mount Gerizim. This belief is, obviously, incompatible with the Jewish belief in Jesus’ day that God should only be worshiped in the temple. As a child I was told that the Samaritans worshiped other gods in addition to Yahweh, but this is not true. The differences between Samaritans and Jews made interactions tense, and both sides preferred to not interact at all.
Secondly, she’s a woman. This is also a problem. At the time, Jewish (and Roman) society was patriarchal, which just means that family lineage was traced through the father. In order to continue the family line, a man needed a son. So, the role of women became to produce male heirs to make sure the family continues. But there’s a problem: paternity tests don’t exist. How does a man make sure his wife isn’t having someone else’s sons without his knowledge? The solution is to sequester her as much as possible and prevent her from even speaking to any man she’s unrelated to.
With this knowledge, let’s look at the third thing we learn about the woman: she’s had five husbands, and the one she “has” now isn’t her husband. I was taught as a child that she had five husbands, plus one non-husband, because she was promiscuous. This is probably also untrue. Women couldn’t initiate divorce, so it’s more likely that her husbands died or divorced her, leaving her to live with another male relative. In Greek you can “have” a father or brother the same way you “have” a husband. Either way, it seems that she’s married five men and produced exactly zero children, which means she’s failed pretty badly.
So there are essentially no good reasons for Jesus to talk to her, and actually plenty of bad ones. Their religious groups hate each other, there’s a massive gender divide, and he’s an established rabbi and she had failed at her one job. But Jesus says, “Give me a drink,” and gives her the water of eternal life. She jumps up, runs into town, and tells everyone she encounters what she experienced. Her testimony is vital to bringing the community into faith. They believe because of Jesus’ own words, but she points them there.
I want to point out exactly what she says. “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” The Greek has a word, mēti, that can’t really be translated but only defined. According to my lexicon, it is “used in questions to indicate the expectation of a negative answer; sometimes used to indicate that the questioner is in doubt regarding the answer.” So, in other words, she has no idea whether or not Jesus is the Messiah. But his words compel her to move anyway.
That’s what faith is. It’s created when Jesus shows up to unlikely and uncertain people. It moves outwards, curious but hopeful, and points others to Christ. We can’t create it or control it. If it happens, it’s God’s action through and through.