The Samaritan Woman at the Well

May 15, 2009 Length: 34:41

Fr. Thomas looks at the Gospel for the fifth Sunday of Pascha—a miraculous sign that at first glance doesn't seem to involve a miracle.

In series The Paschal Season





The gospel reading at the Divine Liturgy of the fifth Sunday of Pascha is the reading about the encounter of Jesus with the woman of Samaria that he meets at the well. It was actually in Sichar, at the well that Jacob gave to his son, Joseph, and Jesus comes there in the middle of the day, the sixth hour—it’s at noon—and he meets the Samaritan woman, and he asks her for water. Then this conversation develops.

This event cannot technically be called a messianic sign in the sense that it’s not a miracle, like, for example, Cana of Galilee with the changing of the water into wine, or the healing of the paralytic at the sheep’s gate pool, or the multiplication of the loaves in the desert, or the healing of the man born blind, or certainly the raising of Lazarus from the dead, but it is a messianic sign, because this encounter between Jesus and this woman is crucial for understanding the Gospel, for understanding who Jesus is, and to understand the fact—the main fact—that the Gospel of God in Jesus is a Gospel for all humanity. It’s not just for the Jews.

Jesus is the messiah of the Jews, but, being the crucified messiah of the Jews, he becomes the Lord and the Savior of all humanity and the totality of creation, including all the Gentiles and including Jewish heretics like the Samaritans, who were considered by Jews to be dogs and not even to be spoken with and to be despised totally because they were considered to have deformed the faith of Israel and did not accept the prophetic teachings and so on.

So we have this encounter of Jesus with this Samaritan woman at this well. Now, this encounter actually follows, in St. John’s gospel, conversations and narratives about baptism. You have in the third chapter Jesus’ long discussion with Nicodemus about being born from above. And, by the way, that’s probably the more accurate translation, not “born again” or “born anew,” but “born from on high, born from above” in order to enter the kingdom. To be born again of water—and again you have water—water and the Holy Spirit. And then, at the conclusion of that same chapter, it speaks about Jesus and his disciples in Judea baptizing. John continued to baptize, Jesus’ disciples baptized. It says clearly that Jesus himself did not baptize, but his disciples did, because there was plenty of water there.

But then you have in the end of that third chapter, after Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus about being born again or born from above, by water and the Spirit, you have the narrative about John the Baptist, he not being the messiah, not being the prophet, being the friend of the Bridegroom, the voice crying in the wilderness, bearing witness, testimony—it says it so many times—to Jesus as the one who is to come. Then you come to the fourth chapter, where it begins again; the chapter itself begins speaking about baptism and Jesus baptizing. It says then that he left Judea, departed again to Galilee, and then he had to pass through Samaria. And that’s where you have the encounter with this woman at the well.

Now, anyone familiar with holy Scripture cannot hear about a man meeting a woman at a well and asking to drink and serving there at the well and the spring of water without thinking of how Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for his son, the lord Isaac, and he sends the servant to find “a pure, holy virgin woman from among his own people,” and how that servant—this is in Genesis, of course—how Abraham’s servant goes, and he comes to a well in the homeland where he is to find a wife for his lord Isaac, and he sees Rebecca coming. And she comes to the well, and he recognizes her as a kinswoman and a pure woman, a beautiful woman. Then the 24th chapter of Genesis says how he goes back and speaks to Abraham, and then she is the one, and then they bring Rebecca, who is met at the well, and that Isaac beholds her, and it says that he loved her, and she becomes his wife.

Then you can think also of Jacob and Rachel, how Jacob also, in the book of Genesis, goes to find his wife, and again Jacob finds [Rachel] at the well. He meets her at the well where they’re gathering water, and he looks upon her, and again it says, like it says that Isaac loved Rebecca, it says Jacob loved Rachel and he took her for his wife. But then, of course, you have the story of his service for seven years and Leah being put in her place and his having to work again. But you have this encounter, again, at the well of Jacob and Rachel.

And then you have Moses and Zepphora. Moses also, when he escapes from Egypt, is in Midian. He comes to a well, and he needs to drink there, and they give him to drink, and then he’s taken to the owner of the well. Then the owner gives to him his daughter, Zepphora, and she becomes the wife of Moses.

So when you think of a meeting of a man and a woman at a well, and you know the Bible, and you have what Fr. Florovsky used to call “the scriptural mind”... He said that we have lost our scriptural mind nowadays in the churches; the Christians have lost the scriptural mind. Even those who claim to follow the Scriptures alone, sola Scriptura, they usually follow selected passages and use it in a very strange way. But when one views reality through the prism of the whole biblical story, what the Fathers called the scopos of Scripture, you can’t help when you think of Jesus coming to Sichar, where Jacob gave the well to his son Joseph, and Jacob’s well is there, and he’s wearied from his journey, and he sits down at the well in the middle of the day, the sixth hour—it means noon—and it’s really hot. And then a woman of Samaria comes to draw water, and then Jesus speaks to her and says, “Give me to drink,” and then the conversation begins, loaded with messianic meaning, as we will see.

But we might dare to say that what you have here is a story also of a man meeting his bride, that Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, is encountering a woman who symbolizes his bride—because who is the bride of Christ? It’s all those who believe in him, who become one with him, whom he loves and who [love] him, and who enters into a union, deep communion, union with him, which is described in Scripture as a conjugal union. We remember in Scripture that Israel is the bride of Yahweh, that he loves her as a bride, takes her as a bride. Of course, we remember that in the New Testament, the relationship of Christ and the Church is as Bridegroom and bride. Even in St. John’s gospel, when John the Baptist is insisting he’s not the Christ, he’s not the prophet, he’s the voice of one calling in the wilderness, preparing the way, he says, “I’m the friend of the Bridegroom. I’m the best man. Jesus is the Bridegroom.”

So if Jesus is the Bridegroom, the Nymphios—we spoke about that in Great and Holy Week on Great [Monday], that Jesus is the Bridegroom who comes to die for his creaturely bride and to make her one with him and to wash away her sins and to purify her from all iniquities and so on—wow. You can’t have a better symbol of that bride than that Samaritan woman that he meets at the well.

So we’re tempted, so to speak, to think, “Ah, here is Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, encountering his bride.” Now, his bride, of course, is the whole of humanity, the whole of fallen, curséd, sinful, dead humanity, but you wouldn’t have in the Bible a better symbol of that than a Samaritan woman, especially a Samaritan woman who, according to the narrative of St. John’s gospel, seems to be a sinful woman, as the conversation will show.

What happens? What happens at that well? Jesus asks her for a drink. His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. That’s important, because they’re going to be eating, too. But they go away and he’s alone there with this Samaritan woman. So when he asks her, she says to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria? For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” And Jesus responds and answers and says, “If you knew the gift of God, the grace of God, and who it is that is speaking to you, saying, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” So there it goes.

First she says, “Why are you talking to me? You shouldn’t even speak to me. Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” Samaritans are considered by Jews to be vile dogs and heretics. They were not allowed to have any intercourse with them whatsoever, and particularly a woman, and, as we will see, a sinful woman. Now Jesus responds, when she says this… and she’s obviously a kind of tough lady here, you can see. When he asks for a drink, she says, “What are you talking to me for? What are you doing this for? Why is this happening?” And then Jesus responds somehow on the same level, and he says to her, “If you knew what was going on, lady, if you knew what was happening, what the gift of God is, that I would say to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked me, and I would not have given you just plain water. I would give you living water.”

The expression “living water,” it does have a meaning of being plain H2O water, but what “living” meant was a vibrant spring. It wasn’t stagnant; it was fresh, it was coming, it was new all the time, it was pure. So the woman says to him, thinking that he’s talking about plain water, she says, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with. The well is deep. Where do you get that living water?’ And then she even continues. She’s kind of a spunky lady. She says, “Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, and his sons and his cattle?”

Then Jesus responds again, on another level. He says, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst again. The water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water, welling up to everlasting life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.” So she still thinks he’s still talking about regular water. So she says, “Give me some of this water, that I can drink it and never be thirsty again!”

Of course, Jesus is speaking on a spiritual level. He is saying that this hunger and thirst that people have can only be satisfied by the water that I will give. Later on, in St. John’s gospel, he will speak of the Holy Spirit as the living water, the water that springs up to everlasting life. It’s interesting that this Sunday, liturgically in the Orthodox Church, follows the feast of Mid-Pentecost, and Mid-Pentecost is the feast of the middle of the feast, and it emphasizes the living water that comes, drinking of this living water of the Holy Spirit.

So Jesus is speaking about eternal living water, and you have the same kind of discourse going on in St. John’s gospel about the bread. In the sixth chapter, the people will come looking for bread. They’ll want to eat some more. Jesus will tell them, “Don’t labor for the bread that perishes, that you can eat it, eat it, and eat it, and still be hungry and still die. Labor for that bread that, when you eat of it, you never die and you’re never hungry again.” Then he says, “I am the bread of life. I am the living bread.”

Here he is going to show—there is no expression, “I am the living water.” The living water is rather, in St. John’s gospel, connected to the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that is given—but he is the source, the spring of that living water. And it will say when he is crucified that from his side there comes forth blood and water. This water as the symbol in St. John’s gospel is very important. It was at Cana of Galilee: the water into wine; the paralyzed man, being put into the water. We’ll see that the blind boy will be told to wash in the pool of Siloam with water. That water is very, very important in St. John’s gospel, and the baptismal meaning of it, washing, cleansing, but also the water of life.

Here you have this strange conversation, where he says, “Whoever drinks of the water I will give him will never thirst again. The water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water, welling up to everlasting life.” And later on it will say he spoke of the Holy Spirit. Now, this water that he’s going to give is compared to regular water: the symbolism, the connection is there, but it’s something greater, something divine, the celestial… the waters of God, so to speak, the waters of life itself.

So she asks for that water. But then Jesus abruptly changes the subject. He says to her, “Go and call your husband and come back here.” The woman answers him, “I have no husband.” Jesus says to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband. You have spoken truly.” So this woman is not only a woman, she’s not only a Samaritan woman, but she’s a Samaritan woman who’s living with a guy that she’s not married to who’s the [sixth], and she’s already had five husbands. So he sees who she is.

So we can say she’s a sinful Samaritan woman, a woman not following the Law, although we have to know that in some of the Syriac traditions, some traditions of early Christianity, some people thought that maybe she was following the Levirite law, and that her husbands continued dying so she had to keep taking up the husbands’ brothers, but it doesn’t seem that that’s a very accurate reading.

The interpretation here really seems to be that she is an immoral woman: a Samaritan, a woman, and a sinful woman. And you don’t get further away from the Jewish idea, the Old Testamental idea of uprightness, righteousness, perfection according to the Law. You don’t get further away if you’re a Samaritan and not a Jew, if you’re a woman and not a man, and if you’re a sinner and not a righteous person according to the Law. So here he’s dealing with somebody very, very, so to speak, far away from what was understood to be the condition that a person was supposed to be in if they were a believer and a follower of God according to Moses, according to the teachings of Israel.

So she responds, then, and says to him, “Sir, I see you’re a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people should worship.” Jesus responds to her, “Woman, believe me: the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know. We worship what we know, for salvation is of the Jews.” So she takes the opportunity, so to speak: “Ah, this guy’s a prophet. He knows things. He can see who I am. Now I can ask him the question I’ve always wanted to ask. Where should you worship God?” Because the Jews said that you worshiped in Jerusalem, at the temple. The Samaritans did not accept that, and they worshiped God on Mount Gerizim in Samaria. They had their own holy mountain. It wasn’t Mt. Zion; it was another mountain.

“Where’s the place?” And Jesus says, “Woman, the hour is coming when it’s not going to be on that mountain or this mountain or even Jerusalem where the true worship of God the Father will take place.” But then he does add: “You don’t know what you’re worshiping. We Jews do know.” And then he says, clearly, “Salvation is of the Jews.” So even if the Samaritans will be saved and everybody else, it will be the salvation that comes through the Jews—and we know: through the Jewish Christ, through the Jewish Messiah, who fulfills the Law and the Psalms and the Prophets and all of the activities of God in creation.

So then Jesus continues. He says, “The hour is coming and now is. It’s here now. I’m here now. So the hour is coming and now is when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.” Here Orthodox Christians definitely believe that worshiping God the Father through Jesus Christ by the coming of the Holy Spirit is the true worship. It is the worship in spirit and truth. It’s even true worship in the Spirit, the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, and the Truth, who is Jesus Christ himself. And that takes place—once the Messiah is crucified and glorified and the Spirit is given—that takes place everywhere. There is no geographical location. There are no more geographical holy places. There are no more particular holy mountains. Now, certain mountains may be holy because the people who live there are holy—Mount Athos or something—but God is everywhere, and that’s what Jesus continues to say: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.”

Now, this is a very important sentence to understand. Jesus does not say, “God is a spirit.” Sometimes Christian doctrine teachers will say, “Oh, God is the chief spirit. God is the top spirit. You see, in St. John’s gospel, Jesus says, ‘God is a spirit.’ ” Well, first of all, the text does not say, “the spirit,” that’s for sure. It just says, “God is spirit, pnevma.” It seems to me that the proper interpretation of this, in Scripture and according to the Fathers, is that saying, “God is spirit,” means he’s not located anywhere in space and time. He cannot be put in a place where he is and then there’s another place where he is not.

Spirit has no material dimensions, and so we would definitely say, “God is spirit,” in the sense that he doesn’t have a body, but we should also say that God is not spirit in the sense that he’s a kind of—excuse me for saying this—super-duper angel or a big huge ghost of some sort. According to the Bible and the Fathers, God is as different from human beings and creatures spiritually as he is bodily. God is not like us in spirit, but unlike us in body; God is unlike us in spirit and in body. Isaiah says God is incomparable. There’s nothing in heaven and on earth which you can compare to God.

In fact, the Holy Fathers like Gregory Palamas would say: God is not even being. Creatures are being. God brings them into being, but God is not brought into being. And here I think you have to say, point blank, it would be simply incorrect to say that God is the Supreme Being or the Great Spirit or the Supreme Spirit. That’s just not true. God is holy, kadosh; it means different from anything. God is unlike everything on heaven and on earth. There’s no concept, image, thought of God that equals to what God is like.

We know God through his divine actions and energies, and particularly through the incarnation of his Son as the man Jesus, but God as God is ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing, always the same, beyond everything. He’s holy, holy, holy. That’s how Eastern Orthodox Christians pray at the Divine Liturgy. That’s how we address God: ineffable—no words; inconceivable—no concepts; invisible—no images; incomprehensible—unable to be grasped; uncircumscribable—unable to be contained; infinite—without bounds. Our language about God, we should never say that God is positively somehow the Great Being or the Great Spirit; no, God is different from everything, completely different from everything.

So here, when Jesus says God is spirit, what he’s trying to tell that woman is: You can’t locate God on Mt. Gerizim or even in the city of Jerusalem or even in the Jerusalem temple. And that will be a big one for the early Christian preaching. We remember St. Stephen in the book of Acts. He said, “The Lord who made heaven and earth, he’s not contained in temples made by hands. Somehow the whole earth is his temple that he dwells in, and his heaven is his throne that he sits upon, but he himself is not part of it. He’s beyond it all. Of course, we would say that he’s everywhere. You go into heaven, he is there; you go to Sheol, he is there; you go to the darkness, it’s as light to him, as the psalmist says.

So the later dogmatic theologians would say: God is omnipresent; he’s present everywhere. He fills all things. That’s even how we pray. But to say God is spirit is not a metaphysical statement meaning that God is spirit as opposed to matter. We would not say that God is being as opposed to becoming, or God is unchanging as opposed to changing. Some theologians say that the Christians made a huge mistake by taking part of the Platonistic dualisms. They said God is static, not dynamic; God is being, not becoming; God is unchanging, not changing; God is spirit, not matter. Well, that’s not right. That’s not right. That is just plain wrong. That God is beyond all categories that we can think of in the created order. He is holy, he is different, he is beyond comparison.

But, when Jesus says God is spirit, he’s telling that Samaritan woman: It’s over now, lady. It’s not here, it’s not in Jerusalem. Something is coming that changes all of this, and the Father, God the Father, will be worshiped in spirit and in truth everywhere in the whole of creation. Then the woman responds and says to him, “I know that Messiah is coming, he who is called Christ.” And St. John’s gospel even has the parenthesis: “He who is called Christ.” One wonders why. Perhaps it was because the Greek speakers were going to hear the Gospel and starting to hear it, and they had to know that the Messiah was the Christos, the Anointed One.

But then she says, “When he comes, he will show us all things.” So she knew about the Messiah, the expectation of this Anointed One, this messianic figure who would come as the regent of God, so to speak, the one sent to bring the kingship of God, the reign of God, to the earth, and to the whole of creation, we believe. Then in St. John’s gospel, Jesus says to her, “I who speak to you am he. I who speak to you am he.” You can’t get clearer than that. And if we want a messianic sign, here’s a messianic sign. The Messiah… Jesus says, “I am the Messiah.”

And he says, “I’m speaking to you, and I am talking to you about living water, and I am talking to you about worship in spirit and in truth, and I’m talking to you about salvation being from the Jews. And I know who you are. You’re a Samaritan heretic dog who’s a woman and a sinner.” And that’s very important. That’s crucially important, this encounter, because it may be, as we said already, Jesus is recognizing his bride, because who is his bride? Curséd, sinful, dead humanity. That’s his bride. And for a Jew, you don’t get a better symbol of that than a fallen Samaritan woman.

Now, just then, when that happens, his disciples return, and they marvel that he’s talking with a woman. First of all, he shouldn’t be talking to a woman in public—and a Samaritan woman? And an immoral Samaritan woman!? But none of them said, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” Seems like they were stunned or whatever the reason they didn’t ask.

So the woman left her water jar, she went away into the city, and she said to the people, “Come! See a man”—and here, of course, the first encounter with Jesus is always “a man” in every gospel, not just in the book of Acts, but in St. John’s gospel, too; it’s “a man”; you encounter this man first—“see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Messiah? Can this be the Christ?” And they went out of the city and were coming to him. So she goes like an apostle, and she calls people to come to see Jesus.

Meanwhile, the disciples besought Jesus, saying, “Rabbi, Teacher, eat.” So here we have food again: “Eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought him food?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work, fulfill his work.” And when he dies on the cross, he will even use that same verb: Tetelestai; the work is accomplished, that his broken body and his spilled blood would become the food, that he would become and be the bread of life that we’ll hear about in the sixth chapter of St. John’s gospel, two chapters later. So he again changes the subject. They’re talking about regular food, and he’s talking about the food to do the will of God the Father who sends him, and to complete this work.

Then he says, “Don’t you say that there are four months and comes the harvest?” And harvest, of course, has that imagery of grain and food and bread. “I tell you, lift up your eyes and see how the fields are already white for harvest. He who reaps receives wages and gathers fruit for eternal life, so the sower and the reaper may rejoice together.” So this great crop, this great growth, that will become the food of the people; it’s already there, and the ones who sow and the ones who reap will all rejoice together. We could even say here: the Jews and the Samaritans will rejoice together; the Jews and the Gentiles will rejoice together. The whole of creation and all of humanity, men and women, righteous and sinful, they will all rejoice together, in the messiah-hood of Jesus.

Then he says to the disciples, “One sows and another reaps. I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” That means that the apostles are picking up the final laboring work of God’s people through history. They will reap the harvest, the messianic harvest of Christ himself, the salvation of the whole world, and they will be the heralds of it. They will be the ones who will proclaim it when he is raised and glorified.

Now many Samaritans from the city believed in him because of the woman’s martyria, the woman’s testimony. So again you have, so typical in St. John’s gospel: believing and testifying, bearing witness and believing. So you have a testimony, a martyria, and then you have a believing. And they believed because she bore witness and said, “He told me all that I ever did.” Now, when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed with them two days. And that “staying with them” again, that’s a biding together, conversing together, eating and drinking together. And then it says many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, but we have heard for ourselves and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” So the Samaritans bear witness that he’s the Savior of the world.

Some scholars think that St. John’s gospel, part of it had to do with the mission in Samaria, because we know in the book of Acts that Philip went to Samaria right away, and there were Samaritans who were probably among the first non-clear-Jews to hear the Gospel and to accept it, before the Gentile world, before the Greeks and the Macedonians, Derbe, Lystra, and so on. It begins in Samaria, then it goes up to Antioch where they are first called Christians, then you go to Ephesus in Asia Minor and over into Greece. So these Samaritans, and probably already at that time, when St. John’s gospel was written, the Samaritan mission might have already been quite underway. Some people think that; some scholars think that, and that this is kind of bearing witness to something that was already, so to speak, historically known.

It was realized already among the Christians who were hearing the Gospel that Samaritans had already entered—which was outrageous! As outrageous as the Gentiles, that salvation comes from the Jews, that Jesus is sent to the lost people of Israel, that Jesus is the Israel Messiah and King, he’s crucified as being King of the Jews—and now the Samaritans are in! Well, that shows that he is the universal Christ, that he’s the Christ for the whole of creation. And that’s why it’s so interesting that this text ends by saying: “We know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”

So he’s proclaimed as the universal Savior, and from this story we can see all are included: Samaritan, sinful, women, men. It will be just what St. Paul says when he writes to the Galatians: “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, nor Samaritan, nor slave nor free, nor man nor woman, but we all, through faith and grace, become one in him, one body in him, one body of believers in him.” And we all, through him, worship God as Pateras, Father, because he uses the term the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks. So you have the word “Father” being used here already in this encounter, and it won’t be Jerusalem, it won’t be Gerizim. It’ll be everywhere, throughout the whole world. There’ll be the heavenly Jerusalem. And everyone’ll be included—if they, like these Samaritans, confess that Jesus is indeed the Messiah.

So we go back again where the woman says to him, “I know that the Messiah is coming, he who is called Christ. When he comes, he will show us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” So Jesus is the Christ, and the Christ is the Savior of the entire world. And this is what we hear on the fifth Sunday of Pascha when we hear about Jesus—do we dare to say the divine Bridegroom, coming to find his creaturely bride by a well? Like Isaac’s Rebecca was found at the well, and Jacob’s Rachel was at the well, and Moses’ Zepphora was at the well? Well, maybe Jesus’ loving bride, as St. Paul said, “I betroth you to Christ as a pure bride for her husband from among the Gentiles.” But here we have this bride being betrothed from among the Samaritans. And this is what we hear.

So can it not be that this is one of the most marvelous messianic signs in the Gospel of St. John? It’s a miracle. Not a miracle like changing water into wine or healing a paralyzed man who is paralyzed for 38 years or opening the eyes of a man born blind or feeding people with bread in the desert place or raising up a stinking corpse four days dead. Oh, those are miraculous signs. Perhaps, however, this encounter of Jesus the Messiah with the sinful woman of Samaria is also a great miraculous sign. It’s a miraculous sign that Jesus the Christ is indeed the Savior of all people and the whole world.