The Woman at the Well

Is there anyone who does not love today’s gospel, John 4. 5–42? It turns all our ideas of what is proper upside down. A Samaritan woman (shock, horror, not an orthodox believer— the wrong sex, too) comes to the village well when all the respectable women have long since gone and encounters a strange rabbi who asks her for a drink. The dialogue that ensues shows her to be lippy and smart and not afraid of breaking the conventions of the time. She is happy to talk to a man, and he with her. There is an ease and humour about what follows we would do well to note whenever we are tempted to be stuffy or stand on our dignity. Scripture scholars tell us that the five husbands, who were not actually husbands, represent the five idolatrous kingdoms, but I myself find that they have much greater impact if we take them literally as the woman’s previous lovers. Here is a woman with a colourful past, as my parents’ generation would say, who questions Jesus, won’t be put down, and leads a whole community to faith. She is the most unlikely evangelist ever, and she does it all by simply being herself.

One of the great problems we face is learning how to be ourselves. I don’t mean that in a self-indulgent, navel-gazing sense. Rather, we need to accept that, flawed though we are, we are truly loved by God, and he goes on loving us no matter how often we fall short of what, with his grace, we might become. Many people can’t quite believe that and waste huge amounts of time and energy trying to win a love to which they feel they have no claim, not recognizing that God’s love comes to us as sheer gift and will never fail or forsake us. All that beating of breasts and lamenting one’s failures strikes me as being a form of appeasement, unworthy of the God of Christian revelation. Lent provides us with an opportunity to get back to basics. We begin by correcting our distorted image of God as a harsh taskmaster, allowing him to speak to our hearts, to reveal himself to us in the scriptures and sacraments, in times of quiet prayer and secret almsgiving. It is a process, not achieved in a single moment.

If we are fortunate enough never to have been burdened with a distorted image of God, there is still work for us to do. The early Cistercians, for example, never tired of talking about restoring the likeness of God to God’s image in us. Without using those terms, I think the Woman at the Well understood better than most that she was already valued, loved by God and able to be herself in his presence. She already reflected the image of her Creator. Her meeting with Jesus restored the likeness some refused to acknowledge and enabled her to share that gift with everyone she met. Something to think about, I suggest.

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9 thoughts on “The Woman at the Well”

  1. A lovely Gospel reading, heart warming. Thank you for your commentary. Yes we each have our own image of God which changes as we make our journey through life. But one thing we all know, His loving arms will be there waiting … ready to embrace us…. Amen. Amen

  2. I do love this gospel story and what you have written is especially inspiring. „ She is the most unlikely evangelist ever, and she does it all by simply being herself.“ Echoes of St Mary Magdalene, too, perhaps? Of course she had a heap of lovers, what man could resist someone so authentic!
    There is a beautiful sculpture, maybe a fountain, can’t quite recall, in an inner courtyard at Chester cathedral, depicting this moment in time. It is so constructed that it is difficult to work out who is giving water/life to whom, and there are many angles which seem to point up the communication and love between the woman and Christ, flowing into each other.
    Thank you!

  3. I’ve always thought about how “she left her jug behind” as she ran off to tell others about Jesus. No doubt she retrieved her jug, having filled it with water, and returned to her home to go about her life, but transformed. She must have been a credible evangelist, someone I’d like to have met.

    I wonder what each of us has to leave behind and how we go on to live our lives having been transformed by our encounters with Jesus?

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