Four Profiles in Discipleship in the Gospel of John
Samaritan Woman
Lame man at the pool

Part III: The Samaritan Woman at the Well

The next scene involving Jesus features a very different person than the respected teacher Nicodemus: the Samaritan woman at the well, who would have been an embarrassment and an anathema to pious Jews. Most likely the Gospel juxtaposes these two, the woman and Nicodemus, for this very reason. The religious one rejects the revelation, but the renegade receives it. The Samaritans and the Jews were so opposed to each other that violent quarrels erupted which were quelled only by Roman legions.(4) Like Nicodemus she meets with Jesus in isolation. Nicodemus comes in the dead of night, and the woman comes in the heat of the day--perhaps to avoid social contact with others (4:6). After all, her experiences with five husbands probably generated no small amount of gossip in a small village!

Jesus asks for water. The request goes against the social and religious norms (4:9-10). What is more, the woman reasons, Jesus does not even have a drinking cup (4:11). No, she cannot give what is asked. That is, again, exactly Jesus' point: she cannot give what she does not have. Her awareness of her own inadequacies and of his sufficiency grows as the conversation continues. First, she uses polite protocol, calling him, "sir" (4:11). The second "sir"(4:15) suggests that Jesus has more status in her eyes. Perhaps "lord" would be a better translation to show her increasing respect. Then, she begins to call him "prophet" (4:19), a religious title. For the Samaritan religion the word "prophet" was significant, since Samaritans believed that a type of Moses would arise to deliver them in the last days. Nevertheless she also uses the term "Messiah" or Christ to describe the kind of knowledge Jesus is showing (4:25). Finally, Jesus discloses his own identity to her, using the highest title found in the Gospel, "I Am" (4:26).

What the reader glimpses in this private encounter is a lesson in Christology. The woman has gone from complete ignorance about Jesus to an awareness that takes hold of her in an immediate way. She has journeyed from deficit to discipleship. She now goes far beyond what Nicodemus accepted in the previous chapter. She leaves her old way of life behind, symbolized by her water bucket left at the well, and rushes back to her city to give her testimony to Jesus (4:39). The reader sees in this woman of Samaria a depth of response that obviously surpasses that of Nicodemus. The reader learns at the end of the story (4:39) that the woman's message about Jesus opened the way for the positive response of the whole village.

4 See Jos. Ant. 20.6.1-3, §118-36; J.W. 2.12.3-5 §232-46. Before the Romans, there were even fiercer Jewish-Samaritan conflicts (Ant. 13.254-58; 275-81; J.W. 1.62-65). In fact, "religious" justification for the slaughter of Samaritans is found in Jubilees 30.
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(C) 1998, 2006 Mark Whitters