A woman at a well

In John chapter four Jesus encounters a Samaritan women. I think it’s a fascinating encounter that tells us more about ourselves than I’ve previously allowed.

Jesus is on his way to Galilee, and to get there he has to pass through Samaria, John tells us. Thing is he didn’t ‘have’ to, lots of Jews would have gone the long way around to avoid their polluted cousins. John is subtly undoing our expectations before we get going.

Jesus comes to a town where Jacob—his direct ancestor—bought a field and dug a well. He’s tired and thirsty so he sits down by the well. We’re told it’s the sixth hour, which is around midday. But that’s not colour, that’s there to help us catch John’s point. It’s the sixth hour, that’s a clue.

The disciples have gone to buy food. A Samaritan women comes to the well at noon, which is a sign she was hoping to not meet anyone else. Jesus asks for a drink.

She is dumbfounded. Jesus is Jewish, and quite possibly he is a visibly Jewish teacher. She politely suggests he reconsider. His people hate hers, and her people aren’t that fond of her.

Jesus turns the tables, “If you knew the gift of God, and who was asking for a drink you would have asked me for one instead. And you would have got living water.”

She rolls her eyes at the teacher and his riddles. He doesn’t have any way of getting water out of the well, and he clearly can’t get water from anywhere else. “Are you better than Jacob?” she scoffs, “where is your well!”

Maybe he is, we the reader are supposed to be wondering.

“Everyone who drinks my water will never be thirsty again.”

That’s quite a claim. He goes further, suggesting that those who drink his water will become wells themselves. “Drink and become a water source.”

At this point she is wondering if it might be true. It’s worth a go. She asks for the water, thinking it seems of the labour of drawing water in the heat of the day to avoid the other women and hoping that she could avoid it if possible.

Jesus assents, and asks her to get her husband. Her heart sinks but she tells him the truth, “I have no husband,” she replies.

Jesus lovingly says, “I know. You’ve had five, and the man you are with isn’t your husband.” This is scandalous, her life would be one of open scorn. There’s a clue here too, we’ll come back to it.

Her reaction is well known, she declares Jesus a prophet and asks if the Samaritans or the Jews worship correctly. Jesus tells her that salvation is from the Jews, but an hour is coming when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth, and the Father is seeking worshippers. The woman confesses a belief in the Christ to come, and Jesus says “that’s me”.

The disciples return to the Jesus and she takes that as her moment to leave, but she can’t keep it to herself and so tells everyone about the prophet who might just be the Christ. They’re curious enough to come and listen and as Jesus stays and teaches them eventually confess that “he is indeed the Saviour of the world.”

It’s quite the story. All these Samaritans believe, the covenant extends beyond the Jews, all are welcomed to the Father, place doesn’t matter in the same way it did, and Jesus will grant wells that will satisfy in our hearts.

But I think I’ve missed some of what John wanted to tell us until recently. It’s the sixth hour. She’s had six husbands (five and one). Numbers in the Bible matter, though they are usually there to support and texture the main point.

Seven means ‘complete’, so when something is ‘six’ it’s either meant to mean ‘incomplete’ or make us ask “where is the seventh?”

Last time we saw six in John was chapter two. Jesus was at a wedding and turned six jars of water into wine. A wedding celebration but not a complete one. Where’s the seventh jar? Maybe it points to the wedding of Jesus and his bride, as yet uncompleted.

And then two chapters later, with a few six clues, comes a woman with a water jar. Maybe this is our seventh water jar? Is Jesus going to fill this one with wine too?

And she’s had six husbands, so we’re meant to ask, “where is her seventh husband?”

Now that is a good question. He’s sat right in front of her.

The seventh jar of wine was meant to point to the wedding of Jesus and his bride. Isaac, Jacob and Moses all found their brides at wells. Jesus is sat at Jacob’s well, he’s stacking up the facts to help us think ‘wedding’. John would like us to take a good hard look at what his bride would look like by putting the seventh jar into her hands.

When John describes the bride of Christ, who in Revelation John makes clear is the Church, he describes a Samaritan adulteress. A woman so despised by her own community she had to get water in the hottest part of the day. A woman so despised by Jesus’ community that to speak to her would be scandalous.

When Jesus wanted us to know who he would pick to be his bride—his church—he picked the most shameful woman he could find, hated by everyone.

Sit with that for a bit.

The church is made of the most shameful people you can imagine. They are who he chooses.

But he doesn’t stop there. He looked her in the eye. He spoke with her. He gave her dignity and removed her shame. He brought the outsider, inside. He made her his emissary to her entire people. He gave her water that would quench her thirst forever. He made her into a well greater than Jacob’s.

The first bride in history came from her husband’s side while he slept the sleep of death. Later in John, as Jesus hung dying, his side was opened and water came out. The water to fill the final jar, as he won his bride: a shameful woman, taken from his side, and then raised with him.

That’s the church. That’s our groom.

Photo by Frank Albrecht on Unsplash