The very first thing that we are told about the woman in this story is that she was a Samaritan.
Why are we told this? Well, as we know, Samaritans were despised by Judeans; the point is that this story is about an encounter with an outsider — a person of low status.
Why were the Samaritans so despised?
But there's a little bit more to it than that. It's worth asking ourselves why the Samaritans were so despised.
It wasn't always so. The Samaritans and the Judeans were originally one people — the Jews, united under King David, and after him under Solomon. But after Solomon's death the kingdom was divided into two — Judah, the southern kingdom, and Israel, the northern Kingdom (which included the territory later known as Samaria). The Jews were still one people with one religion, but now in two different countries, and with growing differences in religious practice. For instance, in the south (which contains Jerusalem) the Temple and the priesthood occupied a central place in worship; much less so in the north.
In 722 BC the northern kingdom is conquered by the Assyrians. Many of the people come south, effectively as refugees. Others remain in their original territory under Assyrian rule, but their religious practices depart further and further from the south.
This causes a degree of stress; apart from the problems that large numbers of refugees always bring, there are questions to be asked about why God abandoned the northern kingdom to the Assyrians. Had these northern Jews displeased him? Were their distinctive northern practices a betrayal of true Judaism?
About a hundred and fifty years later, the southern kingdom is also overrun, this time by the Babylonians. The Temple is destroyed, and the Jews — or, at least, the Jewish leadership — are carted off to Babylon. This leads to more soul-searching. God is faithful to his covenant; if the Jews appear to have been abandoned by God it must, in reality, be they who have abandoned him.
So the Jews — and particularly the leadership — are looking for a scapegoat. Ashamed and humiliated, they look for someone on whom they can deflect the experience of shame and humiliation. And, once again, the Northerners get the blame. There's their dubious religious practices and their disregard for the Temple, for a start. And the (southern) prophets Ezra and Nehemiah point to the practice of marrying foreign (i.e. non-Jewish) women — something the Northerners were quite relaxed about — and demand that those who have done so should repudiate their wives (again, passing on the experience of humiliation, abandonment and exile). Many of the men, especially in Samaria, refused, and so they got this kind of treatment, reported in words of Nehemiah:
"I took them to task and cursed them; I had some of them beaten and their hair pulled out; and I adjured them by God . . . Thus I cleansed them of all foreign contamination." (Nehemiah 13:25-30)
So began the enmity between Judeans and Samaritans that was centuries old by the time Jesus sat by Jacob's well, and spoke to the woman of Samaria.
Not just an "outsider"…
The point is not just that she was an outsider; a story about a Roman or a Greek woman would have made that point. The point is that she was a Samaritan; she was complicit in the betrayal of the Covenant and the oppression of the Jews. She was a scapegoat.
Image from the Catacombs depicting the story of the Woman at the Well. To see a large scale rendition of this and other images from the Catacombs and the early Church visit: campus.belmont.edu
And, as the story unfolds, we see that this is true not just at the communal level but at the personal level. She is not just a Samaritan; she is a Samaritan woman. She is not just a Samaritan woman; she is an outcast Samaritan woman. She is, to be blunt, a slut. She will sleep with anybody. Most probably, the reason why she comes to the well in the heat, in the middle of the day, is that she cannot face the other women of the village, who come in the cool of the evening. She embodies shame and humiliation.
Violence begets violence, oppression begets oppression, and shame begets shame. This woman is at the last link in a long chain of injury, that stretches back centuries and involves entire nations.
And Jesus offers a way to break out of that cycle, and escape from it.
He does this, not by explaining the cycle to her, so that she can understand what is happening, nor by pointing out to her the moral evil of her adulteries and asking her to change her life. He does make a demand of her, but it is a very simple one:
Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." (Jn 4:7)
That's it. He asks her for something. Nothing very dramatic; nothing that will be difficult for her to provide, given that they are at a well, and she has come to draw water. But the fact that he speaks to her at all is very significant, and the fact that he is willing to accept water from her — Samaritan women were considered by Jews to be ritually impure. And the fact that he puts himself in a position of dependence on her — he needs her to do something for him. All of this is to affirm her as a person, and a person of worth, value and significance.
It's the start of a conversation that changes her completely. Soon, she is making her own demand of Jesus, asking from him the water of eternal life. By the end, she is a prophet; she is going into the centre of the town and demanding that people listen to her. And they do listen to her:
Many of the Samaritans of that town began to believe in him because of the word of the woman. (John 4:39)
What transformed the woman could transform us; it could transform our world. The woman at the well was despised by her village, which was despised by Judeans, whose ancestors had been humiliated by Babylonians. From generation to generation, shame, humiliation, resentment, and violence were passed down by people keeping the score so that they could seek to even it. Jesus sets aside all score-keeping, and by treating all as if all were forgiven, he makes forgiveness possible.
Peregrinus is a lawyer recently migrated to Australia from Ireland. He has a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of Catholic church history and the ability at short notice to put his finger on the facts that are needed in the many controversies that erupt on internet discussion forums.
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