Jesus and the Woman at the Well, Part I
The encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (an event recounted only in the Gospel of John) is probably the single longest story in any of the four canonical Gospels (42 verses). So we will spend two days this week looking closely at how John narrates the story of this unnamed woman who becomes one of the first people to bear witness to the identity and power of Jesus.
Pictured to the right is St. Photini, who, in Christian tradition, is the Samaritan woman Jesus encountered at Jacob’s well. This mosaic image of St. Photini rests over the entry door to St. Photini Greek Orthodox Church in Nablus, in the West Bank, the church built over the site of Jacob’s well, where Jesus met the Samaritan woman. In
the undercroft of this church, pilgrims to the Holy Land today can still lower a bucket into the deep well and draw up a drink of cold, clear water.
Now let’s consider the important setting of today’s story.
Jesus and his followers strike out north for Galilee from Judea, where his disciples have been baptizing. Jesus had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food). The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not associate with Samaritans). (John 4:7-9)
The site of this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is Jacob’s well,
where Jacob first met his beloved wife Rachel many centuries earlier according to
Genesis 29:9-12. The author of John’s Gospel probably wants us to make this
connection as he begins to tell the story, thereby foreshadowing the important
relationship that is about to develop between Jesus and this special woman.
In the first century CE, Samaritans and Jews were not on friendly terms.
• As noted in our earlier teaching in week 3 (a disciple is a “neighbor”), the
Samaritans were probably descended from the people of Israel who were left
behind in the land in 586 BCE, when the conquering Babylonians destroyed
Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple and deported to Babylon all the elite members
of Israelite society and religion.
• Upon the return of the religious and social elites to Judea and Jerusalem nearly a
century later, these Samaritans were shunned and not allowed to participate in
the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem.
• Though Samaritans and Jews worshiped the same God, there were centuries of
bad blood between them. The Samaritans continued to worship the same God as
the Israelites, but they did so on Mt. Gerazim, located in the hill country of
Samaria, the region between Judea and Jerusalem, in the south, and Galilee, in
• We see this background highlighted in the woman’s incredulous question to
Jesus: “How is that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
There is evidence in several of the Gospels that, after the death and resurrection of
Jesus, Samaritans were an important focus of early Christian mission, and some of
the earliest communities of Jesus’ followers included Samaritans.
• This fact was not well received by many mainstream Jews and even some of the
Jewish followers of Jesus, who considered Samaritans to be long-time enemies.
• This story in the Gospel of John suggests how Samaritans might have come to be
an important constituency in the Jesus movement.
Also, in the first-century Greco-Roman world, women were socially inferior to men.
• The world of Jesus is quite hierarchical and stratified: men maintained an exalted
position over women.
• This fact is emphasized in the woman’s disbelief that a Jewish man would be
speaking to, and even asking for assistance from, a Samaritan woman.
Questions for Reflection
• Our world today can also be hierarchical and socially stratified according to
religion, economic status, social class, ethnic origins, gender, and even sexual
orientation. As a modern-day disciple of Jesus, how would you answer the
question the Samaritan woman puts to Jesus about why he is crossing a social
boundary? Has your experience as a disciple motivated you to cross a
contemporary social boundary? How did you reflect upon the encounter
• Do you ever question whether Jesus wants to spend time talking with you?
Why? What does this story say to you?
Gracious God, Lord of the universe: help me to look past all the barriers and boundaries
that divide people today, so that I might bear witness to your reconciling power that
brings all people together in peace. Amen.