Jesus, Jacob’s well, and the Samaritans

SamariaMapThe region of Samaria separates Judea in the south of Israel and Galilee in the north, occupied in Bible times by people of mixed races. Because of important differences in beliefs and heritage*** most Jews avoided traveling through Samaria if at all possible, and several main roads made this avoidance possible if not exactly convenient.

One was a major north/south trade route on the eastern side of the Jordan River; another ran along the Mediterranean Sea bypassing the western edge of Samaria. Although taking either road meant traveling many miles out of the way, that was the usual thing to do for most Jewish people.

Yet when he decided to go from Jerusalem back home to Galilee, Jesus had to go through Samaria, according to the Gospel of John chapter 4. Several reasons have been proposed, most having to do with the woman at the well. He certainly did have a significant meeting with her.

Jesus always kept to his own schedule, and once again he was headed toward Cana of Galilee where earlier he’d attended a wedding, performing his first miracle there. A smaller, less traveled road through Samaria connected Jerusalem with his home-town of Nazareth. From there a mostly foot-traffic path led to Cana, where in a few days Jesus would meet with a nobleman whose son was sick.

On the way through Samaria Jesus took time to do something quite peculiar. He, a Jewish man recognized for being scrupulously moral, spoke to a lone woman not accompanied by her husband — an action in itself considered immoral. Not only that, she was a Samaritan woman. Some questions ran through my mind as I read the story in John chapter 4.

It was time for the mid-day meal. You’d think that the disciples would have packed a lunch, considering this was a journey of some miles through “enemy” territory you’d usually avoid, but they had brought no such provisions. Why not? Was this a spur-of-the-moment trip? Or was it usually a fast journey of only a few hours?

In any case, Jesus called for a stop at Jacob’s well outside of Sychar. He sent the disciples off into town to buy food, something they no doubt really didn’t want to do. I can almost see their faces. “Go into town? Lord, don’t you realize where we are? Samaria? Surely we can make it a few more hours and get supper in Nazareth…” But off they went, leaving Jesus there all alone.

JacobsWell1900-1920LibraryOfCongress* Jacob’s Well 1900-1920, from the Library of Congress Collection.

Why didn’t at least one of them stay with him? After all, this was not the safest place for Jews. I suspect Jesus sent them all off to town, for his own reasons. And here came the reason: a woman with a water pot, all by herself in the middle of the day.

No-one came to draw water in the heat of the day unless they had no choice. Expert opinion is that this “immoral woman,” persecuted by other town women, chose this time of day to avoid conflict with them.

JacobsWell2012** Jacob’s Well, Nablus. Jacob’s well was and is an interesting place. The well was very old and very deep, dug many generations earlier by the patriarch Jacob and maintained through the centuries as a dependable source of water for people and animals.  (A popular tourist attraction today, Jacob’s well still provides water; a chapel has been built around it to protect this historical site.)

Located down a number of steps and inside the mouth of a shallow cave, much of the water came from a deep underground spring. Interestingly, it was called “living water” by the local residents.

The well was a natural place to take a lunch break and enjoy a drink of cool water. Of course, you’d need your own water pail. Jesus had none, so when the woman shows up with water pots, he asks her for a drink. Now, you and I would think nothing of that — but in that culture, for a man to speak to a woman and ask such a thing was disgraceful, and she knew it. And not just a man, a Jewish man. The differences between Samaritan and Jewish dress would have told her that.

What did she think when she saw Jesus? When she heard his request?

Who is this Jewish man speaking to me, she thought. Not a good Jew obviously. This one doesn’t respect himself or me, although he must know I’m not a respectable housewife, coming out here at noon. And what is he doing at the well all alone? Without a way to draw water? Nothing honorable, probably.

Their conversation about living water is meticulously recorded for us by the Apostle John. Jesus offered her eternal “Living Water” to quench the thirst of her spirit. An unlikely convert, she became an enthusiastic evangelist. Jesus waited there as she hurried into Sychar to tell an amazing story. No doubt the returning disciples had a few questions as they ate their lunch. “Who was that?” “Can we go now?”

Why did the townspeople listen to her? They surely knew exactly who she was.

Something must have been different about her that they could see as she told a remarkable story. The Messiah? At Jacob’s well? Surely not… but let’s go see for ourselves, something obviously has happened to her. And they came, they also believed and “besought him that he would tarry with them.” (John 4:40) And he did.

When Jesus and the disciples finally continued on their journey several days later, they left a community of new disciples. Sort of reminds me of “Legion,” where the townspeople heard a remarkable story and came to see what had happened. Except in the Gadarenes the town begged Jesus to leave. (Mark 5:17) And he did. And the unlikely convert, the newly delivered demon-possessed man, became an enthusiastic evangelist throughout the wider region of Decapolis.

What did the disciples learn from this excursion? If it had been up to them, they wouldn’t have traveled through Samaria in the first place. They wouldn’t have stopped at Jacob’s well, wouldn’t have gone into Sychar, wouldn’t have talked to a woman, and wouldn’t have seen a community of new disciples created in the midst of unclean territory.

But the kind of disciples Jesus was training had to see what he saw, someone needing Living Water. Someone ready to receive him, ready to tell others. Someone ready to worship in spirit and truth. He’s still training that kind of disciples.

* Photo 1900-1920 — Jacob’s Well, Samaria, from the Library of Congress collection.

** Photo 2012 — Jacob’s Well, today located in the basement of a monastery in Nablus. Nablus is located in a narrow valley between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim.

*** An interesting website with more information about Samaria.