Living water

Sunday, March 19, 2017

By Tyler Tankersley

In the Gospel of John there is a story in which Jesus takes a rest at a well in the land of Samaria. We are told that it was noon, the hottest part of the day, when a woman approaches the well to draw water. Jesus, no doubt parched from the Middle-Eastern sun, says to the woman, "Give me a drink."

The woman is absolutely taken aback by this request. Judean men such as Jesus never interacted with Samaritan women, much less asked to drink from the same container of water as them. The woman protests Jesus' lack of social etiquette. Jesus tells her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water" (John 4:10).

The woman pokes fun at Jesus and chastises him for not having brought a bucket with which to draw any water. She then laughs at his comment and asks for this "living water" so she does not have to keep coming back to the well. Jesus then oddly says to her: "Go, call your husband and come back." The woman hangs her head in shame and declares that she has no husband. Jesus then reveals that he knows the woman has been previously married five times and the man she is currently living with is not her husband.

I have heard various sermons on this passage during my upbringing in church. All of the sermons I have ever heard have interpreted this story as Jesus having intimate knowledge of this woman's sexual sins. The fact that she has been married five times is assumed to be a sign of her promiscuity. However, that is a serious misreading of this story.

Women in ancient Palestine would not have been allowed to have been married five times. Many biblical scholars now surmise that this woman is either widowed or barren. If she has been widowed five times then she would have been treated as cursed and a pariah. If she was barren then she may have been passed along by various men in the hopes that they could impregnate her. The fact that she is now living with a man who is not her husband is probably an indication that she is currently in the care of her deceased husband's brother (see Deuteronomy 25:5-10).

This story is often interpreted to be about sin. However, it's not a story about this woman's sin; it's a story about this woman's pain. It's a story about how Jesus, with no concern for proper social rules, reveals himself as the Messiah to this woman by showing her that he truly knows the pain and suffering she has experienced in her life.

As we all go through our own seasons of pain, suffering, abuse or loss, perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that, like this woman at the well, our pain is not unknown by God. We are not alone during our times of darkness, times of depression, times of thirst. We are offered living water.

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