The Samaritan woman whom Jesus meets at the well in our today’s lengthy reading has consistently made it onto every list of “the bad girls of the bible” ever compiled. The usual interpretation paints a picture of a woman living on the outskirts of the society, so much so that she prefers to come to the well when all normal people would stay out of the heat of the noon-day sun: presumably, she just can’t stand facing her fellow-villagers who are all too fully aware of her flagrant sexuality and a habit of changing lovers like gloves. So, as the one who’s got so little to lose by way of a reputation, she can afford to speak at lengths to an unfamiliar male. But when she does so, she sounds cynical, and hostile. Finally, once Jesus manages to impress her with a supernatural knowledge re. her past, she is convinced of the inadequacy of her beliefs.
Now… What if I told you a different story? What if the woman was widowed multiple times, passed along from one brother-in-law to another, as prescribed by the Mosaic law and as the only way to ensure her survival, most certainly not a woman of means of her own if she had to fetch her own water? Worse, what if she wasn’t widowed but abandoned by her five husbands -- perhaps, due to her infertility or chronic physical/mental illness? If such scenarios did not exist in real life, would the pharisees of the Bible keep trying to trick Jesus with the very questions regarding divorce or a woman widowed multiple times? Imagine having to adjust to a life in six different households, always assuming the lowest social standing among possibly several other wives (polygamy was yet far from gone in the Israelite population, despite the Roman law). Any one or a combination of these circumstances could have made her severely depressed, and thus uninterested in other women’s chatter at the well. That’s if she was avoiding others at all, which is not necessarily so, given that in the summer, noon-time is not yet the hottest hour, and in the winter, it would have been the most pleasant.
When we correct some of these assumptions, suddenly the mysteriously scandalous “femme fatale” at the well begins to look more and more like a woman burdened by the tragedies of her past and present, and who has little hope for anything different awaiting her in the future. Her questions do not sound cynical, but instead reveal a thirst for healing - physical and spiritual, not at all different from that of our own, especially in light of the unprecedented emergency we are experiencing today. The woman cares deeply about inheriting from her patriarchs the foundations for Israel’s unique relationship with God, and wonders how she might apply them to sustain her daily life. I wonder if she was familiar with the words of the psalmist, “out of the depth have I cried unto you”. St John Chrysostom wrote that the depth of the well at which Jesus meets the woman speaks to the depth of the suffering he has shared with us.
As a matter of fact, let’s think, what other Biblical stories involve a well? Recall the life of the long-suffering Israelite patriarch, Joseph, rooted in the two generations of sibling rivalry culminating in his near murder and enslavement, only to be followed by wrongful imprisonment at the peak of his power as an Egyptian official -- presumably, buried at this well. On the other hand, it is also a place of finding new life, new love: new relationships. Joseph’s grandmother Rebekah had once come to a well for water, only to find there a marriage proposal. In that story, Abraham’s servant asked her for water-- much like Christ asks this woman. Might the woman then stand for the Church, the bride of Christ? And her willingness to serve Christ and receive healing, learn from him, and give this knowledge to others then is a metaphor for the life of all Christians.
In the conversation of the woman and Jesus, don’t we see the pictures of both our own community, and a microcosm of the universal Church: many of us, well acquainted with suffering and grief; others, too, dissatisfied by the “changes and chances of this fleeting world”. We all come to the well of God’s love, looking to worship him in “spirit and in truth” and to be healed. May we find encouragement in this story, as it shows us that Jesus has a real desire to bring the woman to faith. He spoke to her about himself, in a way that was much more direct than he ever used with the Jews or even his own disciples. And in contrast to the disciples, who went to the village to bring out of it the ordinary bread, she brought into it the bread of life.
If she was truly a woman of ruined reputation, I doubt her people would pay her much heed when she spoke. I also doubt she would be so eager to announce that Jesus knew her past. Instead, what she seems to say with the words “he knows all about me” is that Jesus has fulfilled her greatest need - that is, the need to be truly understood. As in another psalm, “you have searched me and you know me”. This kind of patient, non-judgmental, empathetic understanding, realistic of both one’s weakness and gifts, is indeed the healing drink of love we can offer to each other. The kind of love that will not put a label “bad woman” on someone on the margins of our society without hearing her full story. Or look at each other and only see “normal” people who seem to have got it all together. Of course, this kind of willingness to truly know one another comes at a cost of having to feel their pain. That’s what Jesus chose to do, but he also said that by giving a drink to the least of those around us, we give a drink to him. So this Lent, and in this crisis, let us continue to journey with the God who knows us perfectly, and begin to truly “see” and know each other.