From outcast to saviour

This encounter is full of dynamite: stereotypes, pride, and xenophobia. And yet the protagonists in this scene managed to come together in record time without mediators and disputes. It worked two thousand years ago. What about today?

Forty kilometres east of the Mediterranean and 50 kilometres north of Jerusalem is the town of Sychar. It is situated in the present-day West Bank. Just outside of the town gate is Jacob’s well, a place of historical significance. Some 1,800 years before Christ, Jacob had given his son Joseph a parcel of ground upon which Joseph later had a well built.

The noonday sun is burning from the sky. It is hot in the Samaritan mountains. Some two thousand years ago, Jesus came to this well to rest. His disciples had continued on to the town to buy some food, we can read in the fourth chapter of John.

A scandal

A woman approaches Jesus. And contrary to all conventions of the time, Jesus addresses the woman. It is unthinkable: He, a Jewish rabbi, and she, a Samaritan woman, in conversation. So what was the problem? Rabbis did not communicate with women because they feared a bad reputation and because women were considered unsuitable for a doctrinal conversation. To make matters even worse, the woman belonged to the people of the Samaritans.

Jesus’ respectful address turns into a discussion, one that is recorded in the Bible in such detail as hardly any other conversation. Jesus talks about eternal life, how a human being can enter into fellowship with God, and the worship of God. Jesus also mentions the woman’s past, her five husbands, and the fact that she is living together with a man whom she is not married to.

Jesus is kind to this woman, who is an outcast. He is friendly, polite. He even wants to share His cup with her. Incredible! One after the other taboo is broken so that anyone observing the scene would likely have had to rub their eyes.

From well water to waterfall

The woman is moved by the conversation. Finally she recognises in Jesus the long-awaited Messiah. She is so electrified by all this that she leaves her pitcher at the well and runs back to the town to tell her fellow citizens about her encounter: “Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did!”

Jesus asked His disciples to come and follow Him (Matthew 4: 19). “Come, see!” the angel said to the women at the grave (Matthew 28: 6). And “Come, see,” the Samaritan woman said to her neighbours. The invitation to convince oneself of the gospel is always open. There is no monopoly on wisdom: “This is how it is, not otherwise!” This is a “come and see for yourself” and leaves the way open for personal experiences.

One story, two models

The story of the well provides two models for Christians—also for those in the twenty-first century: Jesus, the Lord, and the nameless Samaritan.

  • Open for everybody. After having spoken with Nicodemus in Jerusalem, a well-educated Pharisee, Jesus was now speaking with this simple Samaritan woman. Gender, origin, intellect, religion … Jesus could not have cared less about human conventions. He jumped over walls. The gospel is worth it. Today too!
  • Allow yourself to be surprised. “If you knew,” He said to her at the outset of their conversation, tickling her curiosity. The woman launches into the discussion apparently without any preconceived ideas. Even today it is an art to allow oneself to be surprised and leave aside one’s own ideas and solutions, and loosen the grip on our own expectations.
  • Getting at the heart of the matter. Jesus touched a sore point in their discussion. The woman distanced herself and offered an explanation: “Our fathers …” and “you Jews” (John 4: 20). Even today it is easier to think about the church in general than it is to reflect on one’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The discussion about our own relationship to God is necessary, but also more challenging.
  • Communicate without moralising. Let us speak with our neighbour without moralising and striking out verbally. Jesus succeeded at this. He managed to explain, excite, and motivate without ridiculing or hurting the people despite their failures. Courses, workshops, training—the modern world is full of courses to improve our communication skills. Love is the best course to take when it comes to communicating with our neighbour.
  • Teaching the gospel with enthusiasm: In the hot midday sun, the woman, who was avoided by her contemporaries, turns into a convinced missionary. She managed to convince the people and Jesus stayed with them for two full days. Our mission and challenge for today: which Christian would not like to achieve this?

And all of this is still supposed to work today? The times have changed, but things are not all that much different than in Samaria at the time: someone whose life has changed completely always draws people’s attention. Why else would the townspeople have gone to the well with her and see this Jesus for themselves? Let us break with conventions and objections for the sake of the gospel. May this be a characteristic of Christians in the twenty-first century.

“I who speak to you am He,” Jesus replied (John 4: 26). Anyone who would have heard these words today would likely have taken the pitcher and thrown the water in the other person’s face. And the woman? What did she do? She listened, believed, and professed.

Photo: Jürgen Fächle

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Oliver Rütten
Divine service, Doctrinal instruction