THE early chapters of John’s Gospel present us with contrasting responses to Jesus’s ministry. Nicodemus recognises that he is “from God”, but lacks the courage to take a public step of faith, while a Samaritan woman not only takes that step, but expresses her faith to others.
Samaritans were a despised minority, and this woman is marginalised even in that group, coming to the well at the hottest point in the day, when no one else would be likely to be there. Tired and thirsty, Jesus asks her for a drink. Having no home, he is constantly dependent on the hospitality of others (Matthew 8.20). In this encounter, we see the fruit of such vulnerability. By approaching the woman as someone who bears a gift that he needs, Jesus builds up the confidence of someone who is used to being overlooked and ostracised. By the end of the story, she bears a much greater gift to her neighbours.
St John Chrysostom notes how considerate the woman’s first question is: “Even if our Lord had been bound to abstain from dealing with her, that was his concern, not hers. The woman, however, though not at fault herself, wished to correct what she thought was done unlawfully.” She has a striking frankness and integrity. She wants to understand both why this Jewish teacher is speaking to her, and how God is rightly worshipped.
It is Jesus’s physical thirst that has created this possibility of encounter. In an echo of his dialogue with Nicodemus, he now offers her “living water” of a spiritual kind which means that she “will never thirst again”. St Thomas Aquinas explains how this image refers to the Holy Spirit: “Non-living water is water which is not connected or united with the source from which it springs,” whereas “living water is connected with its source and flows from it.” When we receive the grace of the Holy Spirit, “the source itself of the grace is also given” as we are drawn into union with God.
Jesus then asks the woman to call her husband. The question is rhetorical: Jesus knows that she has had “five husbands, and the one [you] have now is not your husband”.
In first-century Palestine, the woman’s repeated marriages would not have been a result of her choosing to divorce a series of husbands. On the contrary, as Mukti Barton points out, women were vulnerable to being divorced for matters as trivial as spoiling their husband’s cooking, or being supplanted in his affections by someone more beautiful.
“In the gospel account the woman chooses to be truthful about her marital status and instead of condemning her, Jesus compliments her for her truthfulness” (Scripture as Empowerment for Liberation and Justice), and invites her to recognise him as the Christ, and “to worship the Father in spirit and in truth”. Now, instead of hiding away from her neighbours, she bears witness publicly so that “many Samaritans from that city” come to faith.
By the end of this fourth chapter of John’s Gospel, a pattern has emerged — of the people who are most receptive to the Good News as being the least entangled in existing hierarchies of power and status. In our epistle, Paul likewise strikes at the heart of Roman understandings of these things.
As Sarah Heaner Lancaster explains, “the empire gained peace through military victory, so peace was very explicitly related to war. Battle ended when Rome defeated its opponent and thereby established a relationship of domination.” In contrast, the peace of Christ is founded on the shedding of his own blood, “offered while we were enemies”.
The Cross is the source of the only truly transformative power, and faith in Christ crucified leads on to a very different understanding of status. “Winning glory for oneself or one’s family was a primary goal of Roman life, and seeking honour set up serious social competition.” Paul invites his readers to abandon this ambition and, instead, to seek to “share in the glory of God” — something that comes as a gift, not an achievement (Belief: A theological commentary on the Bible: Romans).
With a pleasing symmetry, the otherwise nameless Samaritan woman is venerated in the Orthodox Church as St Photine (meaning “radiant”, or “light”). Her own humility, and the humility of her Saviour’s approach, enabled her to “share in the glory of God” — and also to share that light with others.