Society in its non-technological years was fraught with racial divisions, gender divisions, and economic divisions. Jesus speaks much throughout the gospels about the classes of people the first century people recognized – the master and the servant, the rich and the poor, the mother and the barren woman, the honorable woman and the harlot, the Jew and the Samaritan, the religious leaders and the common man. There were so many possible divisions that creating ingroups was necessary for survival.
Almost all of these ideologies come together in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4.
Thinking of the Samaritan woman makes me appreciate the times we live in and how far our culture and religious ideologies have evolved. At least in America. Because in the first century, women had few to no options. As a woman, you were considered the property of your father, or your older brother if your father was deceased, until you were of a marriageable age. Which could be as a teenager. You most likely had no choice or voice in the man your father chose for you to marry. You would marry him and be expected to love, honor, and obey. Without question or complaint. You were to appreciate his care and protection of you. If you were lucky, you would come to like your husband and form a friendship as you tried to get through each day and raise your kids. What was a typical day? You would be expected to prepare two to three meals with limited resources. No electricity. No drive throughs. No instant food. If you wanted to eat, you had to grow it, catch it, or have enough denarii available to purchase something simple at the market. Your worked from when you rose in the morning until you went to bed at night, most likely on a straw mat or the dirt floor. There were no pillow top mattresses covered in 900 thread count sheets to sleep in luxury. There were no day spas to go have your hair cut and your nails done and just relax. If you were lucky, you found yourself living in the same town in which you grew up, being surrounded by family and friends. Because if you were not, it could be months or years before you saw them. How could you write to them and have them respond if you barely knew how to read?
As a woman, your life was hard. Your days would be difficult. But how much more so if you were a woman who made bad choices and had to live your life with layers upon layers of scorn? Thus, we circle back to the Samaritan woman.
The Samaritan woman already had many strikes against her. First, she was born into a culture of people considered unacceptable because they came from a lineage of intermarriage with heathen nations. “After the northern kingdom, with its capital at Samaria, fell to the Assyrians, many Jews were deported to Assyria, and foreigners were brought in to settle the land and help keep the peace. The intermarriage between those foreigners and the remaining Jews resulted in a mixed race, impure in the opinion of Jews who lived in the southern kingdom. The thus pure Jews hated this mixed race called Samaritans because they felt that their fellow Jews who had intermarried had betrayed their people and nation” (Life 1822). Religious culture mandated a person be of only Jewish lineage to be accepted as a Jew, and her bloodlines prevented her from conforming to their heterogeneous expectations. So, the Jews would avoid her in every possible way.
Second, though she believed in the same God as her Israelite brethren, the Samaritan religion she followed diverged into systematic – and unacceptable – differences. “The building of the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim, overlooking Shechem, set the seal on the Jewish rejection of this heretical sect. … Yet the Samaritans worshipped God, as the Jesus did. Their authority was the Five Books of Moses, hardly altered from the Jewish version” (Alexander 497). Both the Samaritans and Jews believed in a Creator who chose Abraham and from him created a nation that found itself slaves in Israel soon redeemed by His mighty hand through the prophet Moses and then spent forty years trying to get Israel to trust Him. But when Moses died on the edge of the promised land, their religious culture diverged into Jews, who believed God placed the judges and prophets and kings into their culture. So, “Jewish hatred and disdain for the Samaritans sprang more from historical and racial considerations than from any fundamental difference of religion” (Alexander 497-498).
Culturally, the Jews would reject her and refuse to acknowledge her existence. But there would be the hope of her own people, the Samaritans – specifically the women in her village. They had a shared culture, a shared heritage, and a shared rejection. So, they could commiserate together about the choices of their Jewish ancestors while appreciating the diverse and expanded culture they now enjoyed as a result. But there were no women knocking on her door, coming in to sit in her home and participate in friendly conversation. There were no friends coming to her door early in the morning to walk with her to Jacob’s well to draw water for the day’s chores. There were no meet-ups at the market or even acknowledgement by eye contact. Because she made the most egregious mistake a woman could make. And even within her culture of outcasts, she could not live up to their heterogeneous ideologies as a woman who loved too much and chose her companions poorly. “The woman answered and said, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You have well said, “I have no husband,” for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly’” (John 4:17-18, New King James Version). Though it is not expressed in the Scripture that she is divorced, she obviously bears the stigma of a divorced woman. Not once, not twice, but at least four times. She has been left, repeatedly, to fend for herself. Now, desperate and hopeless, she has added shame upon her already deep shame by living with a man without the benefit of marriage.
She will never be accepted by the Jews. She is continually rejected by her own people the Samaritans. She lives in multiple layers of outgroup ostracization. She is stuck in a limbo of isolation and contorted in every way by shame. She is without friends. She is without hope. She is without purpose. And most importantly, she does know how to love herself, nor does she think she deserves to be loved.
Which is why she is the perfect example of how Peter calls us to love like Jesus: “Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous [humble]” (1 Peter 3:8). She needed compassion. She needed one of the local women who shunned her so carefully and so caustically to bring her into the ingroup and allow their acceptance and friendship to start healing the deep wounds in her heart. She needed to be taught to forgive herself and see herself as valuable, despite her choices, so she could find the confidence to make better choices and steer her life in a new direction. She needed someone to see her and acknowledge her existence, choosing to show her compassion instead of judgment, so her hard and broken heart could slowly but surely be softened into the true meaning of love.
Jesus demonstrates exactly how we start finding the Samaritan woman in our life. We take the uncomfortable and often rejected path – we walk purposefully into Samaria. We do not avoid walking into people’s lives because they are different – because they are complicated or messy or disastrous compared to our ideals. We do not avoid getting to know people because they are different – they live differently, think differently, and believe differently. We look at the example of our Savior and choose to walk into their lives, just as they are, and meet them at the well, no matter what time of day it is. It will most likely not be convenient for us. It will most likely not be comfortable for us. It will most likely not be uncomplicated for us. But it is necessary for us.
Because how many people in our world today are in the same predicament as the Samaritan woman? How many people refuse to love themselves because of one choice or a series of choices they have made? How many people cannot see beyond the hopelessness of their current situation to consider the possibilities of salvation and grace? How many people are rejected by those around them, including their families, because of disagreements of traditional ideologies and religious stigmas?
How many people wake up each day knowing they must first deal with, and most likely be unsuccessful at, managing the prejudice toward them from people who refuse to get to know them? People who look at a circumstance – such as the Samaritan woman loving and losing repeatedly – and come to the “unfavorable opinion or feeling … without knowledge, thought, or reason” (Wagner) of who she is and without asking questions about her circumstances. People who know their version of truth is the undeniable and inarguable standard by which you should live your life – and who “are happy to be hostile toward [you] because [you are] a competitor to them over the scarce resource of what is true, what is right, what is clear” (Cleveland).
They need us to show them grace is available, no matter what your history is. They need us to show them that God is reliable in His goodness. They need us to show them forgiveness is attainable. And it starts by us seeing them. Because if I look the other way, avoid them, and refuse to speak to or about them – “if I am blinded by hostility, if I am blinded by fear, if I cannot see past the ambiguity that I’m faced with, how am I possibly going to be able to see God in the people I have labeled an enemy? What can I learn?” (Cleveland)
Considering all these things, I am challenged to find the Samaritan woman in my life. I am now called upon to open my eyes, once blinded by social construct; open my heart, once guided by cultural stigmas and stereotypes; and open my mind, once focused on homeostasis. To recognize her as someone uniquely created by God with great purpose and inherent dignity, so that I can call her my spiritual sister and pull her into the inclusive ingroup of people known as followers of Jesus. To live by the only gold standard that matters, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34). Love, as God loves, considers the possibilities and purposes in the heart while redeeming the past and the persona that have diluted value and distorted identity. Love is the only thing powerful enough to help a Samaritan woman, caught in the prejudices and biases of those who judge her without knowledge, consider a life of new hope, new possibilities, and a new future. Love is the most powerful opportunity to create diversity and acceptance in the world around you, so choose to love – on purpose, with the purpose of finding the Samaritan woman.
Biblical Position Paper
Alexander, David and Pat. “Eerdmans Handbook to the Bible.” “West Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1983.
Cleveland, Christena. “Live out of Love, Not Fear.” https://youtu.be/orqM3kYLE4o
Life Application Study Bible: New American Standard Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan: 1995.
Wagner, Todd and Rick Smith. “What is the Biblical Response to #BlackLivesMatter?” https://youtu.be/RYMH_lRJE8Q