Wells in the ancient Middle East were associated with life and joy and community. Dr. Julye Bidmead points out, “Almost every aspect of daily life in ancient Israel involved water: agriculture, animal husbandry, cooking, personal hygiene, and of course drinking…. Young women typically had the daily chore of drawing water from wells to supply the family household…. Although the primary function of wells in ancient Israel was to supply water for the household, the centralized, open location of wells allowed them to serve as social gathering places. Travelers stopped to water their camels there…. Wells were also places of betrothal scenes. As the young women likely went out to collect water, young men of the village realized that this event gave them a perfect opportunity to socialize with the women away from the watchful eyes of the girls’ fathers and male relatives.”
A trip to the well may have been the highlight of the day for most of the women in the Samaritan city of Sychar, but for one particular woman in town the trip to the well did not seem to be such a delight. Perhaps she did not feel that she fit in with the typical conversation of the married women, and perhaps she tired of the young women flirting with the young men at the well. At least on this day, she shows up at the well at a time when no one other than Jesus is there.
It seems that much of this woman’s life had been filled with sorrow, pain, and rejection. Kendra Haloviak Valentine comments, “Modern western readers typically think of her as a loose woman with a sinful past—because of her five marriages and because, at the time she met Jesus, she was living with a man who was not her husband. However, in the world of Jesus’ day, men decided issues of marriage and divorce, not women. Unlike today, only husbands could get a divorce, abandon their families, and kick out their spouse. Also, in the world of Jesus’ day, women could not survive unless they were attached to a man. After this woman’s first abandonment (through death or divorce), if she did not have a father or brother or adult son who would take her in, she had to attach herself to another man in order to live. Going through this experience five times is tragic beyond words.
“Given the world of Jesus’ day, her story is probably more of a discarded woman with a painful past than of a loose woman with a sinful past…. Since her current living conditions were based on her own survival, she was living with someone who refused to acknowledge his responsibility to her. We should probably see her more as a slave who had to do whatever he wanted than as a secret lover having an affair. She was trying to survive. He should have married her.” (Ministry, January 2014, p. 17-18)
When she arrives at the well and finds a Jewish man sitting there, she expects further rejection, and more pain. There was great animosity between Jews and Samaritans at the time. The strictest Jewish rabbis argued that if the shadow of a Samaritan fell upon a Jewish person, that Samaritan’s shadow would make a person unclean. Moreover the strictest rabbis forbade a rabbi from greeting a woman in public. What might this woman expect to receive from this Jesus at the well that day?
To her amazement, rather than chasing her away, Jesus asks her to draw for him a drink from the well.
What is going on here?
Consider it from this perspective: Each of us has been designed by a loving God in the image of this loving God to love others. Because of that, there is in each of us a capacity for and a leaning toward caring for others. This woman in particular had been trying to give love to others but had experienced rejection over and over again. Five different husbands had died or deserted her. The man she is now living with is not open enough to receive her love to marry her. Jesus knows this woman. He knows that she was made in the image of God with the capacity for and the longing to care for others, and he knows that this God-given longing has been thwarted over and over again. So Jesus begins his interaction with her by asking her to extend to him a kindness, “Give me a drink?”
As the conversation continues, and as she grows interested in the living water Jesus speaks of, Jesus asks about her husband.
Why does Jesus poke at that sensitive spot—that ache in her heart?
Jesus wanted her to know that he knew her for who she truly was. Darrell Johnson explains, “Had she returned to her village without Jesus bringing up the husband problem, she would have wondered if he would have bothered with her had he known who she was. ‘Go call your husband’ is Jesus’ way of saying, ‘Woman, I am offering the gift of living water to you—to the real you. I know who you are.’”
There is something deeply life-giving in finding someone who loves you as you truly are. That’s what this woman found in Jesus. That was the beginning of the life-giving water that was beginning to gush up in her soul. For this, she rushed back to town to tell everyone what she had experienced.