It is most unlikely that the Jesus of history ever went into Samaria during his earthly ministry. This story is most likely rooted in the Johannine community's successful Samaritan mission recast into the life of Jesus. It also suggests that the initial evangelist to Samaria was a woman. This story is theologically charged with the idea that Jesus is the true bridegroom of a New Israel; it is a Christian application of the old prophetic images of Israel as God's bride and idolatry as sexual impropriety. The conclusion in which the Samaritan townspersons tell the woman that they now have a personal experience of Jesus and no longer need her testimony to foster their belief does not suggest her proclamation defective; it indicates that faith for all Christians is sustained by personal connections with Christ. –– Regina Boisclair
Rather than assuming the woman at the well at noon is there during the day to avoid others because she has shame in the community, recent scholars have surmised that this story sets her in contrast to Nicodemus, the one who stealthily approached Jesus in the darkness. Unlike Nicodemus, this woman comes in daylight and ends up transforming her community because of Jesus’ relationship with her.
Setting this event at Jacob's well recapitulates the stories in Genesis in which the patriarchs encountered brides at wells. While Jacob's well was the most significant well in ancient Israel, it was located in Samaritan territory. John's Jesus has already challenged the temple authorities; he is now positioned to challenge Samaritan schismatics. . . .
More recently feminist scholars and others have noted that the five husbands likely refers to the gods of the tribes resettled in that area by the Assyrians (2 Kings 17:13–34), and that Samaria's current devotion to Yahweh was defective in that it was not wholly aligned with the covenant of the Jews. While Jesus asserts that salvation will be derived through the Jews, he also asserts that neither Jerusalem nor Gerizim will set authoritative understandings for those who worship God in Spirit and truth. –– Regina Boisclair
Sandra Schneiders suggests in The Revelatory Text (Liturgical Press, 1999, pgs 186-194) that this reading might inspire Christians during Lent to really think about our own idolatries and be challenged to speak of our relationship with Jesus.
This week's story from Exodus (wilderness complaining) helps to illuminate our penchant for individualism. In the end it seems to come down to a question of self-worth or, perhaps more accurately, self-doubt. The Israelites are running from the most powerful empire in the world. . . .
Thirst, however, is a powerful stimulant and it awakens the demons of self-doubt. Now that God has figured out we are nobody, God will leave us with nothing. Better make our way as best we can, assessing the means for survival in a world that offers no free lunch. . . . We fall back on our own resources, pitiful though they may be, and try to imagine that we are worth something after all. Meanwhile, God waits patiently with buckets of water ready to rain down upon our heads as soon as we remember that we matter. –– Jennifer Copeland
Paul has some interesting comments to make about suffering that might lead one to believe that suffering is essential to Christianity. Clearly, however, we do not suffer because we are Christians in the same way that we train because we are athletes or practice because we are musicians. Christians face adversity because our way of being in the world often runs contrary to the ways of the world. Sometimes this adversity achieves the status of suffering. . . We do not suffer in order to be saved. Paul would never make such claim! –– Jennifer Copeland
Jennifer Copeland, a United Methodist ordained minister, served for 16 years as chaplain at Duke University and as director of the Duke Wesley Fellowship. She is currently executive director at North Carolina Council of Churches in Raleigh-Durham.
Regina Boisclair, a Roman Catholic biblical scholar, teaches at Alaska Pacific University, Anchorage, Alaska.
Homily Service 41, no. 2 (2007): 42-53.