The story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well found in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel is a powerful story of conversion. It is a story that works on many levels.
On the surface, there is an encounter between a weary traveler and a lonely woman. The traveler begins a conversation with the woman by asking for a drink. Through their conversation, the woman is changed. She returns to her village sharing the excitement of this powerful encounter.
On a cultural level, the encounter is one of breaking through prejudice. Jesus is a Jewish man. As a man, he would not enter into a conversation with an unaccompanied woman. Relationships between men and women were strictly regulated. According to cultural traditions, Jesus should not have addressed a woman he did not know in a public place. Yet, that is exactly what he does.
Even more astonishing is that Jesus addresses a Samaritan. In Jesus’ world, Jews and Samaritans had a long history of animosity (see Ezra 9-10). Samaritans were detested by Jews even more than pagans. If Jesus were to speak to a Samaritan according to the customs of his time, his words should have been insulting. Yet, Jesus responds differently.
Finally, the woman is described as having had five husbands. She comes to the well in the middle of the day. Most women in her day would have gone to the well in the cool of the morning. The well was a place for building community and the women would talk and share stories while gathering the day’s water. The Samaritan woman avoids the society of other women by coming in the middle of the day. Perhaps the woman was ashamed of her past (the five husbands) or perhaps the other women had shunned her. Regardless, she comes to the well alone, most likely because of a scandal, perceived or real. Jesus would have easily put this information together. Yet he reaches out to the woman and invites her to conversation.
Ultimately, on a cultural level, we discover that Jesus is not bound by the customs and traditions of his time. His vision is broader and deeper than any culture bound values. “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (Jn. 4:21).
The words Jesus speaks are important and move us to another level, even deeper than the cultural level… the spiritual level.
Jesus initiates the conversation. He is waiting for the woman at the well. God is always waiting for us. This meeting is not accidental; it has a divine purpose. Jesus loves her before she even arrives at the well. He desires her from the depths of his heart. His first words to the woman are “Give me a drink” (Jn. 4:7). His thirst is not simply a desire for water; it is a thirst for her soul. These words open up a spiritual conversation.
I believe that what John records in his Gospel is a bare bones outline of what actually transpired. As the biblical scholar William Barclay notes,
Now it is certain that all we have here is the briefest possible report of what must have been a long conversation. Clearly there was much more to this meeting than is recorded here. If we may use an analogy, this is like the minutes of a committee meeting where we have only the salient points of the discussion recorded (Daily Study Bible, John vol. 1).
Whatever the details, this conversation has a clear progression as the woman reveals more and more of herself and discovers more and more about Jesus. She begins by confronting Jesus with his cultural limitations, “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (Jn. 4:9). She sees all the boundaries between them. However, she soon moves beyond those limitations. She next addresses Jesus as “Sir” (Jn. 4:11), a respectful form of address. She is beginning to recognize Jesus’ wisdom as she converses with him. He is no longer an enemy but a respected teacher. As she reveals more about herself and trusts Jesus more, she dares to ask the question: Could Jesus possibly be the Messiah? Jesus clearly states that he is.
The woman has discovered what she has been looking for her entire life. She leaves to share this good news with her friends. She has found the source of life, the fountain of living water, that wells up to eternal life (Jn. 4:13-15).
This simple story of one woman’s conversion teaches us a lot about the dynamics of grace in our soul.