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Rescued from shame

Written by Nicky Geldard  | 
 
 
In the heat of the day she could literally see the sun’s intensity – it rippled and shimmered in the air, beckoning her beyond the relative comfort of the shade. A sigh escaped her as she lifted her water pouch and steeled herself to step into the light. She had done all the chores she could, but now she needed water to complete the day’s tasks. At least the scorching desert-land sun was preferable to the burning of her neighbours’ stares and the heat that spread across her face when she overheard their whispers.
 
Darting from shadow to shade, she made her way down to Jacob’s well at the foot of Mount Gerizim. None of the other women would be there at this hour.[1] A traveler or two may be seeking relief from the noonday sun, but at least they wouldn’t speak to her.[2] Sure enough, as she approached the well, she noted a lone Jewish rabbi sitting there.[3] Relief flooded her. She would be able to draw the water without fear of engagement. Yes, he was in Samaria - on her turf so to speak - but this wouldn’t stop the Jew from regarding her as unclean and a heretic.[4] In fact, as a rabbi, he would no doubt view her as permanently tarnished.[5] She was a Samaritan and she was a woman. Two reasons for him to ignore her approach to the well.
 
Lifting her camel-skin water pouch[6], she took a deep breath and stepped out into the full glare of the sun. Attaching it to the rope that dropped into the depths below, she was startled when the rabbi asked, “Will you give me a drink?”[7] Glancing up, she furtively looked around. Surely he couldn’t be talking to her. But…there was no one else in sight. Her reply was incredulous, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?”[8]
 
It was not an unreasonable question. Unlike the Jews, Samaritans formally educated both male and female children on matters of religion.[9]  So she knew their relationship with the Jews was a sore point. Betrayal, desecration, and murder peppered the past. It was an ancient feud and one that could not be overlooked or ignored.
 
The Samaritans had a murky lineage – believing themselves to be descended from Israel’s ten northern tribes, intermarriage and pagan practices had diluted the bloodline.[10] The Jews, on the other hand, flaunted their position as the ‘chosen ones’ and looked with disgust on their neighbours.[11] 
 
This hatred for one another spilled over in 128 BC when the Jews destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. Memory is long in Palestine and the Samaritans had their revenge, desecrating the Jewish temple by scattering bones in its precincts during Passover (A.D. 6-7).[12]
 
There was at least one prominent Jew who spread the view that, “He who eats the bread of a Samaritan is like one who eats the flesh of swine.”[13] And just to ensure Samaritan women knew their place, it was a commonly held assumption that the spittle of a Samaritan woman was unclean.[14] 
 
Her question was a fair one.
 
Noting that he had nothing in which to draw water himself,[15] she was even more stunned. The rabbi was prepared to drink from her camel skin. Her camel skin. Who was this man? A man who did not withdraw from the well as custom demanded.[16] A man who spoke to her, a woman and a Samaritan. And a man who was prepared to drink from her camel skin, when every other Jew would have shuddered at the mere thought. Was he crazy? Was he hoping for something more from her?
 
Before she had time to collect herself, he spoke again, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
 
Staring down into the darkness of the well, the woman sighed. It was an impressive accomplishment. The narrow opening was dug though limestone and nobody knew its depth.[17] What she did know however, was that this was a “nonliving” well.[18] Living water moved and sparkled and had a life all its own. Being a well, this water was useful but it didn’t dance in the sunlight, it didn’t flow all around you, instead it sat at the bottom of a dark hole, waiting to be brought into the light.
 
The rabbi said he had access to living water – but how? She felt a faint flush of irritation creep up her spine. He was talking in riddles. “Kyrie[19],” acknowledging his superiority, she addressed him appropriately.[20] “You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?”[21]
 
Ignoring her jibe regarding their common ancestor, the rabbi met her eye. She held his gaze for a moment and then looked away, somewhat confused. But his voice caused her to look up again, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”[22]
 
In spite of herself, a flash of hope sparked in her heart as she heard these words. Imagine not having to come to the well each day! Imagine not having to face her neighbours! Imagine not having to worry about their whispers and their stares! She almost forgot herself in her eagerness to be free from her daily anxiety, “Kyrie, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”[23]
 
“Go, call your husband and come back.”[24]
 
Oh!
 
The hope that had budded was crushed before it had even begun to bloom. How did he know? What did he know? The colour drained from her face and she dropped her eyes. “I have no husband.”
 
“You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is,” the rabbi’s gentle voice washed over her, “you have had five husbands, and the man you now live with is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
 
There it was. The reason she avoided the well. The truth behind her neighbours’ murmurings. Her shame lay exposed in the noonday heat by a Jewish rabbi. She wanted to hide in the depths of the well. Oh, if he would just let her crawl into the nonliving waters where her dead heart would feel at home.
 
Culturally, it was assumed that she had done something wrong to bring this misfortune on herself. It didn’t matter if a husband had died or if this succession of marriages was due to trivial divorces.[25] She was to blame. And she felt the sting with every fiber of her being.
 
Divorce was solely the male prerogative. And depending on whose teaching a man prescribed to, it could be put in motion by something as serious as adultery or as frivolous as burning the bread.[26] 
 
The rabbi had named her deepest shame.
 
Gasping, as though she had been punched in the stomach, she acknowledged, “Kyrie, I can see that you are a prophet.” She may have been trying to change the subject, but her next question could be interpreted as a cry for help, “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place we must worship is in Jerusalem.”[27]
 
In other words, her heart called out, “Where can I go for healing? Where is the mercy seat for this, my darkest secret, my deepest pain? Is it here or is it in Jerusalem?”[28]
 
“Woman,” she could hear the compassion in his voice, “Believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.”[29]
 
Here her heart faltered. Would she never be free?
 
“You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know; for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come,” his smile reached her heart, “when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”[30]
 
She couldn’t deny it, yet she couldn’t name it, what was this feeling bubbling inside her? “I know that Taheb (Messiah) is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”[31]
 
Like the Jews, she and all Samaritans expected a Messiah. Moses was held up as a true prophet and it was believed that, one day, another prophet would arise to teach and reveal.[32] This Messianic prophet was described as the Taheb or “Restorer”.[33]
 
And didn’t she long for him? The Almighty knew she needed a Restorer. Someone to mend her broken heart, someone to wash away her shame, someone to take her to the mercy seat.
Then the rabbi spoke the words first uttered to the great prophet, Moses himself, at the burning bush: “I, the one speaking to you – I am he.”[34] 
 
Can you feel her relief? Can you see her dead heart begin to beat again? Can you hear the living water bubble out of her? The Restorer had come. The great I AM had met her at noonday at the local well.
 
This story gives me chills because of Jesus’ intent. Instead of avoiding Samaria, like all pious Jews, he intentionally walked into a Samaritan village.[35] All twelve disciples were then sent to find food for, well, thirteen (see John 4:8); it seems like an abundance of hands to fetch a few provisions. Jesus’ lone encounter with the Samaritan woman was thus ensured.
 
He broke down racial and gender barriers by speaking to her. His willingness to drink from her water pouch signaled his disregard of surface social mores and his complete acceptance of her. And then he talked, really talked, to her. They discussed practicalities, theology, ancestors, and then he dropped a bomb. He named her shame. But not to embarrass or belittle her. He illuminated her dead heart and offered her living water in its place.
 
As Colleen Mitchell says, “Life cannot spring from death, and our Jesus cares about our slowly dying souls more than he cares about our public appearance. He wants to heal us not only from the outside shame that keeps us baking in the public glare, but from the deep, personal shame that keeps us gingerly sidestepping our real wounds while we wither within.”[36]
 
Moses was, for the Samaritans, the penultimate prophet. Instead of disputing points of religious difference though, Jesus revealed himself as the long-awaited Messiah, the Taheb, the Restorer. He met her where she was at and offered her what she needed. It was a personal encounter. Set-up by the Divine to accomplish the Divine. For if you read on, you will see that this woman was instrumental in many coming to faith.[37]
 
This is not narcissist theology. This is not a focus on the importance of the individual. As you read the book of John you will see a revelation of who Jesus is. So, this story is about his heart for people – it’s a story about his heart for a person. A woman: shamed, shunned and disregarded. He came to rescue her. He came to give her living water. He came to restore her.
 
As you reflect on his heart for her, may you also understand his heart for you. You may not believe it, but he sees you. He sees your struggle, your heartache; he sees your shame. And instead of running in the other direction, he intentionally seeks you out in the lonely places. He came to find you, he came to give you life, he came to restore you.
 
Courage, beloved of God, his love for you is personal and, like the woman at the well, he wants you to bubble over with that assurance.
 
 
 
 
 

[1] Keener, as quoted in Luter and McReynolds, Women as Christ’s Disciples
[2] Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes
[3] John 4:6
[4] Schubert, 101 Questions and Answers on Women in the New Testament
[5] Thurston, Women in the New Testament, Questions and Commentary
[6] McLelland, Women and Jesus in the First Century and Now, Podcast 3
[7] John 4:7
[8] John 4:9
[9] Thurston, Women in the New Testament, Questions and Commentary
[10] Archaeological Study Bible
[11] Luter and McReynolds
[12] The Baker Illustrated Bible Handbook
[13] McLelland
[14] McLelland
[15] John 4:11
[16] Bailey
[17] The well has an opening of 1.3 metres and, in 1935, the well was cleaned out and found to be 42 metres deep. Archaeological Study Bible
[18] Schubert
[19] 'Kyrie' is a Greek term used to acknowledge a man of superior class as well as a word Christians use to the one they acknowledge as Lord. The Samaritan woman was been polite, while on a deeper level, calling Jesus ‘Lord’.
[20] King, Whispers of Liberation
[21] John 4:11-12
[22] John 4:13
[23] John 4:15
[24] John 4:16
[25] Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible
[26] McLelland
[27] John 4:20
[28] Newbigin, Light Has Come
[29] John 4:21
[30] John 4:22-24
[31] John 4:25
[32] Bailey
[33] Archaeological Study Bible
[34] John 4:26
[35] Bailey
[36] Mitchell, Who Does He Say You Are? Women Transformed by Christ in the Gospels
[37] John 4:39-42

Posted by Nicky Geldard

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