ColumnsSunday’s Word

The woman at the well

March 15, 2020


Ex 17:3-7

The grumbling at Massah

Ps 95:1-2, 6-9

If today you hear his voice …

Rom 5:1-2, 5-8

Hope does not disappoint

Jn 4:5-42

The woman at the well


Many things can be said about the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. Here are three.

First, it has dramatic, even cinematic, qualities. First of all, distinct scenes are marked out, as the action unfolds. In addition, there are the “stage sets,” with a foreground and a background. The well is in the foreground, where the action takes place. But we are also told about what is happening in the distant city.

Raymond Brown, in his landmark commentary, has laid out the stages of the drama. He marks the scenes and the sub-scenes. He notes that Jesus announces his agenda for the encounter beforehand — “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (4:10). The drama unfolds accordingly. At the end of the first scene, the woman asks for that water (4:15). At the end of the second scene, she learns Jesus’ identity (4:26).

Brown’s point can be expanded, for the woman also has an agenda for the discussion — “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan [and a] woman, for a drink?” (4:9) Her issues too are addressed. First, they discuss the question of the Samaritans (4:12). And then Jesus, sensitive to her second point about a Jew talking in public with a woman, invites her to go call her husband (4:16). But by now she is committed to the exchange, and she decides to continue on her own.

Sandra Schneiders, the renowned John scholar and former student of Raymond Brown, has pointed to the symbolic aspect of this story. When the woman denies having a husband, Jesus replies that she has had five husbands. This includes a reference to the history of Samaria, with the woman in the story representing that territory. In the account of the fall of the Northern Kingdom, we hear about the conquering emperor of Assyria dispersing the Israelite population and replacing it with people from various other conquered territories — “The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and settled them in the cities of Samaria in place of the Israelites” (2 Kings 17:24). This larger horizon is also a part of John’s story of the Samaritan.

Apart from the drama, other sides of the story worth mentioning include the role of the woman. Schneiders has written about this also. John’s Gospel frequently features women in prominent positions. Here we see a woman return to the town and offer the opinion that this person she met at the well might be the Christ. The townspeople picked up on this, and many were converted. Their final proclamation: Truly Jesus is “the savior of the world” (4:42).

In this role as missionary and witness, the woman reminds us of Mary Magdalen, who had a similar role in the Easter story (John 20:1-2, 11-18). Here women adopt the role of apostles, witnesses to Jesus and his resurrection.

A third point to be made concerns the “foreignness” of the locale. This is neither Jerusalem not Galilee, the two main locations in the Gospel. Sites beyond this are hinted at, but never fully presented. Thus the “Greeks” of the Jewish diaspora are mentioned briefly (7:35; 12:20). And it is certain that this Gospel was written and preached in the diaspora, among Jewish followers of Jesus. Furthermore, Jesus is called “Light of the World” (8:12; 9:5). And the prologue of the Gospel presents Jesus in a cosmic role as the word present at creation and entering the world (1:1, 14). But it is in this story that the larger meaning of Jesus’ mission is presented explicitly, in a compelling story.

For reflection: Jesus’ mission reaches beyond expected borders.

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.