Today’s Gospel is long and important. There is a shorter Lectionary option, but reading the full narrative of the woman at the well is crucial to understanding her significance. She is an open, engaged recruiter of disciples in Christ, and she is a model for women preachers.
Many of the Samaritans began to believe because of the word of the woman. (Jn 4:39)
How can you promote women in Church leadership?
What can you do to welcome new people into your faith community?
Are you willing to be bold like Christ to overcome discriminatory practices?
Jesus meets an unnamed Samaritan woman at a well. When Jesus requests water from her, she notes the potential impropriety of their interaction. A Jewish man speaking to a Samaritan woman would be scandalous on account of their different religious traditions and sexes. Even Jesus’ disciples note the scandal when they arrive on the scene, “amazed” that Jesus would speak to a woman (Jn 4:27), pushing past the societal boundaries of his time.
Jesus reveals his purpose for requesting water. The water enables him to speak symbolically about himself as “living water” that provides eternal life (Jn 4:10, 14). This exchange serves as an invitation for the woman to believe in Jesus, and she responds with sincerity and openness.
Abruptly, Jesus instructs her to call her husband, and he asserts that she has had five husbands. Some interpreters have criticized this woman as being sexually immoral or a prostitute. Not so. There is certainly no indication of either in the text, and it is important to work against such assumptions, which serve only to diminish this woman by treating her as a source of scandal because of her relationships with men.
The text does not tell us why she has five husbands. Some assume she has been divorced multiple times, so Jesus’ statement could imply that her most recent relationship is illegitimate. However, she could be a widow who married her brothers-in-law, according to the custom called levirate marriage (Dt 25:5-10). She could be a widow who married close kinsmen (Ru 4:1-17).
Whatever the reason, Jesus mentions her husbands not to criticize her but to show that he intimately knows her. Recognizing the significance of Jesus as a prophet, the woman takes the opportunity to discuss differences between Jews and Samaritans. She confidently professes belief in the coming of the Messiah, leading Jesus to reveal his identity to her, saying “I am he, the one speaking with you” (Jn 4:26).
The woman immediately departs, going into the city saying: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Christ?” (Jn 4:29). Her assertion and question prompt people to go find out more about Jesus. Her preaching motivates her community, and many “began to believe in him because of the word of the woman who testified, ‘He told me everything I have done’” (Jn 4:39). After encountering Jesus themselves, the Samaritans invite him to stay with them, and they begin to believe that he is the Messiah.
Today’s Gospel reveals the power of women preachers. Jesus’ invitation to this woman is countercultural and sparks a transformative ministry to the Samaritans. The woman is an example of Christian witness and discipleship, and church leaders should heed the wisdom of the Gospel and the Lectionary which puts this passage at the center of our Lenten journey.