This is a reflection on the story of Jesus speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well from the woman’s perspective. I have taken a fair amount of licence in imagining a background for her, and incorporated various commentators’ opinions about her.
“I had never really thought my life would amount to much, or that anyone would ever really listen to what I said. Well, when you are the youngest of 5 sisters, with no brothers to help in the upkeep of the family, you are at the end of the queue for most things in life, not least in the ‘getting a good husband stakes’. I had always been dressed in hand-me-downs, and was constantly being told by my sisters (you know what they’re like!) that I was the least attractive of all of them, and no good-looking man would ever take a second look at me. And if you never hear anything nice said about you, you tend not to have a very high opinion of yourself.
Being brought up in a poor family in the town of Sychar did nothing to add to my prospects. OK so it might be on the direct route from Judea to Galilee, but no self-respecting Jew ever took that route, as it meant coming through Samaria, and most Jews would avoid that at all costs. To them, we Samaritans were a despised race, and they would never touch so much as a cup used by us to drink from, as that made them ritually unclean, according to their laws.
As I said, I was at the end of the queue for husbands, so when my father died, I had to find myself some means of support, and fast. So I wasn’t too fussy which men I let look after me, in order to avoid starvation. Unfortunately, one or two of them were actually another woman’s husband at the time they were paying attention to me. I was very discreet of course, or so I thought, but somehow, I always felt that people knew and were talking about me. Of course the favourite place for all the local gossip to be exchanged was around the well, when the women went to draw the water their families needed. So, not wanting to be mocked and sneered at, as I seemed to have been all my life, I had got into the habit of going to the well at a time when I knew none of the other women would be there.
I didn’t think that this day would be different from any other day. It was just the usual drudge of carrying the heavy water jar up to the well, drawing up the water and then carrying an even heavier jar back home again. But when I got to the well, there was a man sitting there looking rather tired and dusty. I could tell from his clothes that he was a Jew. That in itself was surprising. But there was no one more surprised than me when he began talking to me. I mean a Jewish man talking to me, in public – a woman, and a Samaritan woman at that!
He asked me to give him a drink of water. Well I couldn’t stop myself – the words just came tumbling out; I didn’t mean to be rude. I said to him “But you are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman! How can you ask me for a drink?”
His reply completely confused me. “If you knew the gift of God and who it is asking you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” Well why would I ask a man for a drink of water? Everyone knew getting the water was women’s work. So I pointed out the obvious to him. He didn’t have anything to draw water with and the well was deep, so how could he possibly give me water? And anyway, I wondered, what did he mean by ‘living water’? We knew that this well was Jacob’s well and that Jacob, our ancestor was a great man. He had drunk from the well himself and watered his flocks and herds here, but that didn’t look to be the case with this stranger.
He told me that everyone that drank the water from the well would be thirsty again. Didn’t I know that only too well, from my frequent trips here for water! Then he said that anyone who drank the water that he gave them would never be thirsty again, but the water would become a spring of water welling up to eternal life. Well I definitely wanted some of that water, if it meant no more trips to the well! “Please, sir, give me some of that water,” I said.
Then he completely changed the subject, and told me to go and call my husband and come back. Oh dear he was just like everyone else wasn’t he? I had to confess that I didn’t have a husband. And now here comes the mockery and the snide remarks, as usual, I thought. I sighed. I was so used to having to cover up what was happening in my life. Why did the conversation have to go and get complicated? “You are right,” he told me. “You have had five husbands and the man you are with now is not your husband.”
How on earth could he have known anything about me? I hadn’t seen him in the town talking to anyone, so he couldn’t have found out that way. He seemed to be a perfect stranger here, and yet he knew all about me!
Now was a perfect time for another change of subject I thought. So I started on the subject of where we should worship God. That has been a major bone of contention between us and the Jews for centuries, so that should distract him from my private life! The Jews contended that the only place of true worship of God was in Jerusalem, whereas we Samaritans said that we could worship God on Mount Gerazim. I hoped that it would not all get too technical, because as a woman of course, I had only the vaguest idea what the argument about worship was really all about. I know that the men spent hours at a time discussing topics like this, but from what I had heard, they never seemed to be any further forward by the end of their so-called discussions! I would never be able to hold my end up in any theological discussion like that.
Fortunately, this man, who I now felt must be some kind of prophet, from the way he spoke about these things, seemed in no mood for a long argument about the relative merits of Jerusalem or Mount Gerazim. He told me that a time was coming when we would worship the Father neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem. How did he work that one out? What was going to happen to set that argument to rest? He went on to explain that we Samaritans worshipped what we don’t know, whereas the Jews worshipped what they do know. This was getting more complicated all the time!
“Salvation is from the Jews,” he said. Well of course a Jew would say that! But weren’t we Samaritans also looking forward to a Messiah who would come to save us? “The time is coming, in fact is come,” he went on, “when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. God is spirit and must be worshipped in spirit and truth” he said.
I told him that I knew that the Messiah was coming, and that when he did, he would explain all things to us. And then he said the most startling thing I had ever heard. “I who speak to you am he.” He said that he was the Messiah – and there was I standing talking to him! Was I dreaming this, or was it really happening? Would the Messiah really ever want to speak to someone like me? Surely he would only want to talk to learnèd people like the priests, or the Jewish Pharisees; certainly not to a mere Samaritan woman!
Just at this point, a group of men came up to him. Like him they were Jews, and seemed to be his disciples. You could see that they were surprised to see him talking to me, but none of them said a word. I don’t think it was because they accepted me, but they obviously didn’t want to question what he was doing. Seemingly if he thought it was OK to talk to me, he expected them to accept it, but I could tell from the looks on their faces what they were thinking.
While they were talking to him, I was processing in my mind what he had said to me, and realised that he really had told me, in as many words, that he was the long-awaited Messiah! I was not dreaming this. That was how he knew all about me, because Messiah would know everything about everybody wouldn’t he? Well I couldn’t let this pass. I knew in my heart that something in me had changed just by talking to him, and the mere fact that he had talked to me made him different. I had to go and tell my people about him, I just couldn’t keep it to myself; but I wanted to hear more of what he had to say. No one had ever made me feel this way before.
So off I set back to the town to tell the people there what had just happened. The Messiah was here in Samaria and just outside our town of Sychar. Without another thought, I left my water jar where it was and hurried back to the town. I hoped that in the meantime, he would not move on and not be there when I brought people back to see him. They would never believe me if they didn’t see him with their own eyes, would they? After all his disciples didn’t seem to be too happy to be there.
“Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did! He couldn’t be the Messiah that we are expecting could he?” I called out to everyone I saw. I knew that they would mutter under their breath, that they had a fair idea too what I had been doing! But I told them that he had said that he was the Messiah, and urged them to come and see for themselves. When I said the word Messiah, that really got people interested in what I was saying, and for once I was the centre of attention for the right reason! Of course, being a mere woman, the men wouldn’t accept what I said without seeing and hearing for themselves; my opinion counted for nothing. Everyone wanted to be able to see the Messiah, so it seemed like the town emptied and everyone followed me back to the well. A few people had seen his disciples when they came into the town to buy food. (If Jews were hungry enough, they would get over their objection to having anything to do with Samaritans and buy food from us! So of course we made the most of this.)
When I got back there, he was still sitting by the well talking to his disciples. He was telling them that the fields were ripe for harvest, and the reaper was harvesting the crop for eternal life. The townsfolk wanted to hear more of what he had to say to them, particularly because he didn’t seem to say it in a condescending way, like most Jews if they ever talked to Samaritans. They urged him to stay with us in our town, so that all who wanted to could hear what he had to say. He agreed, and he and his disciples stayed with us for two whole days.
His teaching was certainly different. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,” he said. That wasn’t what we thought the Messiah would say. “The first shall be last and the last first. Love your enemies.” They were radical words, but the more we heard him speak, the more sense it made. He – the Messiah – had come to save all who would believe in him. That included Samaritans, if we believed what he said, and had faith. This was good news indeed for us.
The people of the town told me they were glad that I had told them about this man, who they now believed in as the Messiah, not just because of what I had said to them, but because of what he taught them. They saw and heard for themselves what he was like and what his message was – one of salvation, through repentance for sins and believing in him. Many people in the town changed a lot because of talking to him and believing in him. We couldn’t get over the fact that the Messiah had taken time to talk to us, particularly because it seemed that the Jews thought that the Messiah was only coming to save the Jews, as they were God’s chosen people, and that therefore we Samaritans would be left out.
I didn’t realise until then that all my life I had been looking for something to fill a deep longing in my soul. Of course I had always observed all the rituals of our worship, but that had never really been enough for me. I thought there should be something more - worship should mean more on a personal level. Now that I had talked with the Messiah, and believed what he had to say about a new way of living your life, I took stock and repented of my previous way of living. I didn’t quite know what would become of me, but Messiah had told us that if we believed in him and truly repented, God would care for us if we trusted him.
Whatever happened in the future, I knew that my life would never be the same because I had met the Messiah and believed in him. Because so many of my neighbours also believed what he told them about his kingdom way of living, they seemed to be more accepting of me and now, for the first time in my life, I felt whole. Because of what Messiah had said about loving your neighbour, and forgiving people, they treated me as one of them. He had said that all were sinners in need of repentance and forgiveness, which meant that all those who had accepted what he had taught were in the same position as I was – they had been forgiven by the Messiah, so I was really no different from them. I now felt that I belonged, and that my life was actually worth something. It had given me, and the people of the town a new meaning to our lives. I thank God that the Messiah took time to talk to me that day.”
Palm Sunday reflection
John 12 v12-19
This reflection is written from the point of view of Matthew, looking back over events leading up to the crucifixion, including the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, with the benefit of having seen and spoken with Jesus after the resurrection.
“What a wonderful thing hindsight is! As I was witnessing the miracles that Jesus was performing, and hearing His teaching, I didn’t really understand the full significance of everything He said and did. It had taken me a while to absorb the fact that Jesus had chosen me to be one of His inner circle of disciples. Me - a tax collector; someone who, although Jewish, was hated by my own people, because I was working for the Roman occupiers of our land, collecting the taxes for them. And I confess that, like my fellow tax collectors, I had made quite a nice living on the side, by extracting more money from people than I actually paid over to the Romans.
When Jesus came by me it was as though He knew everything I had ever done, but still He chose to tell me to follow Him. I knew in my heart that He had forgiven me and that He was different from other teachers that I had heard in the past, going around with their hangers-on and false promises. Of course I had been brought up learning the Torah and knew all the prophesies about the Messiah that was to come to save Israel, but at the time I didn’t really appreciate that the Jesus I was following was that person. I guess like everyone else I thought that the Messiah was going to be an earthly King who would set up his kingdom and challenge and defeat the Romans and get them out of our country. Although I might well have been out of a job if that were the case!
Jesus certainly upset the priests and the Pharisees by His teaching. I mean, take for example when we went up to Jerusalem with Him for the Feast of Dedication. When he was in the Temple area the Jews there asked Him outright to tell them if He was the Christ. When He replied, He said that had already told them, but they did not believe Him because they were not His sheep. He had shown them His power by the many miracles He had done, but still they questioned who He was. So He had said plainly “I and the Father are one.” I really thought that they would do away with Him then and there, as they picked up stones ready to stone Him for blasphemy. He seemed to be almost taunting them by continuing to say “I am God’s Son.” But somehow He managed to escape before they started throwing the stones.
We went with Him back across the Jordan, and hundreds flocked to see Him healing people and to hear Him teach, and lots of them seemed to believe what He was saying. Then He heard that His friend Lazarus was gravely ill; he lived in Bethany with his sisters Mary and Martha. Strangely, Jesus didn’t go straight away to see Lazarus, even though we all knew that He could heal Him. Then 2 days later, Jesus announced that He was going back to Judea. We tried to persuade Him not to go there – I mean it was asking for trouble wasn’t it? He had only just escaped being stoned there.
Jesus told us that Lazarus was asleep and He was going to wake Him up. We didn’t understand then that He meant that Lazarus had died and He was going to raise him from the dead. When we got to Bethany, there were crowds of Jews with Mary and Martha, weeping with them as is the custom. Both of them said to Jesus that if He had come sooner, their brother Lazarus would not have died. Like us they could not understand why He had delayed. But Jesus told them that if they believed, they would see the glory of God. Jesus then prayed out loud to His Father, that He would hear Him, and said that this was for the benefit of all the people there, so that they would believe that God had sent Him. After that He called to Lazarus, and Lazarus walked out of the tomb, with the grave clothes still on him.
Well you can imagine the gasps that went around the crowd, many of whom I had come to recognise because they kept following Jesus wherever He went. Because of this many people said that they believed in Jesus, and went about spreading the word about what had happened, but of course this really upset the chief priests and the Pharisees, so we had to go well away from Jerusalem to avoid the Jewish authorities. We stayed there until just before the time for the Passover.
We didn’t really want Jesus to go to Jerusalem for the Passover feast; it was obvious that now the chief priests were really going to move against Him. However, Jesus went back to Bethany and visited Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Of course, as soon as the local people found out that Jesus was in their town, they flocked to see Him, probably thinking they would see more miracles.
The next day, the word seemed to have got around that Jesus was going up to Jerusalem for the Passover. Somehow or other, Jesus must have arranged to borrow a young donkey from someone. Instead of walking like He usually did, Jesus got onto the colt and rode it into Jerusalem. The crowd went mad and pulled down branches off the palm trees, and threw them onto the ground for the donkey to walk on. Some people even spread their cloaks on the ground. Everyone was calling out “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the King of Israel!” We disciples thought that this was the acclamation that was rightfully His. This was the fulfilment of all that Jesus had been predicting, when He said that He was going to bring in His kingdom. This was definitely the sort of King that we and the crowd were expecting. OK it was a bit of a come-down for a King to be riding on a donkey, when most Kings would have been riding on a powerful horse. But then Jesus always had done the unexpected, so we didn’t pay that much attention to a minor detail. Our fears for Jesus were groundless, weren’t they? The crowd obviously loved Him and were making it clear that they wanted Him to be their King. So after all, everything was going to be alright and we were worrying for nothing, weren’t we?
We really didn’t stop to think what sort of a message this triumphal entry into Jerusalem would be giving to the Romans, or for that matter to Herod, the puppet King of the Jews appointed by the Romans. We were so caught up in the moment and happy that the great crowd was at last giving Jesus the recognition that we thought He deserved and wanted, that we didn’t give too much thought to other ramifications of this procession to Jerusalem. When we came into the city, everyone there was excited and asked who this person was that was accompanied by such a noisy crowd of people. The crowd with us told them that it was Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth, who had raised Lazarus from the tomb.
It was only when we were by ourselves and were in the upper room, ready to celebrate the Passover feast with Jesus, that He once again told us what was going to happen to Him. He told us that one of us would betray Him and that He was going to be killed. We just couldn’t believe that one of the twelve people who were closest to Him - one of us - could possibly betray Him. Why would we, when we had seen how the crowd had acclaimed Him as their King? We all thought that we would willingly lay down our lives for Him rather than let Him be killed. Simon Peter said as much to Jesus, and his reply shocked us all. He said that Peter would disown Him three times before the cock crowed the next day. And of course, He was right. When it came down to the line and Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, we couldn’t even stay awake to keep watch for Him, let alone defend Him from anyone that came. When the soldiers came to arrest Him, we didn’t stand in their way. After all the protestations of support for Jesus, I left just as quickly as the other disciples, afraid of being arrested with Him.
A little later, I did dare to go back to where I heard they had taken Jesus, and from a safe distance, watched what was going on. I watched that mockery of a trial; I let them say all sorts of things about Him which, strangely, He did not challenge. Jesus seemed to be the calmest person there. For all the mocking and taunting, insults and blows they gave Him, He did not answer back. It was as if He was playing out what He knew was His destiny. Of course now that I know what the ultimate outcome was, I can see that was indeed what He was doing.
What I could not understand was the reaction of the crowd, when Pilate asked them who they wanted to be released to them. You know I recognised a lot of the people that I had seen waving palm branches and shouting out the Hosannas when Jesus was riding into Jerusalem. At first I thought that it would be alright, because they had said then that they wanted Jesus as their King, so they would shout out to save Jesus and condemn Barabbas, wouldn’t they? But the chief priests had got their rent-a-mob together and put them among the crowd to stir them up to shout that they wanted to save Barabbas and kill Jesus. I could not believe that a crowd could be so fickle. How could they turn against Jesus so quickly and easily? How could they let Him down like that?
And then I realised that I of course had also let Him down. Had I gone and given testimony for Him to the chief priests? Had I stood up for Him? No, I had run away at the first sign of trouble, and only sneaked back to watch from a safe distance.
Looking back, I see now that Jesus had been telling us all along that His was not an earthly kingdom that would come into being by force. His was God’s kingdom, that was coming on earth. He had told us so many times that He had come to fulfil the prophecies that we knew so well, because they had been drummed into us by our teachers as boys, but at the time I couldn’t see it.
After we had eaten the Passover feast, He had prayed for us and told us that God loved us because we loved Him. He had told us that for a while we would grieve for Him, but that our grief would turn to joy later, when the Counsellor He promised to send came to us. He had told us that we would see Him again, and we did. In a wonderful way we saw Him and talked with Him, when God had raised Him from the dead. Indeed, our grief was turned to joy at seeing Him again. He explained such a lot of things to us, and we could see then that all that had happened had fulfilled the ancient prophesies about the Messiah. Even down to the shouts of the crowd on that triumphant entry into Jerusalem on the donkey. They had shouted out “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” and that is exactly what Jesus did. He came in the name of God who is His Father, and died to carry the sins of the world, so that all who believe in Him can have a relationship with God and have their sins forgiven through Him. That is the message that we disciples are now taking to people, trying to carry on the ministry that Jesus started while He was here on earth. That is the message that will be given to all generations in the future – Jesus Christ, God’s own Son died for your sins, so that you can be saved and have eternal life with Him. Add your praise to that of the children of Jerusalem who shouted out “Hosanna to the Son of David!”; praise the name of Him who saves.”