I love a good love story. My current favorite is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, a series of several novels detailing a story about a woman who travels through time from 1946 to 1743 and ends up meeting the love of her life, marrying him, and staying in the 1700s. Well, sort of. There are lots of twists and turns to this story, including the heroine traveling back to the 20th century and living there for about 20 years before returning back to the 1700s. And Gabaldon has not finished the story of this couple yet—she is working even now on the next novel in the series. But whenever she ends the series, I expect that, no matter what else happens, the couple will live happily ever after. And when you write a novel in the romance genre, people who are reading it, no matter what the novel is, expect certain things to happen: First of all, the man and the woman meet. The way they meet doesn’t always have to be the same, but it needs to be some kind of memorable meeting, something to get the reader invested in the story. Then, there is the initial attraction to one another and a declaration of love. But then, problems arise that separate the couple: often, one person finds out that the other person is not quite who she thought he was. After the couple surmounts whatever obstacle or obstacles get thrown into their path, however, they again realize how much they love one another. They come together, they work out their differences, misunderstandings are cleared up, and they live happily ever after. This is generally the way love stories in our culture work.
In the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, we have the Jewish version of a love story. Any Jewish person hearing the opening of the story: “Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well,” knows that the next thing that’s going to happen is that a woman is going to come to the well. Think back to the story in Genesis of how Abraham’s servant finds a bride for Isaac: he comes to the well, and Rebekah comes just then and not only offers him water, but also offers to draw water for all of his camels as well. Abraham’s servant knows immediately that Rebekah is going to be Isaac’s wife. Also in Genesis, there is the story of Jacob, fleeing from the murderous rage of his brother Esau. He finally arrives in the land of his mother’s family and comes to a well just as the flocks are arriving to be watered. Upon seeing Rachel coming with her flocks of sheep, Jacob is so taken with her that he single-handedly removes the stone from the mouth of the well and draws water for her flocks. Finally, in the book of Exodus, we see Moses fleeing for his life from Egypt and, arriving at a well in the land of Midian, driving off some shepherds who were preventing Zipporah and her sisters from giving water to their flocks of sheep. And Moses eventually marries Zipporah. So a Jewish audience familiar with these stories is going to expect that Jesus sitting at a well is going to be the beginning of a love story for Jesus.
But this love story, while following the convention of the couple meeting at a well, is going to have some unexpected twists. Like the men in the Old Testament stories, Jesus comes as an outsider, a stranger, to the well. But the woman who comes to meet him is not the expected beautiful young maiden. Instead, she is a Samaritan, a member of a group of people that the Jewish people had a deep-rooted hatred for. And so, when Jesus asks her for a drink, instead of immediately showing hospitality and offering water for him and for his disciples, too, when they get back from town, she stands there, looks him up and down, and says, “Hold on there, buster. You’re Jewish and I’m Samaritan. And you want me to give you a drink of water?” The convention of the Jewish love story has been thwarted immediately, and we can almost see the original group who heard this story leaning in to see what will happen next.
What follows is a simply amazing conversation. This Samaritan woman knows her history and knows her faith pretty well, and she is able to hold her own in a conversation with the one who will reveal himself to be the long-expected Messiah. Now, we need to stop here a moment and look in some more detail at this unnamed Samaritan woman, because while we may not know a lot about her, what we do know helps us understand this new version of the Jewish love story. In the years before Christ, there were two Jewish kingdoms, the northern one known as Israel and the southern one known as Judah. In the year 722 BC(E), the Assyrian Empire swept in and conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. This Empire carted off many of the people who were living there and repopulated the area with other nationalities. Mixed marriages happened, and so the Samaritans, while tracing their ancestry from Jacob, were not regarded as “pure” Israelites by those who called themselves Jews. Looking at the Samaritan woman, there is also the matter of her five husbands and the one she is living with not being her husband. Interpreters over the years have suggested that means that she is immoral, but that is not the case. Remember that women did not have much of a choice over who they were married to, and men died. Or, men divorced their wives for no good cause. And the man she was living with—well, it was up to him to marry her. She may have had shelter and protection from him, but for whatever reason, he wouldn’t marry her. I imagine this Samaritan woman as one who has lived a difficult life, and who does not respect a man simply because he is a man—he has to earn that respect from her.
But, back to this conversation that this tough woman has with Jesus. The Samaritan woman probably thinks Jesus is a little overcome from the noon heat when he starts talking about living water, but then, when he reveals that he knows about her marital history, her tone changes. She realizes he’s a prophet, so she challenges him on the question of where it is proper to worship. She thinks she’s going to trap Jesus and then be able to dismiss him: if he says it is proper to worship only in Jerusalem, she can say, “But our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, and we share some of those ancestors—were they wrong?” But if Jesus answers that it’s okay to worship God on the mountain, then she can say, “What kind of a Jewish prophet are you, anyway?” But then Jesus gives an answer that gets him out of the trap and keeps the woman interested in talking to him: true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. The place doesn’t matter.
This is enough to throw the woman for a loop, and she defers to the coming of the future Messiah, who will explain everything. And then comes the big reveal: Jesus tells her that he is the Messiah. The one that both the Samaritans and the Jews have been expecting and hoping for. The one who will set all things right. And so, she runs and brings back the rest of her people in the village to hear Jesus, so that they can discover that the Messiah has come. We don’t know all of the things that Jesus said that convinced the people of this Samaritan village. But here is one thing: the Messiah was expected to reunite all of the tribes of Israel, including the ten tribes who were “lost” when Assyria came in and conquered the northern kingdom. And here he is doing it: coming to the Samaritans, whom the Jewish people did not get along with. And so, perhaps this is a love story after all: Jesus coming and uniting himself, not only with his people, but also with those who were not expected to be part of the story. Jesus has come to the well as the bridegroom, and has claimed the Samaritans as a part of his bride.
Jesus loves us, too, as a bridegroom loves his bride. We are Gentiles—in other words, we are not Jewish. And yet, Jesus has come to love us, to make us his bride, to bring us into his family. We are the ones who no one expected to be included in to the Messiah’s family. And, like the Samaritan woman at the well, we often resist at first. We question Jesus and say, “Wait a minute. Why do you want anything to do with us?” And yet, Jesus keeps talking with us, wooing us, getting us to come a little bit closer to him. He reveals that he knows everything we have ever done. And then, we get nervous and start arguing with him: “But, Jesus, this church over here says that you said this, and this church over here says the complete opposite. What do you say?” And Jesus deflects our question with an answer that defies our either/or mindset, and he keeps us talking to him. Finally, he tells us that he is the Messiah, the one who we have been waiting for, the one who will love and protect us when the world does not, and he invites us to come and be joined with him forever.
Jesus invites us to be in relationship with him. But he doesn’t stop there. When the disciples come back from their errand in town, he says to them, “. . . look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.” Jesus sends us out into the world to find those who are lost, those who society deems unlovable, those who we would never expect, and asks us to invite those people into relationship with him as well. As we look around at Powell and its surroundings, it may seem to us that everyone we know is Christian, belongs to a church, and has a relationship with Jesus already. But Jesus asks us to look into the places that we would not normally go—and there are those places even in this small town—and he asks us to speak to the people we do not know, and to invite them to come and know him. For Jesus comes to us not just as individuals, but as a community—just as the Samaritan woman told her community about Jesus, and they came to see and hear him and have a relationship with him as well.
Jesus loves us, and he crosses boundaries to find us and to bring us to be in relationship with him. He crossed the boundary between Judea and Samaria to find the Samaritan woman at the well, and through her, her entire village. And even before this, as John tells us in the first chapter of his gospel, Jesus crossed the boundary between heaven and earth to find us and to pitch his tent among us, so that we might come to know a little bit of how great his love for us truly is. This love story between Jesus and the world began not just at the well, but before time began, before the creation ever came to be. He invites us to come and see, and to taste of the living water that only he can provide. Let us drink deep of that living water, and invite others to come and drink with us. Amen.