[Text: John 4]
I’m growing increasingly convinced that the woman who met Jesus at the well in Sychar is included in John’s account primarily because of her intelligent, curious questions. I don’t mean that I think John set her there as an example and a model for us, though as an instructor I’d sure love to see such persistent inquisitiveness among Christians. I mean that I believe John transmitted her story because it was precisely these curious questions that gave Jesus an opening to speak about his identity and what God was up to.
Actually, at their meeting it is Jesus who provides the first conversational opening — to a woman who obviously has been doing some intense thinking, perhaps with very little hope that anyone would ever take her seriously enough to engage her in a dialogue about these things. Merely by asking for a drink, Jesus communicates his willingness to do just that, sweeping away centuries of ethnic antipathy and rabbinic propriety with one courteous request for refreshment.
Throughout their exchange, this woman evidences an alert and organized mind. Weighing what she knows against what’s being presented to her, she puts her finger square on the disconnect every time and boldly articulates it: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” “With no bucket and a deep well, how will you get water?” “Are you greater than our father Jacob?” Each time, Jesus gently parries with an intriguing statement that prompts even more inquisitiveness. (I have a friend who delights in the same pedagogical pattern, so I can imagine the twinkle in Jesus’ eye – he knows the mind he’s working with!)
Having established that yes, he is greater than their father Jacob, because this living water is a different sort of beverage altogether, Jesus leads his wellside student to the brink of a drink and then shifts the conversation abruptly: “Go, call your husband and come back.” When he reveals what he knows about her rocky marital history, her response is neither chagrin nor defensiveness. Instead, she blurts out the theological question she has been saving up for ages! And why not? This rabbi has already shown a willingness to take her seriously, and if he is a prophet to boot then surely she will finally get to the bottom of something that has been puzzling her!
It’s a question of mountains this time: ours or yours? What, in other words, is the God-pleasing place of worship? And here is the opening that allows Jesus to lay out the Father’s plans, and finally to identify himself for his curious listener. Spirit and truth are eventually going to trump place – and in fact, from this time spirit and truth are on the ascendency, even though mountain worship continues. (Is there, perhaps, a hint in his words there of a time when worship on Mt. Zion will be forcibly and finally eliminated?)
It would be simple math to conclude that this prescient distributor of “living water” will play some part in realizing the revolutionary idea that worship need not be tied to a physical location at all. He has already clearly demonstrated that he does things radically differently. So perhaps this woman’s final statement to him is as much a guess as it is a profession of faith: “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Could she ever have imagined that one of the people the Messiah would explain things to would be herself, the inquisitive outcast?
Jesus leaves her no room for doubt, unhesitatingly presenting to her the gift of a secret he has not yet shared with his own people. I wonder whether it was the knowledge of his identity or the memory of his kindness that was more like a spring inside her afterwards, welling up to eternal life.