Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

“The Man at the Well.”

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“The Man at the Well.”
Delivered on the Lord’s Day
May 5, 2013
John 4:1-26
Carlyle Fielding Stewart, III

Have you ever had found yourself trying to do good in helping others and then later learned that you had done wrong in the minds of some people because of how your actions were interpreted by them? You had perfectly good intentions in the matter but people thought that you meant to do harm because you violated some honor code, and they completely misunderstood your actions and motives. Jesus might have felt exactly the same way when he met the woman at the well in John 4:1-26.

Traditionally this passage of scripture is titled the “Woman at the Well” because the story is told primarily from her point of view, but today I want to take a different approach with the title “The Man at the Well,” which will be told primarily from the viewpoint of the people of that time who might have seen Jesus that day and misinterpreted why he was at the well in the first place.

As I have said to you on many occasions, those of us who actually read the bible, for there are many Christians today who still don’t read it, we tend to view it strictly for its theological value. In reading scripture we seldom if ever take into consideration the social, cultural and political background or of scriptural texts which puts us at a great disadvantage. Reading the bible only from a theological point of view without understanding the social realities and culture is equivalent to someone trying to understand your theological view without understanding the time and society that you live in. Trying to understand your concept of God without considering your life conditions or your experiences with God each day in real life only gives you a partial understanding of where you really stand theologically.

Before going into my exposition this morning, let me explain something about the social context and custom of the times in which the action of this scripture takes place.

In his book, The First Christians in their Social Worlds, Philip F. Esler, tells us that women during the time of Jesus had very strict roles and social positions. In reading this text, we just assume that the woman went to the well to get water, and that was no big deal. But in Jesus time women had very little social mobility and there were strict rules governing her actions and behaviors in community. Thus they could not always move freely about in society because of concerns about chastity, sexuality and keeping their honor. Thus a woman was characterized primarily for her virtue. The Book of Proverbs talks about the virtuous wife or woman. If a woman was known to be promiscuous, or if she were raped or physically violated in ancient times, it brought shame and dishonor not only to her but to her entire family, particularly her brothers and father, who had the right to kill the persons who dishonored her.

The family was the primary seat of honor and if someone violated or mistreated a family member it was taken as the ultimate insult and injury. This was especially true for women. They had an honored place of esteem in the society but they also had restricted roles. Women were very special, and preserving the sanctity of their child-bearing bodies was a primary value and virtue in that society. In a world where human life was sacred, bringing children into the world was an important value in building strong communities. It was believed that the more children one had the richer and potentially prosperous they would become.

If a sister or daughter willingly lost her virginity both she and her lover might be killed so as to repair the profound dishonor such an act brought upon the family. If a sister was raped, her father and brothers are dishonored and could reap vengeance on the assailant by killing the offender. You will remember when Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar, David was incensed and the whole affair resulted in Amon’s death at the hands of his half-brother Absalom.

Females essentially led private lives at home. They would be constantly watched lest they brought dishonor to the family. Men lead public lives away from home. If women went out of the house they had to be covered in clothes from head to foot or even chaperoned to ensure that nothing happened to them to bring shame and dishonor to the family.

The one activity which regularly took Mediterranean women outside the house in small villages which is the setting of this text, was fetching water from a well. At that time in ancient society fetching water at the well was regarded as a singularly hazardous activity that could bring dishonor to the family. Why?

Because any man intent on seduction need only wait at the well and he would in due time encounter virtually every woman in the village.
That is why some families often required women to be chaperoned or escorted when getting water, not only to head off an actual assault or elopement but to prevent their neighbors or strangers from defiling the family’s honor, from wreaking havoc in their families which would in turn adversely impact the community.

It is in this cultural context that we must understand the John 4 scripture of Jesus meeting the woman at the well. The real issue in this text for the people at that time might have been the man at the well and why Jesus was at the well for so long in the first place.

We know that he was there because he was tired after journeying and wanted a drink because he was thirsty. We know that he was there for some time because the disciples had gone into town to buy food. Jesus hung out at the well until they returned which would be many hours later.

But in the eyes of the public, he may have been violating strict social and cultural customs; for in the eyes of the public he was in the wrong place, for too long a time, which probably raised suspicions about his intentions for being there.

He was already in a town in Samaria called Sychar, and you know from Rev. Wright’s sermon last week of the hatred between Samaritans and Jews that went back some 700 years. Jews were forbidden to have any associations or contacts with Samaritans and here we have Jesus passing through this time in Samaria at a well because he was thirsty.

So for some people as a Jesus the Jew was in the wrong place at the wrong time, which meant too long a time.

While he was not forbidden to be in Samaria, as a Jew it might have been frowned upon for his being there any length of time. Just passing through is one thing. Getting water and being at the well for an extended period of time is another thing. It just didn’t look right with him being there in the first place.

The scriptures say that Jesus was tired from his journey and sat down at the well about noon and that is why he was there. But according to customs of the time, in the minds of villagers he might have been there because he wanted more than water.

In other words beloved, the well, was known as a familiar pickup place for women, much like bars and night clubs today. When people go out to the club, they are not only there to dance, drink and socialize but some are there to see who they might go home with.

Going to the well for any extended period of time could have easily been interpreted as him going to the club at night and being there for illicit reasons; that he was there for less than honorable reasons; that he was there to see who he could go home with. This is what it could have easily looked like in the minds of the people who were paying attention at this time. They could have easily misread his actions in accordance to social protocol. We know that he was there for water but others might have thought that he was there for something else.

In addition to being at the wrong place which was in Samaria in the village of Sychar at a well spending the wrong length of time, to get water, now comes the problem of meeting the wrong woman at the well.

So here he is in the wrong place in Samaria, at a well, for the wrong length of time because his disciples left him there to get food in town and now he is seen talking with the wrong woman; a Samaritan woman who he should have no associations with.

She was not a just any old woman. She was a woman who already had five husbands and was living with a man.

Now you heard what I just said about women in the eyes of society.
She was not only a Samaritan woman who was despised but had probably gotten a rep of dishonor; a reputation of being a harlot; a whore; a promiscuous person. Five husbands and living with a man, she had undoubtedly brought dishonor and shame to her family. She was a woman to be avoided who had lost her honor and stature in the community.

When she came to draw water, Jesus said, “Will you give me a drink?” So here he is again in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong woman and now he’s having the wrong conversation. When Jesus asked this woman for a drink, it could have been easily considered a standard pick up line. You know how it goes. A man is hanging out at the well to see what women are coming to fetch water. He sees a woman approaching and asks her for a drink.

Today, you would ask a woman in a bar or club, “Will you buy me a drink?” You know what I’m saying? Or maybe the role would be reversed and you would offer to buy her a drink. This breaks the ice. And in some people’s minds it would seal the deal. The drink helps you get acquainted. It enables everybody to loosen up a bit.

This woman, given the culture of the times, could have easily have interpreted this as Jesus hitting on her.

The scripture says that she was shocked by the question because she knew that he as a Jew should not associate with Samaritans at all let alone a Samaritan woman. There were Jews who would not even talk to Samaritans. So here he is at a well and sees this woman approaching and asks her to give him fresh water from that well. The question startled and perplexed her.

For anybody looking on as I said, it was the wrong place, for the wrong amount of time at the well, with the wrong woman and now with the wrong conversation.

Philip Esler again says the following, “The Samaritan woman comes to draw water and Jesus, who has no bucket, makes a simple request of her. She does not know if he is really thirsty or not and as far as she would be aware from her knowledge of why men wait by wells his request might simply be equivalent to the pick up line, “Do you come here often?”

In this culture a respectable woman alone with a man at a well, would ignore the request, or perhaps give the man water in case he was genuinely thirsty, or say nothing to him and leave promptly. But she was not a respectable woman. The Samaritan woman acts shamefully by striking up a conversation. When she reacts to his request for water, it could have been easily interpreted as “Why is a nice man like you talking to a girl like me?”

And then they exchange words about living water and never thirsting again?

We know what Jesus meant by those words but what did it mean to her and to those hearing and peering at their conversation?

Metaphorically and symbolically speaking this whole conversation could have meant something entirely different. You go to the club and you talk in codes. You talk about being thirsty and needing a drink; you talk about your well running dry and the need for the kind of water where you never thirst again.

Just like today, Jesus conversation could have easily been interpreted as him talking in code.

The woman had no business talking to him in the first place. What did this mean to a woman who had five husbands and living with a man? What did the idea of living water mean to her and others listening, and that fact that drinking of those waters meant that she would never thirst again. Was this a joke or just another pick up line by a man who was at the wrong place too long for the wrong reason with the wrong conversation with the wrong woman?

Today, we interpret this scripture strictly for its theological value, for the words Jesus spoke were spiritual words, theological words, words of redemption and endearment for a lost soul. But for those at that time, they may have seen something entirely different. They may have been the wrong words, with the wrong woman, at the wrong time, at the wrong place for the wrong reasons. They may have easily been interpreted as the pickup words; words you use when you want to hit on somebody and go to the well for water.

For some people Jesus violated every social cultural custom by doing what he did. In the eyes of society, not only was she out-of-order but he was out-of-order. It looked bad; hanging out at well waiting to get water and then talking to a woman who had already had a bad reputation with too many former husbands and a boyfriend at home.

They continue their conversation and in the eyes of those who were looking on it was all wrong. But it was not all wrong. It may have looked one way to them but meant something else to him. Jesus deliberately went beyond the established boundaries, risked making himself look bad, to make another statement, to do a new thing; to make his point; to present the alternative vision of God’s kingdom by demonstrating who would be acceptable and worthy in that kingdom. He would have a conversation with a woman who no one wanted to talk with as a person and as a child of God. She was talked to like she was an object used just for one thing. When she talked with Jesus he spoke to her with respect. He did not talk down to her but talked up to her. That sure helped her self-esteem. By having conversation with this woman Jesus was modeling the new reality; the truth of the Kingdom of God that everybody is a child of God; that everybody is worthy of God’s affection including a despised Samaritan woman who has had five husbands and living with another man; that everybody has a place in this new kingdom of God of which Jesus was the messenger. Jesus went beyond the established norms and even risked violation of cultural customs about honor and dishonor, respect and disrespect and demonstrated a willingness to enter into those forbidden places that few people were willing to go to save a lost soul.

He knew what he was doing and he made his point, and the point is that he comes to us the same way, when we have been in violation, when we have thrown out all the rules; when we have lost our reputations and our honor and have had our character besmirched in the minds of the public. Jesus comes to us and speaks to us, for there are no places that are off-limits to him. When we have not always kept the faith; when we have been in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong man or woman, doing the wrong deeds, talking about the wrong thing with the wrong intentions, He still comes to us; the repeat offenders; those who have lost their way; those that nobody wants to talk with or be around or treat like a real human person.

The man at the well was there to reach a soul who society had long marginalized as persona non grata; a person that was still a child of God and no matter what they said about the man at the well that day, he let nothing stop him from his mission.

For Jesus and contrary to the social customs, he was in the right place, for the right length of time, and met the right woman and had the right conversation and changed her life. Whatever she came to the well as that day, she did not leave the well the same way and that is what God is able to do for you and I today. We come as we are and leave not as we once were, but as new persons in Christ; with a new attitude and a new perspective because we have been delivered from our own personal living hells and the social ostracism that consigns us to the status of unaccepted and unwanted persons.

There is no limit to Jesus reaching to those who are outside the established boundaries of respectability and acceptability. His conversation with that woman may have changed her life; and changed her ways and changed her self-esteem and changed her attitude about herself and thus changed her world. That Jesus would even converse with her as a person demonstrates Gods love for us, God’s approach to us and God’s value of us.

For other folks it might look one way but for God it is another way because he is on a mission of redemption and salvation for all. No, not one will be left out of his kingdom. No, not one will be locked out from His amazing grace. No not one will be lost in his kingdom! Not one!

Come to the fresh watering places and find Jesus! Come to the living waters in which you will never thirst again. Here is there waiting for the lost and lonely the scorned and rejected with open arms! Come to find peace and wholeness and not condemnation and judgment. Come and meet the man at the well who can turn your misfortune into good fortune, your rejection into acceptance, your shame into glory, hope, joy and gladness.

There’s a man outside at the well who has crossed the lines to meet us where are. There is a man at the well waiting with open arms; to comfort and converse with us and to show us the way.

Come meet the man at the well and see how he can change your life

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