In the story of the unnamed woman at the well, our author,John, seems to think that where this story takes place is much more important than her name. In the Orthodox tradition, she is given the name Photini – or in Russian, Svetlana – a name that means, “equal to the Apostles”. The giving of that name to this particular woman reveals to us the enormous significance of her role in this story.
Jacob’s well can still be found near one of the older Israeli Settlements on the West Bank. It’s a site that has an extremely long history, and the well itself is artesian, meaning that the water itself is moving, due to pressures deep underground. It is here, at one of many holy sites in Israel that our story begins.
We Christians are used to calling the land of Israel “the Holy Land” because of the events that transpired there some 2,000 years ago. Many people still make pilgrimages there, hoping to touch the ground where Jesus was born, visit the places where He taught, and stand on Golgotha Hill where He died. It is sacred ground indeed.
In a larger sense, where we live can also be called the “Holy Land”. All the earth belongs to God, Psalm 24 reminds us, not just Jerusalem or Galilee or the West Bank. Fort Wayne is holy just as the city of Jerusalem is holy. It is as special as Auschwitz or Mecca or Rome. Earth’s land is holy and sacred because that is where God’s People live—and all are God’s People. We are all called to participate in and work for God’s universal reign.
Not everyone agrees with that, obviously, and it doesn’t matter where we look, we can always find people who are opposed to the very idea of God’s universal reign—even within the Christian churches themselves. Institutional religion loves to build walls, list divisions among peoples, and maintain a fortress mentality when it comes to protecting what they believe to be the truth. Western Christianity in particular has fallen prey to the idea of over-intellectualizing the faith to the detriment of its mystical side.
In Jesus’ day, there were also plenty of divisions, some physical, some figurative. The Jews considered themselves separate and superior to the Samaritans. Their animosity towards each other can be traced to the period of the Judges and the earliest years of the monarchy. King Saul was from the Northern Kingdoms; David was from the South. King David unifies the country, but it falls apart after the rule of his son Solomon. In the North the capital became Samaria,while in the south, it remained at Jerusalem.
This separation became acrimonious after the first exile, which began about 200 years later in 687 BCE. During that exile, a remnant of the Northern tribes remained in the land. Samaria was their focal point, and the only scriptures they recognized as legitimate were the books of Moses, the Torah. They built their own temple not far from Jacob’s Well and carried the torch of faith throughout the period of exile.
Upon their release from Babylon, those who were descendants of the Southern tribes – the Jews – were less than gracious towards the Samaritans – in part because they refused to help rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, but also in part due to their jealousy over the land itself since the Samaritans had never had to leave it.
By the time of Jesus, there was a clear and bitter division that divided the two camps. Most Jews refused to travel in or through Samaria. So we have to wonder, who in this story is more surprised—the Samaritans or the disciples??
The woman at the well asks what all of us want to know—where do we find the holy presence of God? Where is the best place to worship God? She wants to know if Mount Zion is really better than Mount Gerizim? Should we look to Jerusalem or to Samaria for guidance and direction?
In response, Jesus simply says, “It isn’t a matter of place.” Both places are sacred. Both places are holy because all places are holy.
In the mind of Jesus, there is no wall between Jew and Samaritan; both groups of people are loved by God. Both Jew and Samaritan are in need of food and water, both Jew and Samaritan are in need of forgiveness and compassion, both Jew and Samaritan are in need of love and grace. Jesus wants all those who worship God to realize that true worship transcends all boundaries, borders and barriers.
His simple acceptance, his gracious attitude towards the woman at the well touches her deeply. She is so moved by the experience that she runs off to tell others the news that she has met someone truly amazing. For all those who felt marginalized, for those who were outcasts of society, for those who were oppressed, for those who were ignored by the people of power, this was good news indeed!
But as for those who were in the majority, for those in positions of power, for those who had authority over others, for those who thought they were in control of their destiny and the destiny of others, this story was definitely bad news. They didn’t want to hear the message that God alone is in control of who’s in and who’s out, and everybody’s in! They, as mere humans, did not get to decide who was welcome. They were not the ones who got to set the value on places, things or people.
For those who want to divide the world into “us” and “them,” for those who look in disdain on any other person or group of people, for those who need to have someone to blame for their problems – no matter which side of divide they find themselves on, this story is one that brings us up short and forces us to see ourselves more clearly.
Conservative and liberal, Catholic and Protestant; Christian and Muslim; male and female; American and Iraqi….No matter how we attempt to draw the line or where we see the line, Jesus has the same answer: God is God of all. In God’s eyes we are one. All humanity is one, and anything that denies that or undermines our inherent unity is not from God.
You and I have a unique and joyful obligation to extend God’s welcome to all who come to this community of faith, whether they’ve been with the parish since the beginning or if today is their first Sunday here. All are loved equally in this house because we have all experienced the reckless love of our God.
In welcoming the Samaritan woman, Jesus welcomes us to look at things from a stance of unity. We are all in need of love and grace, and none is greater than any other. In the woman’s enthusiasm and by sharing her story with others, we find something important about the way we are supposed to live: unashamed to tell the truth to all people that they are loved completely by God whether they know it or not. Even if they’re afraid to believe it. Even if they’ve never known real love before.