Reflections on the Story of Jesus Meeting the Woman at the Well of Sychar
For several years, I used to lead bicycle trips with young people. One of the problems of bicycling in warm weather is dehydration. One can ride and not feel thirsty while at the same time be losing both physical and mental strength due to lack of water.
I think the same analogy can be applied to our spiritual and psychological lives; we can be so thirsty yet not conscious of it. And yet we just keep doing what we are doing and not realizing the deepening loneliness and sense of purposelessness in our lives.
The story from John’s Gospel about Jesus meeting a woman at the well is a story about God satisfying loneliness. (John 4:1-42) The story begins in the area Jesus south of where he is said to have lived in Galilee. He came to a well in the ancient town of Sychar or Shechem or the current city of Askar. There Jesus met a Samaritan woman. Jesus, being known as a Jew, would not normally speak to either a single woman or a Samaritan.
The city of Sychar was in the old Israel that was conquered and 722 BC by the Assyrians. It had been the capital of this old Israel. Several Jews fled south to settle in what is today known as Judah with the capital center being Jerusalem. However, most of the Jewish people stayed in the North and intermarried with the Assyrians and other natives of the land. They became known as the “lost tribes” of Israel. Being called Samaritan was a pejorative term signifying their departure from the true Jewish faith by their intermarriage and adaptation of the so-called pagan customs.
The encounter of the Samaritan woman with Jesus at the well is a story on how nothing satisfies us beyond the Spirit of God. For as the woman was drawing water from the ancient, holy well of Jacob, Jesus asked for a drink and of course, she was shocked that he, being a Jew and a man, would even speak to her. Jesus goes on to tell her that he could give her “living water” that would totally quench her thirst!
Of course the Samaritan woman is baffled; is this a “come on” or is this man just plain crazy? Where is his water bucket? Does he think he’s greater than ancestor Jacob who drank here with his family and flocks of sheep? And when Jesus tells her he is not playing a trick, she gives in and says, “Sir, give me this water that I may never be thirsty, never having to make these daily trips for water.”
When I was in northern India near Kashmir, I stayed in an ashram over 8,000 feet on a mountain side. From my porch each morning I could see a long line of women, perhaps 50 or 60 walking up an adjacent mountain to get water from a spring. The ashram leader told me they do it each day for the family’s daily water supply, the walk taking about an hour each way! I am sure these women would have appreciated some of the eternal thirst-quencher Jesus was talking about that would be useable for cooking and washing as well!
Then Jesus goes for the thirsty part, the pain in the woman’s life. “Go, call your husband and come back with him.” The shocked woman replies, “I have no husband” to which Jesus says, “You are right, for you have had five husbands and the one you have now isn’t your husband.” The shocked woman can see Jesus is no ordinary man. What’s the point of this dialogue, this story?
There have been many writings and talks on this passage stating how the woman was a whore or “husband killer” and such things. I think things charges miss the whole point. In those days husbands could have died or more easily, simply divorced her by saying in front of a witness, “I divorce you!” Maybe the woman was deficit in ways to her husbands, or maybe she just was too smart and superior to her husbands. The man she was now living with wasn’t her husband. She easily might have been married to a man whose wife could not bear him a child or son for an heir, so this might have been an arrangement made for him to father a child heir.
If you go to the Bible looking for marriage and sexually consistent patterns, you will have a much harder time finding consistency than is supposed. One will find many more options than are normally suggested by pastors in Presbyterian Churches. So how do these questions relate to her having deep thirst in need of quenching?
Let’s face it; marriage is very hard work as is most relationships we are in. Even married many times is very difficult, or having several sexual partners. Marriage, being “in love” with another, raising a family, is tough work. We all have asked at times, “Didn’t I make a terrible mistake? Why can’t I get lasting satisfactions?”
In reality, marriage can be an exciting well from which to drink but the well runs dry from time to time. Marriage as a cure for life’s loneliness is a dry well. Some of the most lonely people are married, once feeling very happy. What happened? Nothing. It’s normal if one thinks marriage or anything else is the lasting happiness for the fountain of life.
I began telling couples who came to me for marriage, “If you really need each other, your marriage will be a lot harder to endure!” Remember the old song of Barbara Streisand? “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world?” Don’t believe it; they are just needy! A spiritual teacher of mine say, “People who need people are the neediest people in the world!”
If we are going to have good relationships in marriage or as friends, we must learn an important truth; they cannot be gods or seen as ways to fill up the loneliness we have as a person. They can be pointers to where thirst is quenched. Such loneliness is filled or quenched by God alone, and God is Spirit as we are in our essence. When you can find peace and contentment being alone with the Self, meeting and enjoying this Self, then you will be a much better companion in marriage and friendship.
Yet our attachments to bodies and their thirsts for peace are very strong. Most will go through their lives, perhaps many others, before they awaken to this truth. Jesus isn’t condemning the woman; he’s just trying, I believe, to help her gain some perspective. Life here on this plain is duality, with ups and downs, highs and lows, happiness and sadness, life and death. In Heaven, in Spirit, it is Oneness forever. Nothing here, no-body, can replace it.
The Samaritan woman responded to Jesus saying, “What you have said is true!” But then she tries to get Jesus to answer a question about the most godly place to worship. Her people say it’s here on this mountain with the well, where the grand patriarch Jacob pronounced it holy and even ended up being buried. On the other hand, good Jews claim the most holy place to worship is in Jerusalem on that mountain. Which is right? Who has it better? What does God prefer?
Then Jesus gives another very important reminder about satisfying life’s deepest thirst for wholeness; worship of God can be anywhere. It doesn’t need a special place at all; mountain, city, temple, cathedral, Vatican, country, or special liturgy. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and truth.” What a hard lesson to learn. We all think the water is better here or there, with this denomination or that one. I still think my best experiences of oneness with spirit are alone walking, or in quiet woods, or in some new church or place I have never been before. It makes no difference; just realize God is spirit and breathe It in anywhere! The only cost is the time to become aware and breathe it in consciously.
Remember; certain places to worship are an option, especially places that supposedly look holy, spiritual or special. God is everywhere. The term “God’s house” as a building is just a metaphor because hopefully enough people have experienced this truth in the place. If not, it easily can become a silly, expensive idol which leaves people as thirsty and lonely as before. I’ve heard it said, “Sitting and being in a church building no more makes one a loving and compassionate person that being in a garage makes one a car.”
When Jesus’ disciples returned, they didn’t know what’s going on; the teacher had been talking to a Samaritan woman alone. Was he crazy? They urged him to eat something and have a drink; he may have slipped out of it for awhile being with that beautiful woman! But Jesus goes on to say he has other food which is much more satisfying; doing God’s will and sharing love with others. Dear God; it seems he has slipped over the edge! And then he concludes it saying, “Look around you, the fields are ripe for harvesting!” People of the world crave this drink and food. Look at their lonely faces and disappointing looks; married, single, rich and poor…they all crave the truth of being somehow beyond this physical body and world, to be part of the Great Spirit of eternity.
People are thirsty for it in West Seneca as much as in Hamburg or anywhere. But if they are going to drink it with us, we had better be drinking it in ourselves. If we continually are depressed about our status, our relationships, our marriages, our jobs, our climate, our city, our country, our world, then who in this hell wants to come join us?
Yes, after you have drunk in the water of life, you will feel much better. But do you then need to return again to drawing water and living with the same people? Yes, but with a different way of seeing things. Everything begins to look wonderful and beautiful just as it is. We forgive others and places for not being our “eternal god” and let them and our own bodies be what they are; ephemeral. We forgive the world!
A Jewish man once went to his rabbi because in-laws had moved in with him and the whole family’s balance was upset. He was shouting at his wife and his wife at him and the in-laws were yelling back. What should he do? The rabbi said, “Do you have some chickens, any goats, and possibly a cow?” “Yes, of course we do,” the man said, “we do have to eat.” “Okay,” the rabbi said, “Take them all into the house for one week and return to check with me!” Well, the man did and after a week, returned to the Rabbi. “Did you keep the animals inside a whole week?” he asked. “Yes, and it’s been a complete mess. Can you imagine the shit piles the cow has dropped along with the other animals?” “Yes,” the Rabbi answered, “so now go and get them out and return to me in a week.” The man did it and returned. “How is it now?” the Rabbi asked. “Wonderful! Beautiful!” the man said, and I think he got the point.
Life here will always be filled with work, play, laughter and crying. There will always be wood to chop and water to carry, as the old eastern saying goes, but now to the enlightened one, it is all seen differently. And peace can come and stay so much longer, until we leave this world of mortally to be fully realized in the One that is Eternal and Love. Amen.
Shared on Sunday, March 27, 2011 with the folks at 1st Presbyterian Church in West Seneca, NY