Engaging a Broken World
“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (John 4:9)
The following reflections are on John 4, which concerns a Samaritan woman who came to draw from a well at noon (which many have suggested meant that she was trying to avoid others who would come to the well in the cool of the day). She was living with a man, having already had five husbands. I want to make a few observations on Jesus’ encounter with what appears to be a sexually and relationally broken woman, in the hope of learning something about how we might appropriately engage a sexually broken world. I’ll limit my observations to three.
First, this woman doesn’t appear broken. Often people who are broken don’t appear so. Strictly speaking, the text does not say that she was divorced five times, or even once for that matter, although the unlikelihood of multiple husbands dying, along with her living with another man who was not her husband, suggests that this woman experienced sexual sin and great relational pain in her life. And yet in her interactions with Jesus, she appears to be quite confident.
Secondly, Jesus approaches her by asking for a favor. He does not come to her offering something she isn’t asking for. And yet it is obvious that His objective isn’t solely (or even primarily) the water. If it had been, when she asked why a Jewish man would ask a Samaritan woman for water, he could have simply said, “I am quite thirsty.” He was clearly interested in her eternal well-being, even as I suspect that, being wearied and sitting by the well, he was also quite thirsty. While the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:45), there are times when it is a gracious act to allow oneself to be served.
Thirdly, it is intriguing that Jesus seems to be both very concerned about her eternal welfare, and at the same time very relaxed in His interactions with her. He does not have an evangelistic formula. In response to a question, He throws out an elusive comment about being the source of living water. He does not press her about her relational past, but He does not make light of it either. He in no way talks down to her. Whether she would recognize sin in her past or not (and likely she did), she did know that much in her life was not working. No woman wants to have had five husbands. Unless she has been hurt or jaded, no woman wants to have multiple or serial relationships. She didn’t need a sermon, or even a comment, about what she had done wrong or which wrong had been done to her. She knew. Jesus raised the issue with her, but He didn’t press it. When she immediately turned the conversation to worship, He was glad to go there with her. She knew her need. So did He.
A world in sexual sin expects a sermon from the church. (And there is a place for that.) Often the world expects an argument. What the world doesn’t expect very often from Christians is to be asked for a cup of water, and to be engaged as people, rather than as projects. I have a hunch that people in sexual sin know it, particularly women. And many don’t need reminding. What they need is the same thing we need (since “we” were once “they”): an interested and listening ear from one who has partaken of Living Water, and who is willing to engage.