There has been a fair bit of ink spilled on this topic, and as I comb through the Gospels (part of my finish-the-bible-in-2016 plan) again, there is so much of it that is so important to read.
The estate of women then was a lowly one, and a commonly-held Rabbinic view at that time was this:
Let no one talk with a woman in the street, no , not with his own wife.
So if a Jew in that time had come across the story of the 4th sign of Jesus in the 4th chapter of John*, he would have been aghast.
Here was Jesus, this new and popular teacher, sitting down at a well with a woman at the sixth hour – noontime, in broad daylight. And he was asking her for a drink of water. He must have been dying of thirst to do such a shameful thing..
To make matters worse, the woman was a Samaritan woman. It helps to imagine the Jews and the Samaritans as two opposing sides of any racial or ethnic conflict underway today – they clashed over land, over religious practice, over the purity of their bloodlines.. and there was Jesus, sitting and talking with their sworn enemy.
Indeed, v27 of the chapter tells us that the disciples “returned and were surprised to find Jesus talking with a woman“. Such were the awful and ugly attitudes of society (men in particular) towards women in that time – yet something about Jesus made the disciples stay their hands and shut their mouths, because the verse goes on to tell us that “No one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”.
Now all of these things were known to the woman that Jesus spoke to. Indeed, her first response to Jesus when he asked for water was to say “How can you ask me, a Samaritan and a woman, for a drink?“. She must have been puzzled by Jesus’ behavior.
Then as her incredulity grew, Jesus stopped her and said plainly: I am the Christ. And we know from the rest of the Gospels that many rejected that notion thereafter, but when Jesus revealed who he was to that Samaritan woman, all his previous behavior suddenly made sense to her.
“Finally!”, she must have thought. “Here is someone who will not look down on me, or what I have done.”
And she ran back into her town, and said to the people:
Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.
An open invitation to come, come and see. But her conclusion, her personal conviction, was left open as a question to her hearers:
Could this be the Christ?
It is a terrible thing, to be unfairly treated, to be looked down upon, disenfranchised, the law of coverture reducing you to less than human. This then is the power of truth when it is bound up with love: for the first time, the Samaritan woman was met with a person, a man, who did not despise her, but instead esteemed her.
He spoke truth to her – that she was not inferior, but deserving of time and attention and company, that racial and ethnic and historical divisions should not bar her from receiving this precious gift of “living water”.
Today, all these divisions and prejudices still subsist in various twisted forms. The struggle against needless hatred and conflict can seem endless. But if you consider yourself a Christ-ian, a follower of Christ, then come to Jesus, hear His words for yourself, then go forth, speaking truth and serving others humbly in love.
*that is of course just one of the many recorded interactions. there are others that might shock us further still, not least the startling encounter with yet another Samaritan woman in Matthew 15. but that is a story for another time 🙂