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The Witness at the Well (Jn. 4:5-42.)

by Fred B. Craddock

Fred B. Craddock is professor of preaching and New Testament at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 7, 1990, p. 243, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The account of Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well (John 4:5-42) is difficult to read because most of us have been subjected to highly imaginative and biblically unwarranted portraits of her which distort our understanding. Evangelists aplenty have assumed that the brighter her nails, the darker her mascara and the shorter her skirt, the greater the testimony to the power of the converting word. Critics of institutional religion who find all church members false and empty but all thieves generous, all drunks lovable and all hookers deeply spiritual heap upon the woman of Samaria both praise and sympathy. She is open and honest, a truth-seeker hindered only by a hypocritical town that forces her to come alone to the well at noon rather than the customary evening hour. Moralizers, however, have painted her as dangerous: beware her seductive ways, her mincing walk, her eyes waiting in ambush.

To be sure, Jesus knows she has been married five times and now "has" a man who is not her husband, but what are the particulars? Deaths? Divorces? Legal tangles? Or is it promiscuity? We do not know. All we know is that Jesus, as is his custom in John, reveals special knowledge of the individuals he encounters and alerts them that in meeting him they may encounter the transcendent. Jesus does not urge the woman to repent or change her behavior.

Even reputable commentaries seem unable to resist moving in one of the above directions with this narrative. Perhaps we should not be surprised; consider the fate of Mary Magdalene in the imagination of the church. Of her, Luke says "seven demons had gone out" (8:2) . We do not know how the demons had affected her, she may have been crippled, blind, subject to seizures or victimized by a host of other maladies. We do know that in the Gospels demon possession is not presented as corrupting the moral life. Even so, despite a lack of evidence, some readers see her as a woman of the evening. Such readings only complicate our ability to understand the text. But let us try.

Jesus’ longest-recorded conversation with anyone is the one he has with the Samaritan woman. On many counts it seems extraordinary that it took place at all: a man and a woman in public; a Jew and a Samaritan; a transient and a citizen; one offering living water and another caught in the ceaseless rounds of drawing water at the well. But God’s will was at work. John often gives the reader a clue that something very important is about to happen. For example, before feeding the multitudes, John says Jesus knew what he was about to do (6:6) , and prior to healing the blind man Jesus says that blindness provides the occasion for the works of God to be manifested (9:3) . In this case, Jesus "had to pass through Samaria" (4:4) -- a need seemingly unrelated to geography or time; it is of divine origin. In other words, in what follows God will be revealed.

The conversation begins with Jesus’ request for a drink of water. However, through the ensuing exchanges the transient Jew offers more than did Jacob, the patriarch with whose name the well was associated. In fact, Jesus’ knowledge of the woman convinces her that he is a prophet from Jerusalem and prompts her to defend her own tradition of worship on Mt. Gerizim. To her surprise, Jesus does not debate her, he declares that true worship of God is not geographically defined but is defined by God’s own nature, which is spirit and truth. In other words, God transcends sex, race, tradition, place and liturgy. If this traveler from Jerusalem is greater than Jacob, is a prophet and yet more than a prophet, the woman has but one category left: Messiah. In her mind, a God whose nature it is to embrace all people in all places is a Messiah.

There is some question as to Jesus response to her talk of a Messiah. The Greek text reads: "I who speak to you am" (v. 26) . Should "he" be supplied ("I am he") or is Jesus, by saying "I am, identifying himself with God? Whatever the proper rendering, the woman runs, not with the answer but only the question, to the city and gives the call to faith, "Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?"

If any wish to be fascinated by this woman, let them be so now. She is a witness, but not a likely witness and not even a thorough witness. "A man who told me all that I ever did" is not exactly a recitation of the Apostles Creed. She is not even a convinced witness: "Can this be the Christ?" is literally "This cannot he the Christ, can it?" Even so, her witness is enough: it is invitational (come and see) , not judgmental; it is within the range permitted by her experience; it is honest with its own uncertainty; it is for everyone who will hear. How refreshing. Her witness avoids triumphalism, hawking someone else’s conclusions, packaged answers to unasked questions, thinly veiled ultimatums and threats of hell, and assumptions of certainty on theological matters. She does convey, however, her willingness to let her hearers arrive at their own affirmations about Jesus, and they do: "This is indeed the Savior of the world." John immortalizes her by giving to her witness a name which is the very term with which he began the Gospel. The Samaritan woman, the Greek text reads, spoke "the Word."


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