The Samaritan woman who shows up just at the right time to meet with Jesus at Jacob’s well is one of my favorite scripture narratives. I am fascinated with this encounter. There are many commentaries written that offer numerous insights about the history and cultural structure of this story. As many know, although I am not a scripture scholar, I love the history and the many possibilities that knowing the culture gives us for connecting with the world of Jesus.
This year though, something quite different caught my attention.
In preparation for the Sunday proclamation of the gospel, we sisters gather together to pray Lectio Divina with the gospel earlier in the week. As we read through this scripture, I realized what the woman meeting Jesus at the well really meant for her. A well is the one necessary place shared by a community when water isn’t piped directly to the homes. I wondered about the “well culture”. We are told that mostly women drew water and carried it to their homes. Women meet at the well, share news, stories, and opinions about what is happening to them even to this day. I’m sure it was true back then as it is today; women are vulnerable going to the well. The statistics on human trafficking say kidnappers wait at the wells in certain parts of the world to capture women and enslave for sex or servitude. So why didn’t the woman just walk away? There was a strange man and she was alone!
There is much to the story. The woman is most likely alone because she is an outcast in her community (Significant is that she goes to the well at noon and not with the other women who would have gone early in the morning and in the evening) because of her marital status. I try to imagine what that would be like. To be considered bad or immoral or impure must have meant a lonely existence. Then I started to think of something I learned in Latin class.
The word salvation comes from the root salus meaning health, safety, well-being, salvation / salutation. It was in that class I realized salvation wasn’t really about sin in the sense of a person being “bad” or “dirty” but rather to connect the word salvation with the concept of “wellbeing”. I marvel at the love of God who desires to give us wellbeing. Even Jesus’ name, the name given to her by the Angel Gabriel means to save.
“Jesus” is an English translation of the Greek word `Iesou (Ίησοΰς). The Greek word is a transliteration of the Hebrew word Yeshua’. The Hebrew for salvation is yeshu`ah (ישוּעה), which is feminine. Yeshua’ (ישוּע) is the masculine form. So, the root of the word salvation is yasha`, or save. Although the words save, deliver, preserve, and help are how this word is usually translated; nearly all Hebrew nouns have verbal roots which set the foundation for all the cognates. Literally translated, yasha` means to open, or to be wide.
As I pondered these words, their ancient meanings and their current understandings I realized that there is so much more going on in this particular conversation. Jesus, the one whose name means to save i.e. to open, to be wide is speaking with a woman who was on the outs with both her community and with Jesus’ people. She, knowing her position, found the courage to approach, to speak, and yes even to challenge Jesus. She then “ran” back to her village to tell them about the forbidden conversation. Can you imagine? You are in a place where you are vulnerable (alone at the well), doing something you shouldn’t be doing (speaking with a man, a Jewish man) and you run to tell the people to whom you are an outcast. The interaction is marvelous. There is no condemnation, not from Jesus or from the villagers. Her shame is mitigated.
Oh that I would have taken courage. One chance encounter and they open a new path for another way of being or wellbeing. The sharp division between Jews and Samaritans, religious blockades to true worship, “There will be a time when true worshippers will worship neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem but they will worship God in spirit and truth” and social barriers to dialogue between women and men are not even at issue. Both Jesus and this nameless woman explore the depths of spiritual conversation that changed everything for the woman and for her village.
As always, the scriptural challenge is to follow Jesus’ example today. Here though, scripture gives us another model in the woman. Her’s is a stance of true humility; she is open, wide open to Jesus. And Jesus is wide open to her. She offers no pretense only the reality she knows. And in a posture of humility she not only speaks but also listens. Then she shares Jesus with others. And finally she steps aside letting Jesus speak for himself to the villagers. She lets Jesus be for them what he was for her, a savior giving them wellbeing. How does God challenge us today to come to the well even if he is sitting there? How is Jesus asking us for a drink and then offering us such great news that we neither give him a drink nor become hindered by our own story, expectations or social morays? What unchallenged blockades with be lowered? What justice issue will arise and how will that lead to well—being, wellbeing?
Ana Cloughly, OSB