by Keala Carrey
Jesus had recently left Judea on his way back to Galilee. To get there, he had to go through Samaria and came to Sychar, one of the villages there. Worn out by the trip, Jesus sat down by a well one day around noon. His followers left to get food and supplies, so he was alone when a woman came to draw water from the well. He asked her if she would give him a drink of water and, taken aback, she asked “Are you, a Jew, asking me, a Samaritan for water? Really?”
Now, the thing you have to understand is that Jews, at least at that time, wouldn’t be caught dead talking to a Samaritan. But they started talking and the conversation turned to relationships. Jesus asked if he could meet her husband, but she didn’t have one, at least not at that time, because she had already had five of them. John 4:1-18
We know she was a Samaritan. We know she did not have a husband. Rather, she had five of them before we even meet her. But what else do we know? Usually, we feel pretty comfortable summing up the whole of her identity with those two bits of information and stop there. Chances are, that’s what most people saw when they looked at her. But when Jesus met her, he saw everything. He looked at her and saw her whole story. And he told it back to her. And she felt known. And being known was enough to plant seeds of faith inside of her, seeds she shared with her community, changing lives.
Hearing the story of the woman at the well in John 14, many Christians jump to the part in the story where Jesus calls the woman out, saying she has no husband, but has had five husbands and the man she is living with now is not her husband (14:17-18). Many of us take this detail and run with it, imagining that this is a story about sexual sin. We focus in on that one detail and forget the rest of the story.
This is an important moment in the text, but not for the reason we usually think. It’s important because in this moment, this woman feels known. In focusing on the sexual element of this entire encounter, our vision narrows and we miss the point. We construct this woman’s entire identity based on her sexual history. Distracted by sex, we can think of little else and jump to a lot of conclusions.
I’ve heard people call this woman “a prostitute” or, at the least, a “loose woman.” But we don’t really know.
It’s possible that she was a widow.
Or divorced multiple times.
Even if she was a prostitute.
Yes, even if she was a prostitute, it’s unlikely that she aspired to that profession. If we say she is promiscuous, it’s really not that simple because what makes a person “promiscuous”? There is a whole range of life experiences that shape who we are and how we live, and no one chooses a life of shame. We are brought there, spiraling downward one moment at a time – whether by abuse, or misfortune, or dehumanization, until we can’t lift our faces to find our way back up.
But when Jesus looks at her, he really sees her. When she leaves the well and runs into the town to tell everyone to “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did!” she is expressing the joy of being known. True, Jesus called her out; she didn’t have a clean slate, but in seeing her story, he saw every part of it. He didn’t just see the five husbands. He saw all of the moments of her life that had brought her to this current place. He saw that regardless of whether she was a prostitute, or a widow, or a promiscuous woman, she had a bigger story, and it made sense. Many people brought her to this current place; she was not the only one to blame.
Sin is never individual. It isn’t compartmentalized. We live together in this world, and our thoughts and actions affect each other. When one person thinks or acts in a way that is dehumanizing, we all suffer. Sometimes the ripple effect is barely noticeable, but it’s there. Over time, all of the seemingly inconsequential comments, thoughts, and secret actions add up to a whole mess of pain – a broken hearted people in a broken world. And we wonder how we got here. And we look for someone to blame.
When Jesus looks at this woman at the well, he doesn’t just see her face or her body. Nor does he only see her ethnicity or her social circumstances. He sees the whole of her humanity. He sees her and knows her. In talking to him, she realizes she is known- deeply known, the way that we all crave to be known. And this sense of being known inspires her faith.
We can learn a lot from this story. Jesus sees all of this woman’s beauty and all of her pain. In knowing her story, he gives her a sense of dignity. To be seen is to be known, and being known makes room for love. To be known and loved, naked and unashamed, isn’t that what we are all searching for?
To be fully known and loved is a path toward wholeness, toward living in the fullness of our humanity.