“Bad Girls; Good Stories: The Woman At the Well”

January 26, 2014


Robin McGonigle

University Congregational Church

Jan. 26, 2014

Bad Girls; Good Stories: The Woman At the Well”

John 4

Gathering water from the well.  Can you imagine what that must have been like?  First of all, you had no other water available in the house except what you brought from the well.  Second, the well was not exactly next door – it was quite a walk away.  Third, it was the women who had the job of bringing the water.  The men had more important things to do: They had to get together with all the other men in the village square.


As far as the men were concerned, everything important took place in their part of the world: the government offices, the business world, the palace.  They discussed world events, crops, and even religion.  They conferred about what the law really means and how important it was to know why the Samaritans are right and the Jews are wrong.  If anyone important ever came to their village, you can bet he would show up at the village square – because that’s where the action was.


Meanwhile, back at the house, the women went about their tasks. One such woman is the “she-ro” of our story.  She:

  • Was the first out of bed that morning
  • She lit the fire
  • Began the breakfast
  • Woke he kids
  • Roused her husband
  • Finished breakfast
  • Broke up a fight among the two brothers
  • Served breakfast
  • Cleaned up a mess made by the youngest
  • Cleared the table
  • Washed the dishes
  • Entertained the kids for an hour
  • Sent them out to play
  • And finally sat down to rest briefly before going about her next task

Meanwhile, her husband set out to do man’s work – he went to the village square to talk over important events with the “boys”.


Jacob’s well had a long history, you know.  It was at this same well where Jacob wooed Rachel to be his wife as recorded in the Old Testament, many generations earlier.  And Jacob’s well is still there today!


Women typically went to the well first thing in the morning.  It was cooler then, and their families needed water when they awoke.  But our un-named woman waited until noon to go – when she hoped no others would be there.  She didn’t need to hear their whispers or see their disgusted looks.  When she arrived at the well, someone was already there.  He was a traveler who was passing through and had stopped to rest.  He was a Jew.  She shuddered, hoping she wouldn’t have to talk to him.  Jews and Samaritans were like oil and water.  Jews considered Samaritans impure and inferior people.


Now, she had three things going against her:

  1.  She was a Samaritan – that was a dirty slang word for social pariah.
  2.  She was a woman – that’s shortcut for worthless, useless, of no consequence.
  3. She was a sinner – too many husbands in her past; a tramp.


This is what is at stake – racism, sexism, and religious intolerance.  It was clear that she was a paramount outcast of her time.  In fact, widowhood was considered punishment for sin, and widows were often accused of being disobedient and the cause of her husband’s death.

The issues surrounding this woman are why Jesus’ conversation with her is so astounding.  Furthermore, their dialog is the longest recorded conversation Jesus had with anyone!  Rose Solberg Kim calls her “skeptical, intelligent, and irrepressible”.  Liz Curtis Higgs calls her “a pushy broad”.  But John, the only gospel writer who told her story, doesn’t even give her a name.  Non-Jew, non-male, who cares?


Jesus cared.  And he saw past all of those exterior things – her race, her gender, her past – into the parched interior of her soul.  She was thirsty.


We can’t live without water.  Our bodies are more than 50% water, are they require constant replenishing.  A few hours without H20 in some form and our mouths turn to cotton, dark circles appear under our eyes, and our lips grow chapped.  A week without water and we’re dead.  One look at her and Jesus knew she was parched with thirst both in body and in spirit.


Have you ever been parched in your spirit?  Our “she-ro” was so thirsty for meaning and purpose that she jumped at the idea that this man could be the one sent from God.  Who else but the Messiah would have spent so much time talking with a woman and overturned generations of tradition in the process?  Like the first disciples who left fishing boats and tax offices, she left her water jar.  And she went into the city where she told all the men what she experienced and what she believed.  She became a theologian and a missionary all at once!  Filled with living water, she sought other thirsty souls, eager to offer them a drink too.


This woman is a symbol for outcasts, foreigners, the poor, and all of us who are sinners.  All of us find ourselves thirsty for truth and meaning, for purpose and hope.  It is part of the human condition to seek something more out of life.


The writer of John is a fabulous storyteller.  He tells us about this woman with five husbands, (an unlikely historical detail) and then challenges us to see her for something else.  He asks us to go with her on the journey away from the well and into the city.  He wants us to feel her passion and her joy.  He engages the reader in this woman’s response to Jesus.  And we all realize that we are thirsty.



And why did the men in the village listen to her, a woman with a shady lifestyle?  Simple: She had seen the Christ.  Now the people of her town saw the Christ in her.  A changed life gets people’s attention every time.  Her faith couldn’t be contained.  It flowed through every crack and crevice of her being.


She really was the best witness possible.  It is those who seem the most unlikely who offer the strongest word of hope.  If we do not need to be changed, there is not much to tell.   But if we know that we have been forgiven, healed, changed, given hope – that our souls have been quenched by living water – then we can be witnesses like this woman.


This woman with no name left behind not only her discarded water pot, but her shame as well, never to embrace it again.






Curtis Higgs, Liz.  “Bad Girls of the Bible and what we can learn from them”.  Waterbrook Publishers, 1999.


Hollyday, Joyce.  “Clothed with the Sun; Biblical Women Social Justice and Us”. Westminster Press, 1994.


Smith, Dennis & Williams, Michael, editors.  “The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible”.  Volume 10.  Abingdon Press.


Smith, Dennis & Williams, Michael, editors.  “The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible”.  Volume 13.  Abingdon Press.