--Jesus' interactions with people in the Gospel of John...and today

Person breaking free of ball and chainThis is the third part of a series that looks at events in the Gospel of John in which we find Jesus interacting with various people who need help—physical help and spiritual help.

In John 4, Jesus speaks with a Samaritan woman. It is interesting that John records this interaction right after his interaction with Nicodemus. The Samaritan woman could not be more different than Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a male Jew, a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish ruling council, and was Israel’s teacher (3:1, 10). He was the epitome of the best of the best that Israel had to offer.

The Samaritan woman, on the other hand, could be categorized as the worst of the worst from a Jewish point of view. In fact, she had three strikes against her. First, she was a Samaritan, probably seen as a foreigner since they were half-breeds with those who were imported into their region: “The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim and settled them in the towns of Samaria to replace the Israelites” (2 Kings 17:24). Samaritans were disliked by the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. In fact, it is surprising that Jesus and the disciples were even in Samaria. Jewish people would often walk all the way around Samaria rather than pass through the region. As the Samaritan woman herself said in this text, “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans” (4:9).

Second, she was a woman. Women were often classified as second-class citizens in the first century. Even Jesus’ own disciples were surprised that Jesus was talking to a woman in public—“Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman” (4:27). One Jewish text states,

Do not talk much with women. This was said about one's own wife; how much more so about the wife of one's neighbor. Therefore the sages have said: He who talks too much with women brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Torah and will in the end inherit Gehenna. Pirkei Abot 1:5

In addition, Samaritan women in particular were considered to be in a perpetual state of impurity or uncleanness, even called “menstruants from the cradle” (see Mishnah, Niddah 4:1).

Third, the Samaritan woman was also a sinner. Jesus told her, “The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband” (4:18). The rabbis disapproved of more than three marriages. She had not had three—she had had five! And, she apparently was living with a sixth, but he would not put a ring on her finger!

Now let’s focus more clearly on the shame issue. The Samaritans would be labeled as unclean by Jewish people. And, the Samaritan woman would also be labeled as an unclean sinner by the Samaritans themselves. Thus, she was an outcast within the outcasts. Rejected by the Jewish people; rejected by her own people; apparently even rejected by her five husbands, she was unclean and carried shame around with her every day of her life. Perhaps that is why she came to the water well—alone—in the middle of the day.

Jesus, though, saves the day. He offers this shame-filled, sinful, Samaritan woman “living water” (4:10). Living water was used to refer to water that moves, such as water found in a river. It was preferred for ritual cleansing. In other words, Jesus offers this Samaritan woman the opportunity to become clean. Can you imagine? This woman, who daily lived with the stigma of rejection, of unclean, of shame… has her life drastically changed by the one who came and carried our shame to the cross.

Not only was her shame removed, but she was also given honor! Look at how the passage ends:

Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers. They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” John 4:39-42

This ostracized woman was the one who introduced the entire town to the expected Messiah so that they, too, can find life through believing in Jesus. She instantly changed from “that sinful, shameful woman” to “that woman who introduced us to the Savior!” What honor would have been acclaimed to her name.

Foreigner, sinner, shame-filled—these labels continue today. The good news is that just as he saved the Samaritan woman from a shameful situation in the first century, he does the same today. I know a student who was faithfully serving the Lord, but due to bad circumstances not of her own doing, her world came crashing down. She lost everything. She should have continued to seek the Lord, but the devastation threw her into a tailspin. She began living a sinful lifestyle. She wanted to return to the Lord, but felt unworthy, unclean—just like the Samaritan woman. One day, after nearly a year of distance from the Lord, she decided to meet Jesus in prayer. As she prayed, she tried to visually see Him in her mind’s eye. She tried to visualize that she and Jesus were meeting on the beach, and she wanted to ask Him to forgive her. Here is how she described her prayer time with the Lord:

As I was sitting there on the beach in my mind’s eye, I didn’t want Him to come any closer; it was more comfortable with Him far away. I think it was fear that was causing me not to want Him to come closer. But I couldn’t ask Him to forgive me. I just kept thinking about all that I had done, and my fear that I wouldn’t be able to change. The turning point for me was when I began to visualize my sin. I could see all the things I had done all around me, it was like it was surrounding me and putting up a shield distancing me from Him. He kept walking towards me and I kept stepping away. I kept saying, "This is who I am, all these things around me, that’s ME, I want your forgiveness but only if you WANT to forgive me. This is who I am." I just kept thinking if I’m too far gone then I understand. He didn’t say anything. I just stood there with my arms at my side, and Jesus started pushing away the things surrounding me. One by one he pushed each thing away until he was standing right in front of me. Finally, I said, “I’m so, so sorry.” And He put His hands on my shoulders and said, “I love You.” I didn’t feel any longer that I was the person surrounded by all my sins. I felt that it was just me, a girl standing there who is broken by all the things that have happened in my life. And with that, for the first time in a long time, I felt like I was really forgiven. I felt like I was sitting there with a clean slate.

She was transformed from a fearful, unclean, shame-filled “sinner” to a welcomed, forgiven, and loved child of the King. The good news is that our Lord loves to rescue those who feel the shame of being a sinner and gives them praise and honor in his glorious presence. He allows us to start anew with a clean slate.