It would be more expected in this season of Advent to talk about one outcast of society, John the Baptist, but the image of water sent my mind to another that was beyond the pale. We know the story. Jesus came to Samaria, to a city called Sychar. He sat down by the well, presumably the heart of that community. The Samaritan woman came to draw water and Jesus said to her “Give me a drink”.
The context to this act is not now obvious to us. The Samaritans are an ethnoreligious group of the Levant. Religiously, they are the adherents to Samaritanism, an Abrahamic religion closely related to Judaism. Based on the Samaritan Torah, Samaritans claim their worship is the true religion of the ancient Israelites prior to the Babylonian Exile, preserved by those who remained in the Land of Israel, as opposed to Judaism, which they assert is a related but altered and amended religion brought back by those returning from exile. In the Talmud, a central post-exilic religious text of Judaism, their claim of ancestral origin is disputed. Modern genetics have suggested some truth to both the claims of the Samaritans and to Jewish accounts in the Talmud. It was as true then as it is today – we are most suspicious of those who are like us but not us. So Jesus asked her for a drink.
This was no quiet, unassuming woman. She was not about to comply with someone she perceived as being from a group that looked down on her and her people. She said ” How is it that you, being a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” We can almost hear the scorn in her voice.
I think Jesus took this on board, for his reply emphasized that his request had an importance beyond that of the simple act of drawing and giving water. He turned his reply on his own person: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who asks you for a drink, then you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
Again the woman showed her distrust of the “other” – she questioned how he would have obtained this water. Jesus then makes His amazing claim: “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water I will give him will never thirst again.”
This claim must have astounded the woman of Samaria – no more drawing from the well. Why was she there at the well alone? Did she go to the well at a time when others of her community that might have looked down on her would not be there? Jesus went on to have knowledge of the woman’s life well beyond that expected. He went on the explain a new vision of the diverse beliefs of Jew and Samaritan that must have seemed beyond belief given the centuries of division. Her response was to draw attention to herself – she told her community of this amazing event in her life!
In this Advent can we also reach out to those we find difficult? Sometimes they may be family, sometimes neighbours. It hurts us to be divided from those with whom we should share so much.