"Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?"
(John 4:29).

Thus far in Lent, we have been reflecting on the theme of hope. This week, our Lenten journey takes us to Jacob’s well and the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. The story is a clash of contexts — Samaritan, Jew; woman, man. One with physical water to offer, the other with living water on tap. They are drawn together by their mutual thirst. For the reader who doesn’t grasp the significance of these contrasts, the gospel author makes it clear: “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” This is a strange encounter. And the woman knows it: “How is it that you ask a drink of me?” she inquires.

Historian Craig Farmer notes that there have been two principal ways of viewing the Samaritan woman. Ancient and medieval theologians extolled her patience and politesse, her deference to the man Jesus. She’s sweet, almost shy, a real, empty vessel ready to be taught. Reformation commentators, on the other hand, are harsher in their treatment. She’s all wrong. Wrong race, wrong time at the well, wrong number of spouses and partners. She is not a spiritual seeker but a “vile prostitute” who has yet to feel the pangs of her own sin. Lutheran theologian Andreas Musculus referred to her as “a sinful woman, who had been the cause of ruin to many,” a rude and impertinent woman sarcastically teasing the Messiah until she is confronted by her own corruption. Farmer seems to suggest that the older views were preferable. Better that she be demure and deferential than depraved.

Could it be possible that she was neither deferential nor depraved, neither coquettish nor corrupt, but simply another human being? Could it be possible that she was less concerned about what might befall Jesus for speaking to her than she was about the consequences she might face if paramour #6 were to find she gave water to a Jewish man? Could it be possible that all she wanted to do was get some water without being bothered?

It’s possible she was some of these things. Perhaps, as the ancient and medieval writers suggest, she was an eager, inferior student of Jesus who went on to become a great evangelist, his “in,” as it were, among the Samaritans. Or, perhaps, she was a “moral mess,” as the Reformed writers liked to think. But it’s also possible that she was more than this. Being married five times is no small matter. In fact, there are few reports of historical figures at the time who had so many spouses. Perhaps she sought them out, but more than likely, she was the victim of circumstance, widowed or abandoned until finally she was living with a man who would not or could not take her as a wife. 

To be a single woman or to be a widow at the time, whether Jewish or Samaritan, was to be locked out of economic, legal and social opportunity; it was to be dependent on others, particularly men, and to be vulnerable, particularly to men. There is a reason that Scripture so often enjoins concern and protection for widows, and it wasn’t because the people did such a good job of it that it went without saying. It was because women who did not have the protection of a male were so often exploited, cast to the margins of the community. Perhaps she was someone who felt the everyday burdens of a patriarchal society, whose story was shaped and constrained by social mores that locked her into impossible choices and denied her the agency to control her own story, yet who refused to be cowed, even by the Son of God.

To theologians, the fact that she is a woman presents a problem. The fact that she is a Samaritan presents a problem. They focus on just enough of her story — her noontime journey for water, her five husbands — to help them address this problem. But perhaps it is not her gender that is the problem. Perhaps it is not her religion or culture that is a problem. Perhaps it is not her family situation that is a problem. Perhaps the problem is the complex of systems, institutions and cultural norms that inequitably circumscribe who and how we must be in the world, dependent on our gender, our level of ability, and our religion, ethnicity, citizenship and class. Perhaps the problem that we should be addressing is not the fact that the person at the well is a Samaritan woman but rather that she is a Samaritan woman in a society that values neither identity and continues to define for her who, how and where she can be if she wants to be worthy of an encounter with Christ.

The hope that we might transcend boundaries based on gender is enlivened by changes worth celebrating. Yet, in many ways, overcoming the gender inequity in our day still remains a hope for the future rather than a present reality. Globally, women are less likely to be paid for their work than men, whether this is household work, such as child care, or work outside the home, such as farming. Women are more likely to face legal restrictions on land ownership and education, restrictions that prevent them from securing income or developing new skills. They are also more likely to face interpersonal violence that can prevent them from working or attending school.

Evelyne, a young woman from a Maasai community in southern Kenya, knows some of the particular challenges women often face. When Evelyne was only 14 years old, her father arranged for her to marry an elderly man rather than start high school. Her situation is not unique. Many Maasai girls are prepared by their families for marriage as young teenagers and not allowed to continue their education. Evelyne reached out to the Kenya Evangelical Lutheran Church’s women’s department for help. The KELC reached out to the police, who helped Evelyne move to a safe location.

The marriage was called off, but Evelyne was no longer welcome in her family’s home. The KELC’s women’s department 16 17 arranged for her to join the Ng’ombeni Secondary School in Kilifi County, where she would be safe and could continue her education. The KELC’s Women’s Literacy Program, supported in part by ELCA World Hunger, helped Evelyne with school fees and other needed resources so that she could continue her studies.

Evelyne is now in her last year of secondary school. She has been thriving in her classes, and this year she was selected to be “head girl” for her class. Her teachers praise Evelyne for her hard work and good grades; they are sure that Evelyne has a bright future ahead of her. Evelyne wants to continue on to university to study accounting so that she can find a good job and be a role model for other Maasai girls who are struggling to break free from harmful practices, like early marriage. 

After many discussions with church leaders that helped to change his mind, Evelyne’s father invited her back home so that he could see how she had grown and changed in the years since she had left. When Evelyne arrived home, her father could see the strong, intelligent woman she had become. 

Upon seeing her, he was convinced that education was the right life for her. Evelyne’s father gave her a traditional blessing to encourage her to succeed in school, and he told her that she was welcome back home whenever she could visit. The scholarship and support received through the KELC Women’s Literacy Program has truly changed the community, including developments for Evelyne that will open paths for other girls. 

“The program has given a sense of joy and fulfillment that I can give hope to the hopeless girls who are being oppressed,” Evelyne says. “It has given me a reason to work hard and improve somebody’s life.”

The encounter with Jesus inspired the Samaritan woman’s hope that her people, too, would be saved. Yet, it is her own story that inspires the hope for us today. In the encounter, Jesus sees her, really sees her, and values her as she is — Samaritan, woman, unmarried. Despite all that has been written about her over the centuries, in the Gospel, her identity is not a burden but a gift that equips her to carry Jesus’ message outside the Jewish community, predating even Paul’s great missionary journeys. 

Her story reminds us of the many women in Holy Scripture who are called to be important leaders in the community despite the ways cultural traditions and legal practices inhibited their rights and made them vulnerable. Her story also calls our attention to the many ways that gender injustice impacts our church and our world. Evelyne’s story, too, illustrates this. 

Yet both also show hope for a time when justice will open new opportunities for communities to flourish. 

And so, our Lenten journey continues, in repentance for the sin of gender injustice and in hope for the just world God is creating in our midst.