Asking for a Drink

Following Jesus meant you were in for lots of surprises. His disciples must have been amazed at what he did, because the Prince of Peace deliberately broke a lot of the rules that were valued by religious Jews. In order to grasp the drama of this encounter, I need to set the context first.

The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus and his disciples were on their way back home to Galilee from Jerusalem and to get there most directly would take them through a region called Samara. Because of the hatred between Jews and Samaritans, many Jews preferred to go out of their way, cross the Jordan River, and then north to Galilee from this direction, thereby avoiding any contact with their despised neighbors.

The racial animosity between Jews and Samaritans was tense and highly explosive. Religious hatred, based on differing beliefs, as well as a history of military and political conflicts divided these two groups. Tension was so high that Samaritans refused to offer lodging to Jews from Galilee on their way to Jerusalem. Historical sources tell us that when Jews bought food from Samaritans, the Samaritans would not touch their coins until they were cleansed in water.

Jesus’ own disciples shared this hatred of the Samaritans and, after experiencing hostility in an unfriendly Samaritan village, they asked Jesus to send down fire on this village, a request Jesus refused. Modern parallels that come to mind are apartheid in South Africa and slavery in the deep South.

In addition to this tension-filled environment, there was another complicating factor at work in this encounter: women in the first century had a low social standing. Chapter four of John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus was weary from his trip and needed rest and a drink. His disciples had left him to locate some food and, while he relaxed near a well around noontime, a Samaritan woman came to the well alone to draw some water.

Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” A simple request – but by engaging a Samaritan woman in conversation, Jesus was openly violating two of the major social taboos of his day. By asking for a drink in that culture, the hearer was bound to honor the request. Yet Jesus knew that accepting a drink from her, which she was culturally required to give him, would make him ceremonially unclean in the eyes of Jews. Jesus drank from the same vessel used by the hated Samaritans, knowing full well that Jewish religious practice made it clear that “Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.”

What a surprise for his disciples when they returned and saw their teacher talking with this Samaritan woman and drinking from her cup! First he invited a tax collector to follow him and now this! A pattern is starting to emerge here – by doing, he was teaching!

The gospel of peace that Jesus offered was for all who would accept it – and this is still true today. Jesus does not limit his message to certain chosen groups, but, in fact, he explicitly offers this gift to people who are hated by the Jews. The promised Messiah acted out what he prophesied and what he preached. The grace of God includes reconciliation between racial groups and the hope of a Kingdom where God’s love will bring harmony between people of every race.

The unfaithful Samaritan woman, who had gone through five husbands and now lived with another man, was chosen by Jesus to be a faithful witness who brought many of her neighbors into the Kingdom of God. This is an act of peacemaking that challenged the social and religious structures of Jesus’ day right down to their very foundation.

So What?

  • Can you think of any modern parallel in today’s world where Jesus would enter a situation like this recorded in John 4?
  • Another facet of this story is Jesus’ relationship with women, who were often treated as second-class citizens or worse in the first century — Jesus never dealt with women that way. Do other encounters that Jesus had with women come to mind? The gospel of Shalom was a liberating message for women and Jesus’ actions toward women shows how different he was from other religious teachers.