The story of the Samaritan Woman at the well in John 4 is a rich text which illustrates the power that one’s cultural and racial identity holds over us and our actions. What it demonstrates is how the identities that we hold onto around our race can keep us from having and enjoying reconciled relationships with one another. Furthermore, it shows how these identities impede worship because we are so hung up on who others say we are and how we see ourselves, rather than how God sees us.
First some background information about what is going on in the text coming right out of verses 1 – 6. The text starts off by sharing the occasion for which Jesus is traveling. Rumors have spread that Jesus had been making more disciples than John and the Pharisees got wind of this. Other gospel writers show us that Jesus’ ministry was a threat to the Pharisees, remember these are ultimately the people who had Jesus arrested, trialed and killed. So rather than have a nasty face off with them, Jesus gets up and leaves Judea for Galilee.
The text also tells us that Jesus had to go through Samaria. But geographically speaking this route does not make sense; there would have been a quicker route. It also doesn’t make sense from a cultural standpoint since, as we will see later in the text, Jews tried to avoid Samaritans at all cost. This should let us know that God is up to something.
Finally, this portion of text tells us that Jesus comes to a place in Samaria called Sychar, near the parcel of ground Jacob gave to his son Joseph, which included Jacob’s well. As we will also see later in the text, this well was of great importance to the Samaritans because it was where their identity lied as a religious people. It proved that they too, although culturally marginalized, where included in the Abrahamic blessing found in Genesis 12: I will bless you and make your descendants into a great nation. You will become famous and be a blessing to others. I will bless anyone who blesses you, but I will put a curse on anyone who puts a curse on you. Everyone on earth will be blessed because of you. That’s a powerful blessing! Who wouldn’t want to identify with that?
Verse 7 is where our story really starts: Jesus asks the woman for a drink. Now I am purposely ignoring the gender nuances of this text, not because they aren’t important, but because I really want us to understand the text’s racial and cultural implications. It is because of the racial hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans, comparable to the tension that exists between whites and blacks in our day, that Jesus sends the disciples into town to get food in verse 8. If they were there, they would present an obstacle to what God was trying to do.
The woman is well aware of the dividing walls of hostility that exists between her people and the Jews. She asks Jesus, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” Verse 9 tells us that she asks this question because Jews refuse to have dealings with the Samaritans. The Samaritans were held in contempt as religious apostates who had mixed the purity of Israel’s worship with idolatry and the worship of pagan gods opposed the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. But the hatred between the two groups was greatly intensified about twenty years before Jesus’ ministry when some Samaritans defiled the temple in Jerusalem by scattering human bones in the courtyard during Passover. Jesus relating with her on even this very superficial level of asking her for a drink challenged her notions of who she thought she was as a Samaritan. It was a crisis of identity.
At this point, Jesus could have easily walked away from the Samaritan woman. He could have reconsidered his mission in light of what she said. But I thank God that He didn’t. Remember, he had to go through Samaria not because it was convenient but because of the purpose and plan of God, or to do the will of the father as we see in verse 34: “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. And so he takes the challenge further still and says: ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.
The phrase gift of God was a very common expression and represented a comprehensive term for everything that God bestows on man for his salvation.” So this term should have at least indicated to the woman that Jesus was talking about God’s revelation. The image of water is also used in both Jewish and Samaritan sources as an image of God’s revelation, the Torah, as well as of the Spirit. So Jesus’ request for water was really about what God was trying to reveal to her and do through her.
But she misses what God is trying to do mostly because she is threatened by it. I like the way that the New Living Translation words verses 11 & 12: “But sir, you don’t have a rope or a bucket,” she said, “and this well is very deep. Where would you get this living water? Do you think you’re greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well? How can you offer better water than he and his sons and his animals enjoyed?” What would it mean for a Samaritan that someone is greater than Jacob? Remember what we said about the well in verses 5 &6, it was the Samaritan’s connection to the Abrahamic covenant, and it was on this connection that they hinged their relationship with God. If someone is greater than Jacob, this idea of finding one’s identity in the covenant simply doesn’t make sense.
This makes me think about the identities that we have placed our hope and salvation in. In our culture, many seem to think that being American, Republican, Christian, Protestant, Educated, White, Male, Hetrosexual, and Married guarantee one’s place in God’s kingdom. But based on the text, we should understand that our salvation does not lie in these things. So what do we, the Samaritans and the woman, find our identity in? Jesus shows us: Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.
Jesus’ offer of water here brings her back to the place of focusing on his identity instead of her own by challenging her to embrace a deeper understanding of himself. As we will continue to see, Jesus is not the least bit concerned with the religious or cultural markers that define the Jewish and Samaritan’s identity. He is instituting a new identity, a new covenant in fact that leads to eternal life.
The woman responds to Jesus asking Him to give her the water that he keeps talking about. Although her question shows that she still is not getting the full picture of what Jesus is offering her, her question also shows that she is moving toward faith, as if to say ok Jesus, what you are saying sounds enticing enough. I am beginning to believe. Her process should be reassuring to us because it lets us know that in the same way that Jesus was patient with this woman as she was beginning to exchange the identity that she loved and cherished for a new one, that Jesus will also be patient with us. He is not calling us to overnight perfection. We have to remember that it has taken over 400 years to get us to this place of racial hostility; things are not going to change through one come to Jesus meeting. We almost have to keep coming back to the place where this woman was saying, ok Jesus, this water you are proposing sounds way more appealing than what I have been drinking. I’m willing to go there, I’m willing to do this identity exchange dance with you.
So what does Jesus say to the woman: Go call your husband. To which the woman responds – I have no husband. Jesus then goes on to bust her world wide open: You are right, you don’t have a husband. In fact you have had five husbands and the one that you are living with now, isn’t even yours. As I read this piece of text, I feel like Jesus is backing the woman into a wall. It’s like with every word He is trying to pull something out of her, and unearth the deep seeded issues that she has around her identity.
Her response proves this. Sir, I perceive you are a prophet so tell me why Jews insist that Jerusalem is the place to worship while we Samaritans believe that the proper place to worship is right here, on this sacred mountain. This mountain where we built our temple, this mountain where we have celebrated the Passover, this mountain where we have sacrificed, this mountain where we have worshipped. Its as if she is trying to rationalize with Jesus, saying, look, you have challenged every other piece of my identity, don’t take my identity in this mountain, in this place of worship away from me; this is my right. Don’t take away my rights.
I thank God that Jesus did not give into her pleas. Instead he said, “Woman, an hour is coming when you will not worship the father in Jerusalem or on this mountain. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. Butan hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Jesus is saying that it is not about the mountain. It’s not even about Jerusalem. The woman could not hold onto her false identities and have Jesus. And neither can we. We can’t keep stiff arming God, holding onto to this identity that we have in our constitution, our guns, our race, our rights, our freedom, our privilege and have Jesus. We cannot serve two masters! The Bible says choose ye this day who you will serve, God or man. God or nationalism. God or privilege. God or white supremacy. God or self.
When we choose to hold onto these false identities, it impedes our worship. As Jesus illustrates in this text, God is looking for a people who will serve him, worship him in Spirit and in true. He is looking for true, authentic worshippers who refuse to be divided and he wont settle for anything less. Look at what He says in Revelation 3:
“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold or hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm (divided between God and the ways of the world) I will spew you out of my mouth. Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, or I am American and have privilege, or I have power, or I am white, or I have a right to hold onto my victim identity,” and have need of nothing else, and you don’t know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent.”
God loves each and every one of us. Because of that love he is calling us, beckoning us, to exchange everything that we have identified in for an identity in Jesus Christ. He is calling us to authentic worship and transformation. He is calling us to eternal salvation, and that is what the text in John 4 is ultimately about. Jesus is challenging the cultural identities of the Samaritan and the Jew so that they can have eternal life. He is drawing those who have been marginalized and cast off in society near so that they too can have a relationship with God. And he is also drawing those who are privileged, well to do, and with power to forsake what they know to be true in order to receive God. This is the new identity that Christ gives – identification with God and salvation of our souls.
But as Revelation shows us, we have to repent. How do we do that? We have to renounce the false identities. Here are a few examples of what those identities might look like based on the Heart of Racial Justice:
Self Hatred Identity: where you wish to belong to some other ethnicity or race. You envy other’s opportunities or self-confidence. Underneath the envy and the wish to be somebody else is a deep rejection of your own self and your own identity. Cure for this identity is self-acceptance, a recognition that you are created in the image of God and are ultimately good, you have intrinsic worth because God made you, and that you and people of your ethnicity have something good to contribute to the world
Rage-filled identity: Being filled with rage and hatred toward the person or group who has caused us such suffering. Key to this identity an unexpectedly intense angry response to little things done by people of other races and ethnicities. You tend to take it personally and spend lots of time focused on what the person said, what it meant and how you can respond to assert your dignity again. Cure for this identity is understanding that vengeance belongs to God, it is okay to be appropriately angry because of racism and its related affects, but we leave the balancing scales to God, and we learn, for our own sake, how to love our enemies and those who have hurt us.
Victim identity: We live in a society where people and groups seems to compete for victim status. If a person or group can claim that they are victims, they have a right to justice and restitution and have found a basis for political clout. People living with this identity often feel sad or depressed when they are alone and have nothing to distract them. They also may choose to mask their pain and find temporary comfort through food, alcohol, sex or some other addictive pleasurable experience.
Model Minority Identity: Where you have an inordinate desire to fit in and be accepted by the dominant group. You may see it as your responsibility to be a positive role model for your entire racial or ethnic group or to dispel negative stereotypes about your people by performing at high levels. Cure here is asking God for the grace to value and embrace your heritage. Jesus wants to take the burden that you are carrying to speak for and represent your people, no one should have to bear that kind of pressure.
Hip White Person Identity: like to be perceived as hip, cool individuals who can be trusted by people of color. Through language, clothing, social networks, party line, they suggest that they have understood white privilege, have rejected it and are now committed their lives to serving people of color in their quest for racial justice. Unfortunately, people with this identity never says anything good about their own European American culture, and is critical of their own ethnicity. For them whiteness a symbol of injustice and undeserved privilege.
White superiority: People who support or identity with these ideals – anti-Semitism, slavery, Native American genocide, Jim Crow, segregation, the holocaust, internment camps. Cure renounce this identity to the cure. Maybe go to a deliverance meeting, get the anointing oil and cast those demons out! In all seriousness, repentance, repentance, repentance. The thing about white superiority and racism is that it is covert, unintentional and mostly subconscious. Many people of color are able to identify it, mostly because we are the ones on the receiving end of it. White people are not always aware, but that is where the spirit of God can come in and reveal things that you don’t know. That and accountability to others.
Colorblind identity: people who claim that they do not see others skin color. Say they are not prejudice and that some of their best friends are African American, Latino, Asian, etc. these comments, though they may be expressed with great intentions are not helpful. They show ignorance and lack of awareness. With this identity, whites get to pass the buck for the sin that they have had a hand in perpetuating, they have been blindly individualistic and rejected all corporate responsibility for sins against other people groups.